How do you write music by hand -- without using a ruler -- and not make it look like ugly chickenscratch?

Are there exercises for writing note heads, stems and beams while making them look relatively consistent and nice but still relatively quickly?

I know music composition and engraving is often done using software nowadays. But for the purposes of quickly jotting down ideas and then quickly scanning through them to find things, I think paper is still very useful, portable, and doesn't require batteries. So what steps can I take to improve my music handwriting?

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    The answer to all questions is practice, practice, practice Dec 10, 2019 at 9:52
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    For drawing the score lines special pens exists as this. I also saw a kind of rolling rubber stamp for the same purpose but could not find it right now. (But I don't assume it does contribute much to overall speed, since getting the right paper/booklets is also easy...)
    – guidot
    Dec 10, 2019 at 13:04
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    are you writing the staff lines too, or using staff paper? Dec 10, 2019 at 16:29
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    What's the purpose and audience for your writing? When you're just trying to capture a melody before it leaves your head, chicken scratch might be more than good enough. If you're trying to write the final draft of some long finished piece so you can hand it off to other musicians, that's a different story.
    – dwizum
    Dec 10, 2019 at 19:22
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    Can you read your own musical handwriting? Who else is going to read it? If the answers are “yes” and “hardly anyone” I don’t really think improving your handwriting is the best use of your time. If the answers to my questions are different, I’d say that is an important piece of information you might like to add to your post.
    – 11684
    Dec 10, 2019 at 22:01

8 Answers 8


I think this is tricky, because it's a skill between two separate skills handwriting (letters) and drawing.

I have pretty bad hand writing, but I studied art in college and could draw pretty well.

Drawing straight lines is actually difficult!

Two things that might help:

If you hunch over to get your eyes close to the paper, move back so you see more of the full page in your center of vision. If you see more of the page edge, it can help to get your lines straight.

When drawing lines try using you elbow and shoulder more rather than your fingers and wrist. That should give you less curving motion and therefore straighter lines.

For consistency don't just write from left to right. Sketch proportially across the whole page. I try to first make equally spaced bars. First mark a bar in the middle then start adding bars splitting into quarters, etc...

enter image description here

Mark the first note head with just a light dash. I think getting the first beat placed consistently is more important that whether the last note head has more or less space at the end of the bar. After the first beats are set then add the other noteheads as light dashes...

enter image description here

After you have lightly marked noteheads, you might make quick adjustments for anything that's badly aligned. Then draw stems. Sometimes I have drawn stems from the note head so I don't have to worry about getting the line connected to the head...

enter image description here

When the light sketch looks good finally fill in the note heads - or just bold ovals for half and whole notes, cross the stems with beams, etc. If the note heads are a little smaller that a staff space, it should help make clear when it is on a line or space (note heads on spaces won't be touching lines.)

enter image description here

Basically the idea is mark out important spacing points across the page first then make the bold marks over those guide lines. I think if the spacing is consistent and proportional, then the final result is easier to read.


The answer (as others have said here) is to practise. Remember when you first went to school and you had to copy out letter shapes over and over again? You need to do the same thing with note shapes.

Do these repetition exercises by downloading blank manuscript paper from the web or buying pre-printed manuscript paper.

Use a mechanical pencil with a soft lead, because the stroke from a regular wooden pencil changes width as the lead wears down. And pencil is correctable too.

Noteheads should be centred on a line or a space and be a slightly tilted oval, not a circle. So there's two things to practise straight away - drawing centred notes and making the noteheads a consistent size and shape. The size of the notehead should be such that if you were to draw it in a space it would just touch (not overlap at all) the lines above and below it.

Another thing to consider is which side of the notehead the stick emerges from. Upward sticks touch the right-hand side of the notehead, downward sticks touch the left-hand side. And sticks are generally an octave long. Make sure all sticks are at 90 degrees to the lines in the stave.

To make note beams look engraved (say when you join the tails of two or four eighth notes) do two lines close enough to touch, making a thicker line. Use a ruler, otherwise your doubled lines will vary in thickness!

This same technique of drawing two lines close together to make a thicker line is part of my answer elsewhere about drawing a quarter note rest by hand: https://music.stackexchange.com/a/38920/9426

You'll also need to practise note tails, for single eighth and sixteenth notes. And single eighth and sixteenth rests too. Check some existing printed music to see which lines of the stave to centre your rests on. They shouldn't move around unless you're notating several voices on one stave and the default rest position would clash with a notehead.

Also have a look at the horizontal spacing of notes within bars. For instance a whole note doesn't appear midway between the two barlines; it's always written closer to the left-hand barline.

  • Thanks for your thoughts. I would just note that the traditional method to create those wide note beams, quarter rests, etc. was to use a fountain pen (or, more traditionally, a pen with a separate ink bottle) with an appropriate wide (sort of italic style) nib. If you're not skilled with traditional pens, this probably isn't something for a beginner, but it's actually the way to create that standard "look" in a traditional manner.
    – Athanasius
    Dec 11, 2019 at 0:46

By doing more of it! However, it didn't seem to help the likes of Ludwig or young Wolfgang Amadeus.

I do a lot by hand, and find it's slightly better using wider manuscript lines. A ruler is used for bar lines, which helps keep the stems vertical.

But, thinking about most letter/word writing exercises, all they do is give the opportunity to practise over and over, which you might as well do while you're writing dots out!

Having the right sort of pen helps too - I use a medium felt tip. Or pencil, which is normally 3B or 4B. That makes changes easier too.


(I can tell you I was always punished as pupil by my teachers because of my horrible writing!) But drawing note lines is my special ability :)

Most abilities can be achieved by training and practice. But there are some hints and advice I can share. I compose today with notation software but when I am watching TV or sitting in the train or in a car I love to write music on any sheet or on a newspaper.

  • If you have good practice it will be very easy even to draw the note lines (staffs) in beautiful parallels.

  • The black notes you shouldn't draw as dots but rather as short slashes / (bold)

  • the white notes you can draw as O or 0 ovals (italic) in the same diagonal inclined direction as the black notes () -> (/)

  • Mind that the stems and bars are absolutely vertically and the sharps and flats have to be crossed by the referring line or are placed nicely between the lines.

  • The clefs and rests are also becoming readable and usual by more practice.

I would have become a great composer if my band members would have been able to read my writing about 60 years ago. But I have to agree it was difficult to recognize whether a sign was a flag of an 8th note or a rest or eventually a flat!

Of course I also use booklets (one page staffs and the other site squared) and any sheet with note lines or print my own prepared staffs which you can write with the _ _ _ key for under-lining: ->

sometimes I also notate only

  • the chord symbols or the Latin letters or

    the doremi as words and the

    Roman Numbers for the degrees.

    I also write sometimes just the Arabic numbers like 1 2 3 4, 5 5 5 _, 5 4 3 2, 1 1 1 _

Here you will find lots of

Blank Manuscript/Staff/Music Paper


  • Latin letters..?
    – Tim
    Dec 10, 2019 at 12:38
  • a,b,c,d,e,e,e_,d,d,d_,e,e,e_ Dec 10, 2019 at 13:11

You don't need to draw stave lines. You can buy notebooks or notepads of manuscript paper, that is, sheets printed with staves. I like to print my own as and when needed -- the advantage of this is that I can tailor the number of staves per page to what the music needs, and the line-spacing to my eyesight (which is gradually getting worse over the years).

  • There are plenty of manuscript pages for downloading on the 'net. I print off, and sometimes change the % size.
    – Tim
    Dec 10, 2019 at 12:40

I truly wonder what do you mean by ugly. Check any page with "sheet music handwriting", I found e.g. https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/latest/composer-manuscript-handwriting/mozarts-sketchbook/ and try to see how many of these actually look neat, precise or anything? IMHO, almost none.

The goal is: develop your style. Try to see some ideas about how others handwrite, simply by looking and handwritten sheet music. I can only give my own insight:

  • Use printed empty sheets. This helps a lot. Start immediatelly with the standard size; if you start with larger print, you'll have to re-learn writing in smaller print.
  • Write noteheads+dots first, then stems, then beams, then barlines.
  • For multi-staff music (keyboard instruments, choirs, ensembles), write the barline across all staves, even if inappropriate in printed music. The same for the opening bracket; this helps in keeping the sheet well organized.
  • Use pencil with a good rubber on the other end, so that if you don't like something you wrote (either the music or the handwriting), you can easily erase. Like these: enter image description here
  • Keep your pencil well sharpened.
  • Use the pencil slanted; this allow to write narrow lines for lines, and wide lines for noteheads and beams (I actually make just thick short lines for black noteheads).
  • Develop a good syle for rests and accidentals (as these are pretty important), but do not care much about the clefs, key (unless you use exotic keys) and other irrelevant stuff (irrelevant for easy reading I mean).
  • Develop your own handwriting style; do not care too much about how any "official" music looks like.
  • Try to play your own sheets; only that way you can know how reasonable your handwriting is, but:
  • Do not overthink it; once the piece is finished, you're probably gonna retype it on the computer anyway.

(Bottom line: I remember the music theory teacher bullying us over "proper" handwriting. When I got to composing myself some 10 years later, I realized how useless this was!)


As a supplement to Michael Curtis' excellent answer (with some differences), I recall that I read a book about this many years ago. But I lent it to someone, forgot to whom, and subsequently forgot the title. But there was some practical advice that I strain to remember.

On a philosophical level, it's important to accept that for writing quickly some visual sacrifices are necessary. It's not going to look like a fancy engraved score. But this is also liberating because it doesn't have to look like engraving so long as it's clear and consistent.

The primary suggestion from the book was to make the note head and stem as one combined gesture. This helps to ensure that the stems are all uniform in length and angle. There's some indication that classical composers like Mozart and Chopin did this, considering their tendency to draw curved beams.

Next, the book advised that for non-beamed notes a flag should be a short line segment rather than a curve. Making the curve consistently would be much more difficult. Also, the first flag should be part of the same single motion as the note head and stem.

Next, all stems should be on the right. That is, notes should have a 'd' or 'q' shape, rather than the 'd' and 'p' shapes which are more normal in engraving. This facilitates a more consistent left to right motion for all notes.

Next -- I'm not sure whether this was in the book or I got it from elsewhere, but it feels consistent with the other ideas -- the French-style quarter rest, which is the reverse of the standard eighth rest, is much easier to execute and is preferred.


I'll add to others here. Practice a lot. Plan out your measure spacing and draw barlines before notes.noyes. It works well enough to use a pencil, but I have found that...

  • Using a mechanical pencil keeps line thickness consistent and you don't have to sharpen them.

  • Staedler makes a set of four, with sizes 0.3, 0.5, 0.7, and 0.9mm that has served me well for many years. Their marking pens work well also, they have sets of different widths which come in handy.

  • for pencil lead, you should by something fairly soft so it's easy to make dark lines. Don't waste your time with the standard 2hb. Look around online for 2B instead.

  • a small ruler, 4 to 6 inches, is handy for straight lines. If you can find a transparent one it's much easier to align things!

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