As a hobby (and for my personal edification), it seems like a fun challenge to transcribe a few Baroque music manuscripts into a more readable form, and maybe post the results to imslp.org or something. Is it okay to change the old Dorian key signatures for minor-key pieces into their modern equivalents, or is that generally frowned upon? Same question for old C and F-clefs. I can imagine today's violinists, for example, not really being too keen on reading the soprano C-clef. But in the interest of historical accuracy it would perhaps be better to retain it anyway?

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    By a 'Dorian key signature' do you mean like using two sharps for E Dorian. or one flat for G Dorian?
    – Tim
    Apr 27, 2020 at 11:49
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    @Tim Yes, it's a key signature with one less flat (or one extra sharp).
    – Richard
    Apr 27, 2020 at 12:56
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    @Tim: I mean the custom of many Baroque composers to disregard the minor sixth in the key signatures for their minor key pieces. That means no flats for D-minor, one flat for G-minor, etc. Apr 27, 2020 at 12:58
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    In addition to the other answers, I'd also say: make sure to publish not only the final engraving (as PDF) but also the sources that you used to typeset the music. That way, performers who would want to make different choices can edit your file, which is far more efficient than re-typesetting the work from scratch. Consider also releasing your work under a license (e.g., Creative Commons BY or Creative Commons BY-SA) allowing people to do such modifications and redistribute them.
    – a3nm
    Apr 28, 2020 at 15:21
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    I’d like to one-up @a3nm and suggest to use CC0 for a faithful digital reproduction of the original score, so that the OpenScore project can pick it up; this would be done using MuseScore, so the end user can change the clefs to those you wish, but you’re limited to modern key signatures, so change either to no ♭/♯ or the closest modern one (both are common, the former slightly more so). OpenScore has the benefit the community gets MuseScore, MusicXML and even Music21 (Braille music, for blind musicians) for free (also under CC0).
    – mirabilos
    Apr 29, 2020 at 16:44

4 Answers 4


Typesetting baroque music from primary sources is also something I do, and I can give the decisions that I've made on these questions. However, it is ultimately up to you.

As Laurence Payne says, it does depend on your purpose. In my case I am doing it partly for my own use and partly for general use (e.g. for IMSLP). Ideally I would like to play from the primary sources themselves, but sometimes they are too difficult to read, or they in clefs that are no-longer common and the people I play with would prefer modern clefs.

I use Lilypond to typeset and have set up a system so that I can generate parts (and scores) in both modern and original clefs. Having the original clefs is something that I use to help me gain fluency in reading these clefs. The original-clef versions are also easier to proofread against the original. Modern clefs are obviously more widely readable. I also generate parts in alternate clefs - for example, French music often has one violin part and three parts for different sized violas, and since there are more violin players available, I generate an additional copy of the highest viola part in treble clef so that it can be played by "second violins".

As far as key signatures goes, I almost always use the original. This is partly so that I have something closer to the original, but partly because accidental conventions of the time were not the same as the modern convention (retaining accidentals to the end of the bar). A common convention in baroque sources is that the accidental continues to apply if the next note is the same (even if the next note is in a new bar), but will not apply later in the bar if there are any intervening notes. Often it is not clear what convention is being used, and there's also the issue of errors in the sources. Because of this, it's not always obvious whether the note was intended to be altered or not. If you wish, you can become an editor and decide, but I prefer to let the performers make this sort of decision, and to do that they need to know what the original says. By trying to modernise the notation I quickly found I was making decisions for the performer.

You haven't asked about time signatures. I will generally also try to retain these where possible - a time signature of just "3" is very common, and you also see mensural time signatures.

There are other decisions that you'll have to make too: repeat marks follow different conventions and are often ambiguous; slurs can be somewhat haphazardly positioned; dotted notes may have their dot placed in the next bar; bar lines might be omitted where there is a hemiola. However, I have found transcribing from original sources to be a very rewarding hobby.

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    Do you go as far as maintaining conventions that are so clearly out of fashion that they become outright confusing for the modern reader/performer? I'm thinking of sharps used as natural signs after flat accidentals, weird beaming and stem directions, old ligatures in text...
    – giobrach
    Apr 28, 2020 at 13:24
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    @giobrach I try to be practical while allowing the performer to make informed choices. In practice this has meant I use natural signs to cancel accidentals - as you note, sharps to cancel flats are confusing. For the same reason I convert dotted notes crossing bar lines into tied notes. I sometimes retain groupings of beamed notes as I have a suspicion that occasionally groupings might be connected to phrasing. I modernise stem directions, except in keyboard music with more than two voices in a hand. I've only typeset instrumental works, so I haven't had to make decisions about ligatures yet!
    – Semiprime
    Apr 28, 2020 at 22:56

That's exactly what I use to do even when I only read a piece: Change the clefs and also the modes. This is probably not correct in a puristic historical sense but as long as you know what you're doing everything is allowed if it is fun, challenge or more comfortable to you.

The result will be: You learn reading the historical clefs and modes by this practice and you are really aware of this music inside out.


Depends whether you're attempting an urtext version or a practical performing edition. Both are acceptable.

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    Modern "urtext" editions I'm familiar with do update the clefs. Have you seen a modern edition of Bach keyboard music with soprano clef in the right hand? Even the Bach Gesellschaft edition, well known for retaining original choral clefs, doesn't do that, if I remember correctly.
    – phoog
    Apr 28, 2020 at 5:34

It's customary to transform all of rhythm, transposition and keys to modern equivalents and indicate the original version in a so-called "incipit" in front that contains all the original elements and starting notes.

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