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Regarding the nuances of proper notation, I have only learned a few things... I do know to always give wind instruments rests to breathe, and that a harp diagram is only necessary if the music strays greatly from the key, and recently I learned that proper notation of rests is to first finish the beat, then write the largest value first. But that's all I know. So I either need answers to the following questions or a checklist with explanations for producing a professional level score.  

Question #1

I've read differing opinions on notating bowing for strings. It seems some think it should be a musician's choice unless specifically seeking a certain effect, and then others argue that a key detail of classical music is to meticulously notate every detail. So which is acceptable?

Question #2

I've found that I often want just a single note in a melody gently played but don't know of how to notate it without putting two dynamics markings in a row. Is there an opposite to the accent mark that I am unaware of?

Question #3

Should a proper score include a title page or is that only for publication?

Question #4

  • Is there anything else that I don't know about that should be considered in polishing a score?

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A harp diagram (I assume you mean pedalling) or tuning indicator is always necessary, at all tuning changes and at the beginning of the part, unless you personally know the harpist and they've said it's fine or the ensemble has a house notation style releasing you from that task.

Bow marks (slurs) indicate which notes are played on a single bowstroke, and it has a unique flowing sound. If you want that sound, you have to notate it. Musicians/conductors may decide to change it if you write them imperfectly or plain wrong, but if you don't write them at all they probably won't assume you want bowed playing. Write it well and the string section will work together to great effect. There are physical aspects to the bow that should be considered, which I didn't until Mike Hewer here told me; I can get into that if you want. You can micromanage a lot in string writing; I stick to slurs, articulations and dynamics without getting into bow directions, specific strings, bow positions etc. A lot of classical music actually doesn't meticulously notate every detail. Bear in mind even a well-known established score is likely to be changed in rehearsal or session and it doesn't always reflect an error in writing.

Anti-accent - I would just write the appropriate lower dynamic, no confusion. There are anti-accents which are a semicircle u shape (it took me 30s to google that so try it yourself :) ) but don't seem universal.

Title page - it completely depends on the situation.

Anything else - probably loads of things. It's a huge discipline and I'm still learning. Best thing is to post your scores so we can see what's what.

Thank you for answering these questions. I wasn't clear on the tuning indicator and had figured if there weren't any accidentals or maybe just one or two, that the key signature would suffice.

I must have been using the wrong key words as my searches just kept bringing up sfz and the like.

But I'm still confused about the effectiveness of using the lower dynamic because I'm not intending for the note to be as quiet as the nearest lower dynamic indicates. For midi playback, I adjust the velocity of the note to about midway between the two dynamics. But would it be read by a musician as that?

Harp - play safe. If there's few or no changes then it's not an onerous task to add the initial tuning anyway. A good harpist could work it out from the signature; a good harpist will likely rewrite some aspect of your tuning changes at some point if there's a lot of them; but don't assume they wouldn't like to see that you've done it yourself even if the entire piece is in Cmaj requiring no accidentals.

It's a very subjective, organic thing when musicians play from score. They and the conductor don't see "mp" and robotically move to the exact dynamic, at the same level as previous points they played mp. Having a midi mockup and making decisions about how best to notate dynamics for a close playthrough can send you down the rabbit hole, it still happens to me, but musicians generally want it to sound good. If you've written it well and the players are good, you should forget about your mockup very quickly. Write "a little softer" or the Italian equivalent (poco piano?) if using a strict dynamic seems too much but just using the softer dynamic is probably fine. Without the music I can't be sure either way.

On that note, I personally wouldn't use a wide range of dynamics (ppp-fff instead of p-f). The more you subdivide the more everyone has to keep in their heads the dynamic "map". I don't know if you are, but worth saying.

Hello MM-

This topic keeps coming up - it's very important!  In addition to your questions of a more advanced nature, each of us should make sure we follow all the basic rules of notation.  Here's a discussion a bunch of us had here on the forum about 5 years ago that is probably worth revisiting:

My apologies in advance if this gets over long.

As Dave said, harp pedaling is important even if the player chooses to disregard it.  It shows you care (see below quote from Gardner Reed).

1. You need to make your intention clear. if you have 4 quarter notes in a row that you want "slurred", you need to add the slur.  This will indicate a bowing to the players. However, they may choose to perform it in 2 bow strokes, but the line you were trying to create as well as your intent will remain.  Bowing for strings is a whole study in and of itself, and even string players are not always aware of how to notate 100% correctly.

2. Again, Dave's correct.  Don't hyper-notate the score. Musicians will do certain things without even realizing it's happening.  If one note should be gentle, and the melody warrants this, the player/conductor will make this happen.  I'll respond to your music post and you can see what I'm talking about.

3. For posting here I don't think a title page is necessary, but I would never hand a work to a performer without it as well as any other info (ie. performance notes, special techniques, etc.) properly formatted.

4. There are a number of different resources to learning notation.  Two books I keep within arms reach at all times are:

              "Essential Dictionary of Music Notation" by Tom Gerou and Linda Lusk  (about US$10 at Amazon)

                  Pocket size guide with quick answers to most questions.

              "Behind Bars" by Elaine Gould  (about US$70 at Amazon)

                  Probably the most complete guide available today.  About 700 pages but answers just about any question you                       may have.

Another source is study recent scores to see how they are notated.  Don't use IMSLP for this.  The available scores are old editions and many of the conventions they use are outdated.  On this site look at Lara Poe's recent post.  "One of the prettiest scores I've ever seen."

The comment I made about caring comes from here

"If the composer says in effect to the performer: "I do not care whether you perform my music or not," we cannot argue the matter. But if he indicates: "I want you to perform and respond to this music," then his fundamental duty is to write his music so that it is accessible to interpretation. When the performer cannot approach the composer's meaning because of capriciously obscure notation, he may in effect say to the composer: "Why should I bother to puzzle out your music?" - Gardner Read

Hope this helps


Excellent comment from Tim and it's made me remember a golden rule: leave nothing to ambiguity. Refine details until there is nothing unclear - ambiguity wastes time. But don't overexplain, merely make your notation concise. Mark all dynamic and articulation changes, all divisi and unisons. Be consistent so players won't wonder at your intent. Don't confuse clarity of notation with commanding how to play the music, either. 

Thank you Julie, that list is exactly what I need and not just for finishing scores. But also to determine what I need to learn next.
Thank you for responding, Tim. It is indeed helpful. I will look for a copy of those books. I have a collection of theory books but not a one that focuses on notation.

I wonder, though, what if the dynamic is intended for effect independent of the melody line? Would it be interpreted as such? Would that be considered hyper- notating and best not done?
Great motto, Dave. That's going on the cover of my composition notebook as a note to self.

I wonder, though, what if the dynamic is intended for effect independent of the melody line? Would it be interpreted as such? Would that be considered hyper- notating and best not done?

The short answer is:  it depends.  If you are trying to achieve a particular effect such as one voice fading out and another fading in then yes different dynamics might be appropriate.  As a "rule", the dynamics in a score should all be the same.  If you want it soft, write p.  Balance is a concern of the players/conductor.

Here also you are starting to get into the orchestration of the music.  Understanding that a moving line will always sound over a static line if properly voiced, etc.

Don't confuse proper notation with the notation we sometimes need to do for a midi playback.  The two are not necessarily related.

I'll try to respond to your piece tomorrow. I ran out of time today and will try to illustrate more for you there. 

My experience leads me to the conclusion, compose a dirge and no amount of polishing will make it less a dirge.

dirge: a song or piece of music that is considered too slow, miserable, or boring.

Sure, but . . . not that helpful, especially since session and orchestral musicians will have to play music they think is boring or miserable or worthless or not as fun as what they want to do. The purpose is to get the score as accurate and clear as possible, not writing music no-one could object to.

Ray Kemp said:

My experience leads me to the conclusion, compose a dirge and no amount of polishing will make it less a dirge.

dirge: a song or piece of music that is considered too slow, miserable, or boring.

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