• Musiversal Team

Conductor’s Tips: Notation

A Three Part Series On Writing Effectively For Studio Sessions (part I)

Studio conductors can work through hundreds of scores in just one month. Throughout a studio session they will come across pieces from many different composers from very distinct backgrounds, and the quality of the notation will range from the exceptional to the very poor.

Correcting one single notation mistake might save from 10 seconds to 5 minutes of studio time. It is then of the utmost importance that all possible steps are taken to ensure the quality and professionalism of every submitted work. Only by taking these steps will the finest possible recording be ensured. Not only that, but scores that are capably notated and have a professional look to them will elicit a much more positive psychological response from the orchestra and the conductor, as they can focus exclusively on the music itself, unhindered by its notation problems.

For this three part series, our house conductor at Musiversal brought together a set of tips that will help all composers, from professionals to amateurs, avoid the most common lapses and mistakes found on submitted scores.

This first post addresses purely notational problems, and how to prepare your score in a way that will not only allow your musical intent to be clearest, but also pave the most direct path to the reception of its contents.

  • Exporting scores from DAWs – Sometimes composers not used to working with notation will send scores directly exported from MIDI mockups. If notation software like Sibelius or Finale is used to export the score, then at least a reasonable engraving standard is guaranteed. However, scores exported directly from a DAW’s score editor, without any subsequent editing, are usually riddled with mistakes/notation deficiencies (like many of the following ones).

  • Measure numbers – Having measure numbers on every measure (both on the full score and the parts) will save actual session time whenever the conductor/orchestra/producers have to communicate. Ideally, the numbers should be placed at the bottom of the score, in order not to clutter the top where only the tempo changes should be.

  • Score size/measures per page – Care should be taken when setting the score’s staff/font size, so that there is a good balance between overall visibility and space taken. Notwithstanding the size of the staves, there should be never less than 4 measures per system/page, and usually there will be around 6-10.

  • Standard instrumental order – From studying hundreds of scores with the same instrumental order, it can be very confusing for conductors to work with scores that don’t follow the standard. Small variations (like whether the piccolo staff should be above or below the flute) might not be very important, but the general order of Woodwinds, Brass, Percussion and Strings (internally ordered by register, with the exceptions being the horns, always above the remaining brass, and the timpani above the rest of the percussion) should always be followed, no exceptions.

  • Brackets for each instrumental family – Having brackets grouping each instrumental family right next to the names of the instruments is an important visual aid while conducting. Most notation programs will do this automatically, yet when exporting a score directly from a DAW brackets might be missing.

  • Instrument names on every system/page – Make sure to always include the instrument names for every staff on every page. These should be written in an abbreviated form from the 2nd page/system onwards. Even some editions of classical repertoire fail to do this. Yet in a studio session where the conductor might work through music from 20 different composers (and different instrumentations) on a single day, having instrument names on every page is fundamental, to avoid confusion.

  • Percussion instrument names/symbols – For mixed percussion, it is best to write the name of the instruments being played (or use standard percussion icons) at the top of each passage at least once for each system the percussionist plays in. This saves the conductor from having to take the time note it down himself (or risk having to jump back pages during rehearsal to check which instrument is playing).

  • Large time signatures – In scores for large orchestra with many staves (around at least 20 per system) and frequent meter changes large time signatures should be used. Depending on the number of instruments 3 or 4 will suffice, and they should not occupy any blank horizontal space, but should be written on top of the highest staff per each instrumental family. On scores without frequent meter changes large tempo signatures will neither help nor distract, but in scores with few staves they will likely only clutter the page.

  • Tempo changes – Tempo changes should be written in a larger font both at the top of the score and above the first violins. Frequent tempo changes written on a small font will probably just be scratched and re-written. However, if the conductor receives the score just at the session itself and has no time to prepare (and this happens far more often than ideal) sight-conducting the tempo changes will be a veritable ordeal.

Engraving example: First page of an orchestral score, applying all of the previously mentioned notation/engraving tips.
  • Key signatures – This is a controversial topic, as it depends on the context of the session (in Hollywood film recordings key signatures are never used) and there is rarely consensus among the players. But on a shared orchestra session, where there will always be at the very least 2-3 takes for each piece of music, key signatures should be used when the piece is tonal (as long as it is not too chromatic). The harmonic context of the piece will be much clearer for the players from the get-go, and therefore intonation will benefit.

  • Key signature changes – Although key signatures can help, frequent key signature changes will definitely be a hindrance to good sight reading. Only change the key signature for very large sections on different keys, and only when the harmony is very stable (without modulations) in the midst of each section. If there are many modulations and/or complex harmony throughout, it is best not to use key signatures at all.

  • Accidentals and transposition - When writing music directly on notation software, transposing an excerpt can result in the score being unnecessarily full of accidentals, sometimes even with a lot of double sharps/flats. This will make sight reading significantly harder, so make sure to check any transposed/copied sections of the score, making sure they are not over cluttered with unnecessary accidentals. Exporting a score directly from MIDI also carries the same risk.

  • Courtesy accidentals – Most notation software will nowadays include courtesy accidentals at the next measure after any changes, but sometimes it might also be important to include some in the midst of a measure, if there are many notes (ex: fast scales on a slow tempo).

  • Trill notation – For any trill that is not the most obvious option (a diatonic second above) the trill note should be written as a short note in parenthesis.

Flute trill: A flute trill using the notes Ab and B♮.
  • Wind players per line – For the woodwinds and brass, whenever there is more than one player for a given staff (ex: 2 flutes on one staff), make sure to specify how many/which of the players will play each excerpt. The traditional text indications are: “a 2/3/4” (when 2/3/4 players are to play the line); “1.”/ “2.” or “1st” / “2nd” (when only one of the players should play, specifying which one); “solo” (used for the 1st player when he/she has a structurally important line).

  • Players per staff - When two instruments are on the same staff (ex: 2 oboes), if they both play complex parts, consider separating the music into two different staves, to ease sight-reading by the conductor. The reverse is also true, if two players of the same instrument have simple parts, these should not be written in separate staves, as those will only clutter the score, and hinder visual perception. This also applies to divisi. Even if it is used frequently during a piece, it will always be best to separate the lines into different staves (on the full score) only when they really differ. On the parts, writing two different lines (for example, for 1st violins divisi) throughout is not problematic.

Divisi staves: Three ways of notating divisi. In this example, the first is too redundant and takes too much space in the score, and the second is too cluttered. The third option is ideal.
  • Include final barlines – This should be a no brainer, but make sure to always include a final barline at the end of the piece/each movement. Sometimes the situation might occur that an orchestra segment is being recorded for only a small part of a larger music piece (like a pop song). It might not make much sense to include an enormous amount of blank measures after the last note the orchestra plays, but even if you remove all unnecessary measures from the score make sure to leave a final barline at the end, otherwise players might think their score is incomplete.

  • Undoing technical changes – Every time there is a temporary written technical change (ex: “pizz.” / “con sordino” / “sul tasto”), double check that the return to the previous form of playing (ex: “arco” / “senza sordino” / “ord.”) is indicated, and on the right spot.

  • Larger formatting issues – Blatant formatting problems are unacceptable, yet every once in a while there is a score with superimposed staves/text/notes, most of the times due to having been directly exported from a DAW.

  • Proofreading – It is always a good idea to have someone proofread your score, as a fresh pair of eyes can very easily spot small mistakes that would probably go unnoticed by someone too familiar with the piece. But if you are not experienced with traditional western notation, asking a friend/acquaintance with good notation skills to edit/proofread your score becomes essential. It can make the difference between a poorly notated score that leads to a half decent recording, and a very well notated one that will make for a top notch final result.

Following all of the previous points will highly improve the notation from the perspective of facilitating studio work, possibly saving many precious recording minutes. The next post will present a set of tips regarding purely musical matters and orchestration.


Book, manage your session and general inquiries.
  • wearemusiversal
  • @wearemusiversal
  • Musiversal Channel
  • @wearemusiversal

Follow us on Social Media

© 2020 Musiversal