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Jazz Notation – The Default

This post and its companion, Jazz Notation – Drums and Chords, present the material from my talk on January 11, 2014, at the Jazz Education Network Conference in Dallas, Texas. Thank you to Makemusic for their sponsorship.

I get a lot of scores sent to me by composers and arrangers both young and old. I see a lot of things that do not need to be on the page, or are written in ways that are way more complicated than necessary. A lot of these extra indications are instructing players to perform in a way that is already covered by standard jazz , or what I call the Jazz Default. If you notate in a way that exploits this default, you will save yourself a lot of time and the players will know exactly what you mean, you do not need all the extra information.

On my blog, deBreved, I talk a lot about my concept of the Orchestral Default. In a nutshell, what does a player or section do when they see a naked note, with no articulation? If you can learn to think about this default reaction correctly, you will find many situations where you do not need to add any articulation. What happens if you add a staccato, a tenuto, an accent, or a cap?

What are the Assumptions?

Here are the things that I feel are the foundation of the jazz default:

  • Swing eighth notes
  • Quarter notes are short
  • Eighth notes are long
  • Fast notes will be slurred
  • Long notes will swell
  • If the dynamic is forte or more, the notes will be played with accents
  • The length of the lead trumpet note is proportional to its height.

What you see what you get

While it is common to dot your quarter notes, if you forget one or two, I will put money on the band still playing them short.

It is all about thinking through what they will play with no extra indications. What do I need to “make” them play? If you want a long quarter note, you need to put a tenuto on it (unless the tune is a ballad). But do you need accents on every note in a shout chorus?

All of these assumptions are moot if the notation is not correct for our genre.

Take a look at this piece I put together highlighting many of the issues I see in scores.

Where did we go wrong?
I see three reasons why people over-notate or incorrectly notate their scores. I go into depth on the subject in my post Over-Notation Nation. But in a nutshell here are my theories:

  1. Composers either do not know the default interpretation or do not trust that it will happen, so they state or clarify the obvious. This is either due to lack of experience, lack of trust in the performers, or failure to think about what you are writing.
  2. There is a belief that a score full of information is somehow better than one with minimal indications. It looks more professional to show you have thought about every note.
  3. Computer notation. Composers often write in a way which is easy to input into the computer. They also notate in the way that is best for computer playback. Not only does this affect the look of the music, but as dissonance does not work the same in the virtual world as it does in the real world, it affects the way the young arranger voices harmonies. I am not going to deal with the latter today, as that is a whole other can of worms.

This third reason is the one that irritates me the most. If you see a score with way too many dynamics and articulations, rhythms written in very un-jazz ways, and a drum part that only Terry Bozzio could work out, it is pretty safe to assume it was written for computer playback and not real humans. Notation programs are not aware of any performance practice or default, so everything must be spelt out for each note. I understand that playback is a big part of the composing and learning process, but does it need to come at the expense of good musical grammar?

Unfortunately it seems that the new overdone score has become the norm, if the ones that get sent to me are anything to go by. This problem is not unique to jazz scores. I see it in film scores, concert works, and educational music. A lot of these playback issues can be solved by hidden indications. This is not as complicated as it might sound, but it does take a little more time. Create an extra set of dynamics and articulations that are all set to ‘hidden’, save it in your default template, and then you are good to go.

Hidden Artics

The shaded markings will not print.

The Jazz Default
The jazz default is the of a unique mix of rhythmic spelling, articulations, and dynamic markings. The reason we have come unstuck of late is that the default performance practice is rooted in a style of notation born out of hand-written scores, but these days people are writing by computer, and many have never written a chart by hand ever. Some aspects of writing a score have become easier with our software, while others are very hard or impossible. 

For example, if we compare pen strokes to keystrokes, it is much easier to write a quarter note and put a dot on it than it is to write an eighth note and an eighth rest. But in the computer, the opposite is the case.

Hand vs Computer

It is important to note that even in handwritten scores, conventions changed and developed over the years, and different arrangers and copyists have used different shorthand. I have tried to find the happy medium between where all of these hand-written techniques came from and where we are today with technology. I question everything, and if there is not a good reason for what’s being done, I will try to find a more sensible solution. My ideas have also evolved over time as I have become more experienced and thought about effective solutions from different perspectives.

Rhythmic Spelling
As previously mentioned, you must think as if you are going to write the score by hand, and then the correct practice makes sense. Here are a few examples of how a passage might be historically written in jazz, and how someone coming to it now in the computer age might write it.8th vs Q

As mentioned above, a lot of this has to do with ease of effort. The top staff is easy to write by hand and the bottom is easy to enter into the computer. The top one takes longer in the computer and the playback would not be as ideal.

There are four primary articulations in Jazz. Combined with the correct rhythmic spelling, these cover 90% of all musical situations.

  • Staccato
  • Tenuto
  • Accent
  • Cap
Primary Artics

Technically the cap is called a marcato. Marcato does not necessarily mean short, but in order to make something marcato, there has to be space around the note. By jazz convention, though, the cap is always read as short and should be the default articulation for an accented short note.

These can be combined to make compound articulations:

  • Tenuto Staccato
  • Tenuto Accent

Secondary Artics

The tenuto staccato means detached. It is a little redundant on quarter notes in swing music, but useful on half notes. In a ballad it can come in handy on quarters. It creates space around the note. The tenuto accent forces full duration. This counters the default of playing quarter notes short.

Do not use:

  • Staccato Accent
  • Staccato Cap

DNU - Artics

Thinking back to doing this by hand, a cap is much easier to write than a staccato accent, and as we all know a cap is short in jazz, so saying “short cap” is silly. Likewise, using a cap or staccato on an 8th is silly, use nothing, or a normal accent. If an 8th is on the beat and followed by another 8th, the first will be long. Many people put a tenuto on the first note, but the default interpretation is long.

Artics redundant

I see all sorts of combinations like this in order to get the computer to play back correctly, but these are redundant for real players.

Effect Articulations
These speak for themselves, so no need to say “fall” or “gliss”. Change the default in your notation program! The only thing that needs clarifying is the length. I use the wavy line for a long fall and the hook for a quick one. This is not 100% standard, but many people do understand it without me having to explain. If you are worried, specify “long” or “quick”.

Effect Artics

The role of articulation is to alter a note. What I have found is that we tend to add articulations to notes that often do not need them. The default takes care of a lot, and it is all “under the hood” so to speak. If we add too many articulations we also risk an effect of “crying wolf”. For example, if every note in your chorus has an accent on it, how do you convey that the last note should be accented even more? If it is a shout chorus, do you even need accents? What will the band do if you leave them out?

Playing a few notes straight

An old shorthand that seems more common in the US than anywhere else is to use articulations to indicate notes that are to be played straight. If you put the same articulation on successive eighth notes, they will not be swung.
Play Straight

The alternative is to use text, like ‘Straight 8’s,’ etc. (It is important to add the ‘8’s’ or you will find half the brass scrambling for a straight mute.) You can use a bracket to outline the notes if there are just a few. If it is a whole section, just use the text and cancel it with ‘Swing’ when you are done.

There is a school of hand copyists that put all articulations above the note. This has mostly fallen out of favor now. In classical notation the marcato articulation always goes above. However, as we are using the marcato in a different way, it is on the same importance level as the other indications, and so I think it should go inline with them too. In my scores I go with the tradition of all articulations above, but I am in the minority on that these days.

pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fp
These are the ones I would recommend limiting yourself to; however, in a basic swing chart, you can even get away with just p, mf, f & fp. There is no need to micro-manage a band the way you would a computer.

Fp variationsAn accent on a fp means the same as sfp, and saying sfp with an accent is saying the same thing twice. Therefore sfp, sffp, sfz & sffz are not needed in jazz. I have also found that even if you are at ff, you do not need to say ffp, as fp has the same effect. Similarly, fpp is played exactly the same as fp. The band can hear the context and will make it work. You can not assign mathematical values to this articulation in the real world. Taking it to the next level, one can even leave the accent off as the fp will be accented by default.

As I explain in my blog article “Dynamic Affairs“, there is more to dynamics than just volume. For each dynamic there is an associated attack. It is really just physics; in order to play loud, the air is pushed out in a quick burst, thus there is a solid start to a forte note. The opposite is true with softer ones, as the air starts slowly with a light tongue. Combine this with the context, and I again pose the question, do you need an accent on every note in a shout chorus?

The Examples
In researching this subject, I looked at a bunch of scores, some by famous writers and publishers, some by hand and others by computer. It was interesting to note the differences. Sammy Nestico is a good example of someone who leaves more to the default. He saves the accents for when he wants to push you to the next level. Thad Jones, on the other hand, has one on everything.

Lets go back to the example I put together. I took one of my own charts, threw it into the Finale big band template, and put in many of the things I see in charts sent to me.

As you can see, the Finale template is not well spaced. Just because the computer formats it, it does not mean that it is correct. In order to see this score more clearly, I have spaced it a little better. I am amazed at the number of scores I see where things are all over each other. it should be obvious to all that this is not cool.

Here is how I would do it. Notice how much cleaner it looks. It has the perfect balance of information. As I have used the correct jazz notation language, I can totally rely on the jazz default for interpretation.

Take a listen:

Regardless of the notes, no one has a chance at reading your score or parts if the layout is terrible. It is important to look at them from someone else’s point of view. Is the layout clear and easy to follow? Is there anything clashing or printed on top of each other? There is no excuse for poor scores. With our modern notation programs, anyone can produce professional looking scores and parts. Never accept the way your notation program lays out your score without any adjustments.

Score Guidelines

Landscape orientation.
Best for big bands. Orchestral scores have too many lines, and should be portrait, as should big band with strings. (For more on orchestral layouts, check here.) For example, my scores for the Metropole Orchestra are portrait.

8 measures to a page.
Make adjustments to fit with phrasing. If your piece ends with a page with only four bars, make it only cover half the page.

Large measure numbers.
Either below the drums or between the horns and rhythm section; avoid putting boxes around them.

Rehearsal letters.
On the left. If that is not possible, start in the middle. Letter A is always the start of the head.

Big time signatures.
Easy to read and replicates how it would have been done by hand.

Here is the

Part Guidelines

Four bars per line.
This can be massaged to go with the phrasing. Try to have rehearsal letters on the left or halfway through the system. Keep it even. Do not jam up the rests. A 3-bar rest should take 3 bars. Do not use large rests.

Ten lines per page.
The first page can have 8 or 9 to allow for titles.

Bar numbers at start of line.
It is also a good idea to have them on multi-measure rests. If the chart is for the recording studio, put numbers on every bar and omit the rehearsal letter.

Page Turns.
It is ideal if these happen on 3, 5, 7, etc. If the part is six pages long, you can have the first three showing, and then flip it over for the last three.

Here are some parts from Jazz Vespas.

Fonts and templates
As I have shown, the default Finale big band template needs some work, as does the Sibelius one. I have worked on mine for many years, refining the settings and fonts. One thing I would suggest is that people avoid the ‘Jazz Font’ for text. It can be hard to read, especially its numbers. There are many other options out there. My template uses the ‘Swing Font’ for text. I like it because it is clean and easy to read. It does deviate from hand copying tradition in that it has lower case letters. All hand copyists used small upper case letters for lower. I use the ‘Jazz Font’ for the noteheads. The ‘Swing’ whole note is too small for my tastes; it looks like a half note. I also use the Sibelius Reprise font for my titles. It is the best I have found at replicating the look of the stamps used by hand copyists.

Notation Software
I have been a Finale user for twenty years now. I spend twelve hours a day on it; it is my instrument. What I like about it is how I can change nearly every setting and make the score look how I want, not how the program wants. However, it is not the program that makes the music or defines it. It is you, the composer. Don’t fall into the trap of letting the program dictate how your music looks or sounds.

Read more about good jazz notation in my post about chord symbols and drum charts.





Performance practice is a set of default “rules” that govern how notation is interpreted and music is performed. Each period in music history has its own rules, and there can even be more specific conventions for individual composers. Knowledge of these rules allows composers to leave obvious details off the page.
Check out this awesome paper by John Brye that explains how jazz notation is Interpreted.

Posted in: Jazz


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience in this insightful article. There are couple of things here which really contradicts what I’ve learned about Jazz notation and I would like to ask your thoughts about it:

    1. On Don Sebesky’s The Contemporary Arranger there is a different definition for the cap. It is a “forceful attack of a note falling on a downbeat”. Likewise the accent is a “forceful attack of a note falling on an upeat”. (Pg. 14)
    How much do you see this convention in charts?

    2. You say here that “By jazz convention, though, the cap is always read as short and should be the default articulation for an accented short note” – Why not using it then on the second 8th of the beat? What is the logic behind using an accent there and not a cap?

    3. You wrote here that ” using a cap or staccato on an 8th is silly, use nothing, or a normal accent”. Do you mean by that that the second 8th in the beat (the shorter one) is played as a staccato note by default? As far as I know there is a difference in Jazz horns playing between a second eight note without a staccato and a one which has it. Could you please clarify this point?

    Thanks again and keep up the great work!

    • Hi!
      1. On Don Sebesky’s The Contemporary Arranger there is a different definition for the cap. It is a “forceful attack of a note falling on a downbeat”. Likewise the accent is a “forceful attack of a note falling on an upeat”. (Pg. 14)
      How much do you see this convention in charts?
      I agree with that. It will also always be short. That is why I do not use caps on off beats (or an upbeat as he is calling it). Those ones I use an accent as if it is a stand alone quaver, it is short by duration, and if it is tied, it is long by duration, so putting a cap on it is conflicting.There is also a school of jazz notation that if you use the SAME articulation on a series of notes, then it means play it straight so just like people mix staccatos and tenuto’s, I mix caps and accents.

      2. You say here that “By jazz convention, though, the cap is always read as short and should be the default articulation for an accented short note” – Why not using it then on the second 8th of the beat? What is the logic behind using an accent there and not a cap?
      See above.

      3. You wrote here that ” using a cap or staccato on an 8th is silly, use nothing, or a normal accent”. Do you mean by that that the second 8th in the beat (the shorter one) is played as a staccato note by default? As far as I know there is a difference in Jazz horns playing between a second eight note without a staccato and a one which has it. Could you please clarify this point?

      Context is everything, but a cap on a note that is already short (a quaver/8th) is not need needed for duration. In swing, the 2nd 8th is not ‘staccato’ or short sue to any rule, it is what it is, short because the next note comes very soon whether it is played or a rest. If you put a dot on it you are asking the player to separate it from the next note, how short that is will depend on the temp and style. Swing is the hardest thing for a computer to play and understand as there are so many contextual factors.

  2. Hi Tim, love your blog. I disagree with the jazz default being that quarter notes are assumed to be short. I’ve seen this issue time and time again from the best players, from session musicians to premiere military big bands. If a quarter note in swing style is left unmarked you will get several interpretations of its length during a read through. Nowadays, with the ease of adding the articulation in via software, there’s no reason not to IMO.

    As an arranger and lead trumpet player, I prefer to see two articulations in big band: housetops or legato. This tell me at a glance if the note is short or long (of course period of piece, style of tune, etc… will determine the nuance, but that gives me the ballpark). Staccatos can work too but they’re easy to miss and I fine myself penciling in housetops after a read through. I think accents on quarter notes are ambiguous and I dislike seeing them. I’ve seen arrangers use them to indicate both short and long notes, so there is really no standard practice to using them. I think their best use is in “stingers” or long notes. They really only give information on the attack, not the length, so combining them with a housetop or legato is useful.

    Anyway, love this blog and have enjoyed reading the posts, especially the ones on string writing. What a wonderful resource, thank you for sharing!

  3. Lots of great recommendations here, but I have issues with your corrected version . It doesn’t indicate swing, nor tempo. Quarter notes are short — except in ballads, right?

    • This is not the beginning of the chart, so that is why there is no tempo, I should have clarified or added! As to not indicating swing, I don’t do that anymore, I feel that it is a medium big band chart, that is the default, they are not going to play it like a bossa. Note this was written for a professional band, not the education market. With regard to the 1/4 note length, you are right about a ballad being different and I could have been clearer, I am all about the context, and this is a swing chart, not a ballad. I would expect the players to realize this and play in that ‘sub’ genre. Just like they know in a really fast tune that the 8ths are not the same swing as a medium tune.

  4. Minor nitpick: you say “In classical notation the marcato articulation [cap] always goes above”. That’s actually not true in traditional practice: the cap, like all other articulation markings, generally follows the notehead (and is inverted if it goes below the note). However, caps are so rare in classical music that the issue comes up pretty infrequently.

    • Hi! In the scores and books I have read it is mostly above. But I am open to changing my view if you can provide examples!?

      • See Gardner Read’s classic work Music Notation. It’s been a long time since I read it, but if memory serves, he specifically talks about inverting the cap symbol (he calls it “superlative marcato”) if it goes below the note.

  5. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for another great post. What do you mean by “dissonance does not work the same in the virtual world as it does in the real world”? I’m not looking for a super-detailed answer. I know you said this post wasn’t going to deal with how virtual instruments change the way young composers voice harmonies (although I’d love to read your thoughts on that in a future post!).

    I’m just wondering if you meant that virtual instruments make things sound less dissonant than in real life, more dissonant, or just differently dissonant.


  6. Hi Tim,

    Just stumbled across your blog – some great posts. I’ve been doing some big band arranging again recently after a few years focusing on a PhD doing more ‘classical music’ with Stuart Greenbaum in Melbourne. The notation thing is one I didn’t think too much about with big band music but your post has got me thinking a lot about what really does and doesn’t need to be on the page. Looking at your thoughts on accents, I think I’m a serial over notater!

    I’m curious on your thoughts on a couple things. First is slurs – I know when I write for classical/orchestral I will generally get what is on the page and thus it does deserve consideration.

    Big Band is a bit of a mystery though – or at least I’m wondering how superfluous slurs are. I’m a sax player and having played in big bands I have found articulation tends to be more a product of your own personal experience/style and/or following the lead player rather than what is specifically on the page. For example, I know some sax players tend to slur as much as possible (George Garzone has often made the comment about wanting to tear out the tongues of students!) where as I learnt to tongue in pairs, tonguing the off-beat (my teacher was Tony Hicks, who I think has played for you in Melbourne). Looking at various charts some arrangers seem to slur everything (perhaps more as phrase markings), for example some of the Neihaus charts I’ve seen.

    On the other hand, some of the Nestico charts I’ve seen slurs are a lot thinner on the ground. What I find odd about that approach is that if there are only certain spots slurred, it would imply that that stuff should definitely be slurred and other areas not. However, with those examples I can?Äôt imagine any player not slurring at least some parts of the other phrases that aren?Äôt marked slurred at all.

    Along the same line, what about troms? Can?Äôt slur, but if you mark a slur on a unison line in say a trumpet part that is doubled in the troms, would you notate the slur for the troms to indicate phrasing/legato?

    Anyway, long post/question so I?Äôll leave it there.

    Again, thanks for the blog, great reading.

  7. Hi Tim,

    Quick question regarding notation vs over-notation for school big bands. Would you include more articulation information when writing for a school ensemble given they are obviously not as experienced as professionals or would you trust that the ensemble director knows what he/she is doing?


    • That is a tricky one. Honestly I think the sooner people learn to interpret the better. But obviously they have to have some extra guidance as does the teacher who may not be a jazz musician. So lets say we can over do it for educational purposes. But if it is not for beginning band then you should not over do it. Most things that get sent to me or I see are NOT for beginning band, so for them there is not excuse!

  8. Hi Tim,
    Love the blog! Quick question; On your full score for Jazz Vespas I notice you dont have whole rests in your bars that normally would have them. Do you hide these manually after the score is finished or is there a faster way to do it? Keep up the great insights and advice!

    • I leave the rests off in all my scores. I think it looks cleaner and if you were doing it by hand, you would probably not bother to go and put them all in. Of course the parts have them when needed. For my studio work, I also like empty bars as I have space to write in new notes if we make a change or add things. It seems pretty obvious to me that if there are no notes in a measure, they will not play………….

  9. Excellent Article!!! I’ve been using Finale for 24 years and it just gets better and better (just got 2014!). I’ve reset all my templates and variables to my preferences. It is a dream to work with now. Also, power users need to use inbuilt macros as well as their own. You can save hours!!!! If you give me a standard song (aaba) now in 3-4 hours I’ll have a Big Band arrangement ready to playback and print. Hardest part is being creative – the rest is easy.

    • Hi Bill. You win by 4 years. Having a good template and shortcuts is just like having your own guitar. Sure you could borrow one for every gig, but it is never going to be as easy as owning your own. You waste so much time. As I also mention above, as much as I love finale, their default templates are not great, they should be looked at only as a starting point.

  10. Looks great, Tim! I like to have my lines set to varying thicknesses. Stems at 3.5 EVPUs, barlines at 4.5 EVPUs, and staff lines to 2.5 EVPUs. What do you think?

    • Chad, thanks for sharing the settings. I just looked at mine and I use 3.5 for stems and barlines.Staff lines 3. I have also done a lot of work on ties, the default is not good. But I think it is good that people use different ones and find one that looks like their own, as would be the case if done by hand.


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