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How to Score

Scores should look good and be easy to read. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been sent scores by students or hopeful orchestrators using terrible layouts. Perhaps they saw some online (never trust anything you see online, unless it is on this site of course!) or got advice from a friend who had a friend that went to Berkusc or UCLNYU!

Session scores are different from concert scores for several reasons. While concert scores have been typeset for centuries, session scores were done by hand until about twenty years ago and a lot of the ‘look’ is still based on how things were done in that style.

The following list is my standard practice for score layout. It includes some updates to old conventions for use in modern scoring, as well as a few new ideas from my own experience. I think a lot of these things make perfect sense for the concert world as well.

Measures per Page
When scores were done by hand in Hollywood, they were always four measures per page. With the advent of computers it is possible to put more measures on the page and still keep it readable. I like between six and eight per page. Unless it is a big band chart or something that has strict eight-bar phrasing, I do not mind if new sections do not always start on new pages. In fact, it is easier to see a new section BEFORE the page turn if I am sight-reading. The main rule is to never put so many bars on a page that I cannot find my place again after looking up from the score.

Time Signatures
These should be big, but not too big. Too big and they take up too much space and kill toner trees to print. Always use the Finale Engraver Time font (it also works in the other program). Sometimes I feel that people are so proud of their large time signatures that they make them even bigger just for the flex, but it looks terrible and is a clear indicator that you really have no idea why we use them or what you are doing!

Do not try using a normal font and just making it bigger; it needs to be tall but not wide. Never put time signatures above the score or between sections; the conductor’s eyes do not naturally look in those places and the only clue will be silly gaps where the signatures should actually be. In most scores, four large time signatures should be enough to cover the page. Include one on the top line of each section, most importantly at the top of the page and on the first violin line. These are the places my eye jumps to when I look back at a page. If the time signatures are not there, I can miss them.

Measure Numbers
For scoring, it is important to have large measure numbers. I put them below the bottom staff, but some people put them above the strings. Either works; I do below as it keeps the numbers out of the way of any score indications that would be put in the same area above the strings. I also see people put boxes or circles around measure numbers. Why? No idea! On the subject of boxes, we never use rehearsal letters for scoring, as there is no need for them. For concert scores, you should always include them. The general rule has always been that the measure numbers only go on the first measure of each page and are quite small. I think that making them large and including them on each measure like we do in scoring is a good idea for the concert world as well. Any time you are doing new music there are going to be a lot of questions and not a lot of time to answer them, so why not make the conductor’s job easier?

Double Bars
I use a lot of them. They really help to tell where things are going when you are sight-reading. It also helps the copyist break the part into sections.

Key Signatures
As with most modern music, we do not use key signatures in film scores. That’s true even if the score is completely tonal. It is much easier for the players to have each accidental labeled. If we did use key signatures, players would end up writing in a lot of courtesy accidentals, as they will be sight-reading and they do not want to miss any. The one excepted exception to this is when we record songs, we do often use key signatures. (Okay, there was one movie where the composer wanted to use key signatures, fantastic score, won an Oscar, rhymes with Ma Ma Band, but a lot of first takes were blown as players missed the key signature and then they wrote in reminders!)

Concert Pitch
All film scores are printed at concert pitch. This has been the case for twenty years or more. Some people label this at the top of the score, but I do not. In my time in the studios I have never seen a transposed score for a movie, so the default assumption is that it is a concert score. The one caveat to this is that we do transpose instruments that shift an octave to avoid a lot of ledger lines. Piccolo, contrabassoon, glockenspiel, xylophone, celeste, guitar, and contrabass are all printed at written pitch. Octave displacing clefs are not needed, with the one exception to this being the tenor voice if using SATB staves.

Again some people feel the need to mention all this, but it is redundant. No one ever writes these instruments at sounding pitch. If you ever do wish to clarify something to the copyists, use hidden text that shows on the screen but does not print. This is one thing I feel should remain just a studio practice; concert scores should always be transposed.

Tempo and Score Indications
These go in large print above the top staff and first violin line. Use fixed size fonts in your notation program to accomplish this; I use Times New Roman Bold 14 Fixed. Avoid the default tempo indications. The quarter note always seems too large to me; it should balance with the text.
DO NOT include fractions in the score. it is pointless, confusing to players and looks daft. Just as with time code, the score is not the most official holder of that information. It is just a guide, so rounding it off is best practice.

Labeling Tempo Changes
I often see people label tempo changes as ‘sl. slower’ or ‘a little faster,’ sometimes followed by a metronome marking. The problem is, I have no idea how much ‘slightly’ or ‘a little’ is and for the metronome marking to mean anything, I really need to know what the previous one was. In my scores, I just mark a change as -4 or +10. Now I know exactly what the change is. Some people add this after the text and metronome marking, but if I have the relative change, I do not need any other text. If it is a large change, say 25 bpm or more, then saying ‘Faster’ with a new metronome marking is good. But for small shifts, keep it simple. If there is a place that you know you will be picking up from, it is a good idea to put a metronome marking there to save yourself the pain of having to go back to the top and do some maths to work it out.

I will admit that this system of just printing the bpm adjustment is not standard, but it is my preferred way of working. It is very specific and does not waste space with redundant text. Of course this only applies to film scores, where we have tempo maps and click tracks.

Guide Staves
I think it is important to know not just what the orchestra is playing, but also what they are not playing! While the example page I use above is from a session that was completely live, that is actually quite rare these days. There are nearly always some elements staying in the box or pre-recorded.

I like to have a condensed version of everything in what I call ‘guide staves.’ It really helps at the session to know what the orchestra needs to line up with. Is there a synth on the same notes? A rhythm pulse we need to groove with? Are there things we are not recording live like keyboards or percussion? This also really helps if you are ever asked to add the orchestra to them, you have it right in front of you to dictate or have the copyist add to their parts. It also helps you to know what is going on when the orchestra is NOT playing.

This example from Hawkeye shows how the guide staves contain the synths and percussion, which was all programmed.

Multi-part Staves
I propose – and currently use – a new rule. My default is that a line is ALWAYS a2 (or a4, etc.) unless marked otherwise. It seems like such a waste of time writing a2, tutti, or unis. all the time. I notice that when people want just one instrument they label that too, so what is the default? This convention is as pointless as labeling string divisi and unison. And as for using the indication for div. when the flute splits into two parts, what else are they going to do?

In order to make sure the copyist understands what I am expecting, I have hidden text in my score that shows on the screen but does not print. Using hidden text is a great trick for helping the copyists (or giving reminders to yourself). You can put in little notes and not worry that they will ever print or be seen by the players.

We often have six or eight horns on a score and a lot of the writing is in unison. Using three or four staves is a waste, so I use one or two and leave the copyist to split out the parts according to how many notes there are, with the assumption that the section will divide evenly (three players each for two notes, two each for three notes, etc.). This now needs no labeling from me. If I want something different, I will mark it as such. The second staff will automatically hide when not in use. Also note that in the scoring world we do not interlock the horns in the traditional way (1/3, 2/4, etc). We just go in pitch order like every other section of the orchestra. It makes life a lot easier when it comes to making changes. I have found that when you record in places that do not record scores all the time, you need to communicate this to the contractor or they will book a traditional section of high and low specialists. In the scoring world I generally need all to be able to play high.

While on the topic of interlocking, there was a period when orchestrators interlocked the Violin 1 and 2 when they had four parts. I have heard several reasons for this, from it being easier to write and read to ‘the better players sit at the front’ (still unpacking that one, and it was twenty years ago I heard it!). I do not believe in our current scoring world there is any advantage to this practice and just like with the horns, it makes life harder when you make changes.

I like to use multi-part staves to maintain visual balance in the score. For double woods they can have a staff each. This also makes sense as the second player will be doubling. For triple woods, I still like to keep it to two staves per instrument. Player one and two on the top and the third on the bottom, as they will be the double or different instrument. Note that in all of my experience the piccolo still goes in the third (or second if only double woods) part.
As mentioned I use one or two staves for the horns and it is not labeled per part. For trumpets I like to use two staves. If there are three trumpets, Trumpet 1 gets the top one all on its own. Strangely I have noticed many people would have Trumpet 1 and 2 together on the top and Trumpet 3 on its own. This does not make any practical sense to me as it is Trumpet 1 that will be playing on their own if anyone, not 3, so this approach creates more work to clarify. The trombones, however, I have first and second on the top then third and fourth on the bottom. Tuba is always on its own. This layout allows my eye to see and analyze the whole section easily.

Of course if the score is complicated, then use as many staves as you need. If there are not woods, I have been known to use more staves for the brass to balance it out. But I avoid that in a full orchestra as it just looks lazy and wrong to me, wish I had a better reason!

Unless the music is complicated, I use a grand staff for choir. The copyist will split it out further if need be. If the whole score is just ‘ah’ then I might put that on the first entry, or maybe not. I know it feels like you need more, but in my experience if it is generic ‘ah’ they know what to do. Remember that the dynamics and hairpins always go above, even if you don’t have any words.

My preference is to use a full five-line staff for all percussion. Lots of people use a single line and there is nothing wrong with that. I like five lines as I can easily swap from mallets to untuned instruments, and I can have multiple instruments on the one staff. I always use the same lines so it is easy to follow. Reading in treble clef they are:

Piatti – G above staff
Suspended Cymbal – E at top of staff
Snare Drum – C
Grand Cassa – F
Tam Tam – D below staff (some people use A for this)

The cymbals and tam all get diamond or x note heads. These instruments are set in stone for me, and then other things I will fit in where it works for the cue, using the x’s for wood or metal. Toms I like in spaces only. If you stick to the same positions, you can be more relaxed with your labels. I only label the first entry in a cue, and then after that there is no need if you use standard positions and stay consistent. Note that the copyists will move things around in the part. If you use a single line staff, they will nearly always move it to a five-line staff for the part. I try to stay organized and think about who will do what, but if it gets a bit messy, good copyists will have your back. Timpani will get its own part, the rest are copied as a ‘percussion score’.

I am literal with my ringing. If I do not have a ring over, they will not let it ring! If I want to have it ring, then I add the ring over articulation. No other text needed. Use an eighth note for a choked piatti, etc. I repeat, no text needed!

Just like with the measure numbers, I am not sure why you need to put boxes around percussion names. Even some my best friends do it and all of the copyists in LA will add them even when I don’t. But I still don’t know why! Why? Someone tell me!

Instrument Doubling
I like to see the staff name change as well, as this makes it easy to see what everyone is playing at any time. If you just use some text to describe the change, unless you go and put it on every page as a reminder, it is easy for the conductor to miss it. Changing the staff name solves this. In Finale you do this with a staff style.

Unless there is a long section where an entire section of the orchestra is out and you really can go to two systems per page, never optimize the score. I am sight-reading and want everything in the same place on each page. Also, if I need to add parts, I want the empty staff there to write in. For concert works, more optimization is common, but it presents the same issue as measure numbers. If you have limited time to rehearse, I would go easy on the optimization to make it easier for the conductor.

I prefer to have no default whole note rests. This keeps the score cleaner and if I need to write in new parts, there are no rests in the way. Of course the copyist will put them in the parts when needed, this suggestion is just for the score.

Some people label the timecode start on the score. I never do this unless I have been specifically asked to, and that has not happened yet! I am the orchestrator, not the music editor. Things change all the time and there are other people whose job it is to make sure we are in sync. The score is not the ‘master’ these days like it was thirty years ago. Now the tempos and timecodes are all in Pro Tools. On a scoring stage we have a music editor, a Pro Tools operator, and a few assistants who track timecode. The last place anyone will look, much less trust, is the score.

Picture Descriptions
I see a lot of scores, usually student ones, where they have a ‘staff’ (often just a single line) with TC references or descriptions of what is happening on screen. This looks really cool, but is not necessary. Of course if your client asks for it, then go for it. I do it when asked, and the last time that happened was, um, never! I will update this if someone does request it. Many of these scores also seem to have overly large, large time signatures.

For scoring sessions, always tape the score accordion style. Put a spine on anything larger than four pages but do not include the first and last pages in it. This allows the conductor to open up three pages at the top and three at the end, saving some turns. Do not bind with plastic or rings. It is very hard to turn pages in such a score without making noise.

Paper Size
In the US we use Tabloid, which is 11″ x 17″. In Europe and Australia they use A3, which is a little bigger. For the conductor, the paper should be heavy enough that it holds some of its shape when turning a page. Too thin, and it is impossible to turn quietly.

If the system size is small, do not increase the percentage so it covers more of the page. Instead, have two or more systems per page.

Avoid making landscape scores. It is very hard to turn these pages quietly.

A Legit Perspective
I ran this post by Benjamin Northey, Associate Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Ben conducts a lot of new music.

“Conductors need easily visible time signatures which don’t get in the way of notes. If they are disproportionately big you end up only seeing them and not the detail in the score. The first example looks integrated into the music which is what you want. Measure [numbers] down the bottom, great for easy locating.”

Ben also prefers un-optimized scores as it is much easier to keep his place from page to page.

Finale Tips for Scores
How to make Large Time Signatures.
How to set up your score for easy and accurate Optimization.
Using hidden Measure Number Regions for better navigation.
How to set up staff names Staff Names.

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  1. Do you (anyone) see condensed scores in the studio? Or, when do your, e.g., flutes, share a staff together versus having separate staves? Same for horns, etc. I notice the example you’ve included here shows two flutes each on a separate staff. The conductors I’ve worked with for live concerts prefer condensed scoring so that each section is grouped more tightly and the page isn’t overwhelming. I tend to score every instrument to a single staff and then condense where needed/requested (but it’s a bit of a pain). Does it matter or is there a recommendation for the studio? Thanks.

    • If there are double winds, we will have them on their own staves. With triple I will use multi-part staves to save space. I keep it consistent per cue so the conductors eye is not jumping up and down and can predict where things will be page to page.

    • Sorry for slow reply. For the woods as they are often doubling, I will have 2 staves for the flutes as you noted. For horns they are in all sorts of combinations, but often unison. I just use 2 staff most of the time and the copyist splits the parts out. We do not interlock in the studio, so it is just pitch = number order as opposed to the concert hall.
      When I do scores for the concert hall, I do them the normal way, with horns properly written. I do find it is OK to have woods on 2 staves per section whether it is double or triple, again due to doubling.
      I am not a fan of having all the brass on their own staves in film scores, I see it often and it is a waste of space and makes it harder for me to see a whole score.

  2. Great website Tim. Thank you for a fantastic resource. Delighted I stumbled upon it and will certainly be returning. Greetings from Edinburgh, Scotland.

  3. Hi Tim,
    Great blog! I am preparing a score that has a 15-measure rest right in the middle of the cue- would you notate a 15 bar multirest in the conductor’s score or just leave the bars empty?

    • It depends on what is happening. If there really is nothing, then the rest is fine. But if there is something in the track, it would be noted in the guide staves, the rest of the orchestra could be optimized out so that would then just take up a single page.

  4. Wagner filled his scores with so many instruments that he developed a blinky eye. so it is better to come back to healthier and reasonable scores, the eyes of the conductor are not those of a chamaleon.

  5. Hi Tim:

    Quick question — what is the recommended maximum amount of staffs per page (tabloid, 11 x 17 inches) to keep everything readable for the conductor?


    • Not sure of an exact number as there are lots of factors. So long as it is readable, then it can be a lot. But each section has to be readable in one glance.

  6. Regarding score layout, shout an instrument list be included in the score, specifically for cues that include lots of percussion and alternating instruments? If so, should it be on the last page of the score to reduce page turns during a recording? I am a composer in Nashville, planning on moving to LA in October. Thank you for this valuable information!

  7. Any suggestions on a printer that handles 11 x 17 ?

  8. […] is not in Tim’s Finale tips post, but it appears elsewhere in his blog in the post “How to Score.” He prefers to have no default whole note rests. To switch these off throughout your score […]

  9. […] 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 […]

  10. Hi Tim! Amazing blog, by the way. Incredibly helpful.
    It was very interesting to hear that everything is discussed in concert pitch when relaying changes to the orchestra. So for example, you tell the trumpets to play a “Bb” and so they write down on their parts a “C”? Is this the standard communication procedure for just LA sessions or is it also used in other major places where film scores are recorded, such as with the LSO?


    • In LA for sure. In London I talk transposed, but they can handle it either way. The thing is that in the concert world, it is not that common to go and change a lot of notes, or re-write music on the stand, but we do it all the time. So calling out a change once for many people in concert makes sense as a timesaver and is safer. It took me a while to come around to this though, but I think it was more being stubborn, thinking I was dumbing it down by talking in concert, which seems to be the reaction by many people.

  11. Nice article. But why would you not mark the string divisis? Otherwise it’s a double stop. Do you bracket every double stop?

    • Thanks.
      The common perception is that if you do not say divisi, they will play a double stop. I have found that in most cases, that is not what happens. As I have explained, in there are many reasons why double stops are to be avoided. String sections do not like playing them, for the same reasons. If I want a double stop, I use a bracket on the notes, and will often have to ask them to play it as such or they will ignore it. As the players will divide by default, I do not see any reason to waste time and ink telling them to divide, let alone play unison when there is only one note. I have conducted many scores where the orchestrator has forgotten to put unison and half the section has never stopped playing. Many people do not feel comfortable leaving out the div markings, that is fine, my overall point though is that you can not trust that what you thought was being played as a double stop, there is a very good chance the section divided it.

  12. Hi Tim,

    Well done, as usual! I was wondering what your opinion was on this article about concert vs. transposing scores:

    I was also wondering if your key signature rule was absolute, or if you would ever use a key signature in a cue in which the music was very tonal AND the key had many flats or sharps AND there were a lot of notes in scale runs, etc. Do you think all the accidentals would still be helpful or would they end up being distracting. I have done this on occasion when many accidentals seemed to get in the way of spacing and readability.

    Like your sensible new rule for multi-part staves, I was wondering if these rules about keys and transposed scores could be due for some updating.


    • Hi Philip
      I read the article, it makes some good points and Matt Dunkley’s comment is also really good. In a nutshell, lots of people have to read the scores and some will not be familiar or quick enough to work with transposed scores.

      The session players deal with a lot of different people, so the general rule is everything is discussed at concert pitch. It makes sense when we are dictating new notes too, we may be giving the change to transposing and non-transposing instruments so easier to do it once in concert. When I write for my big band, I always transpose the score, it looks wrong to me otherwise and that applies to people who work on legit music, concert scores look weird. I find there is also a huge snob factor to it.

      There is the argument that the sweet spot of the instrument is centered on their transposed clef. This is very valid and I do think like that when I work, but I am used to seeing the concert pitch notes and right away I see it transposed in my head. That is just a matter of training yourself to think like that. So to me that is not a deal breaker.

      WIth regard to key signatures, I would still not use them, even if the piece was completely tonal and never modulated. On a session we fly through cues. On TV shows, we often have to get a few of them first take, so having every accidental marked helps. The players do not find it distracting, they prefer it, I just doubled checked with a few of them to make sure. On a pop song, I will use them as we often only do 1 to 4 songs in a session, the pace is slower and the pieces are generally longer than film cues and they are in a key.

      • Thanks for the reply and additional insight in context.

        I’m really enjoying your posts and we were discussing it this week at a film scoring workshop here in New York. Thanks for making the time to do this. Looking forward to the next one.

  13. Hi,

    Enjoying your blog. Question:

    I’m a stage show and musical theatre arranger/orchestrator with no film experience. On a film big enough to have a large score, a live orchestra, an orchestrator who isn’t the composer, and copyist(s), will that copyist also be copying and binding your score as well as the parts? Will s/he be the one who decides on the exact layout and details of the score and part?

    I totally understand the value of knowing how to do it. Also, I assume there may be gigs where there is no one to do the copywork and you have to do it all. However, as the orchestrator, are you working at blazing speed and giving that work to the copyist to create the final pieces for the sessions, including the score? Thanks.

    Be Well,


    • Hi Jimmy
      I lay out the score then send it to the copyists. They extract the parts but do not touch my score apart from printing it out. However, before I send it I have a proof reader who looks over the score. He may tweak the lay out a bit, fill in any dynamics or articulations I missed. I do like to go fast, so having a second pair of eyes looking over it is well worth it. I was a copyist so try to make it as easy as possible for them. Depending on the project, it will go to one of the big copy houses in LA or to my own guys. If it goes to my own, then the parts will be done in linked parts, all in the same file as the score. In order for this to work, I really have to be careful how I do things. When I was first starting, I was doing it all myself. I am lucky now that every job I do has a budget for music prep.
      I will be doing more posts about my process.


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