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. The notation program’s default layout settings are no excuse.
Session scores are different to concert scores for several reasons. While concert scores have been typeset for centuries, session scores were done by hand until about fifteen 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.
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). 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.
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?
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.
As with most modern music, we do not use¬†key signatures in film scores. 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.
All film score scores are written 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. You can also use the clefs that are displaced an octave, but I just use normal ones. 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 method; 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.
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. 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. 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.
Of course this only applies to film scores, where we have tempo maps and click tracks.
Multi Part Staves
I use — and propose — a new rule. My default is that a line is ALWAYS a2 (or a4 etc) unless I mark it 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.
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.
Some people label the timecode start on the score. I never do this. 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 twenty 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.
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.
In the US we use Ledger, 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 unoptimized 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.