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Over-Notation Nation

Many people these days over-notate their music. I propose three theories for this.

The first is that most people do not spend a lot of time working with a live orchestra so they do not have a lot of ‘match practice’. When they do get their time with the players, they want to make sure they have everything spelled out, and so they often overdo it. Thinking they are doing the right thing, they clarify things that do not need clarifying and state things that are either obvious to the players or an inevitable result of the notation or physics of the instrument. Inexperienced orchestrators do not know where and when the orchestra can be left to do its thing, for example the natural crescendos and diminuendos into and out of phrases. I have seen scores where the only other possible detail an orchestrator could add would be the note names themselves.

My second theory is that this excess notation is the fault of our software. In order for the playback to sound half decent it needs much more information than a human does. So people put a dynamic in every bar followed by a hairpin and an articulation on every note. Look at some old scores; there are not that many markings. Of course we do need some indication of how to play, but the art of orchestration is in finding the balance between what is needed and what is not; in short, knowing what the is and when you can rely on it and when you can not. To get a good idea of what is needed and how to notate your scores, it can be helpful to think about how you would write the score by hand if you were in a hurry. For example, with pencil and paper, you would only write staccato articulations once or twice for a repeated pattern, and then you would write simile (or sim. for short, as I prefer; means the same, and uses less space and less toner). But now people swipe a section and apply the articulation to the whole thing, or copy and paste a swath of markings, creating lots of redundant information.

Thirdly, some people think it looks ‘academic’ to have a lot of information on the page. An articulation on every note, micro-managed dynamics, and a text description on every phrase make it look like you have put a lot of work and effort into your score. The hope, I assume, is that a detailed score might appear more professional and get a better performance. In reality, you are cluttering the page, wasting toner, and distracting the players from doing their thing.

So what happens with all this extra information?

The orchestra is very forgiving and flattering. You can put just about anything in front of them and the players will make sense of it. You can over- or under-notate, go out of range or forget that people need to breathe and nothing bad will happen. Like magic, it gets sorted out. This is both good and bad. Good in that the players make it work, but bad in that unless you ask, the best players will not tell you what they have done to make it work. You will never know that they divided that double stop, split a line up between two people, or did not need to be told to ‘breathe when needed’ on a whole page of unbroken quavers (there is really no choice). It is not their job to school us; they play and take pride in making it work. In order to learn what’s going on, you have to be proactive and ask your players. It is very easy to go through life doing redundant or incorrect things and never realizing the fact.

Finally, one very practical reason for trusting the default and keeping the notation clean and simple is that in the studio things get changed all the time. Composers or directors often want to try things in different ways once they hear it live, or perhaps a picture change means things need to be tweaked. The less notation there is to change, the faster and cleaner it can be done.

When I mention these concepts, I often get the defensive response, ‘I just want to avoid any questions’. If you learn more about the default, you find that in many cases there can be no question. You just have to think before you ink.


The performance resulting from a score with no or only minimal performance indications on it. See The Orchestral Default

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  1. Hey Tim,

    What is your opinion when it comes to using hairpins to crescendo or just using the word “cresc.”?

  2. As always, brilliant info. Thanks to you and one of your teachers, Brenton Broadstock, I find myself ‘dictating’ more when I want the players to breath (using divisi parts) rather than leaving it up to the players themselves…for the reasons you’ve stated. With good rehearsal time you/they can sort out effective breathing points but with limited time, yes, you sometimes get a ‘gap’ when all the players on the same part decide to breath or, more accurately, can’t help themselves but to breath at the same time (again, for the reasons you have already stated). Keep up the great posts.

  3. Having read through your whole blog, some of the practices you favor for the sake of a cleaner score differ from what is considered “proper” notation, at least in a classical context, which I’m sure you’re aware of. Like not using “a 2″/”a 3″/”a [whatever]” on wind staves. Do you think there are contexts where it’s necessary to adhere to the traditional practices in order to make a good impression and not raise eyebrows? I applied for an engraving job recently, and it would have felt like quite a gamble to send samples that didn’t adhere to the recommendations of the common music notation manuals to the letter. Like I could be mistaken for ignorant or willfully eccentric rather than practical.

    • In a way I am asking that everyone take a step back and think about why we do certain things and are they the best way or necessary. I am challenging or to use a hip current term, ‘disrupting’. This does pit me against plenty of traditions. I think if you are applying for a job, you should show you understand all of the traditional conventions, if that is what they are expecting. I am sure some editors and academics think I am full of it and wrong, others appreciate where I am coming from and can see it both ways.

  4. Someone pointed me to your blog & from just this one article, I have to say it’s awesome! Thank you for saying/answering questions. I’ve only written about 100 orchestrations in the last 2 years & I’m somewhat out of my league in understanding all the brass articulations. – Yes, I have definitely used “incorrect” articulation markings on my charts to get the software to “sound” right… I’m looking forward to learning lots more! Thanks!

  5. Hey Mr. Davies,
    Should pedal marking be notated in a score, if it’s not that complicated? What do you think about this?



    • Hi Jasil, if it is not that complicated then why bother? Easy for them to work it out then! I just leave it for them, it takes them no time to do it. I do use a diagram on glissandi (or you can write the scale), but that is it. There has been the odd crazy section with many glisses, changing keys in quick succession, and in those cases I have put in the changes. But in 99.9% of my scoring for both film and pops orchestras I never do it.

  6. Loving your Blog! This is really great stuff. It’s really nice of you to allow the rest of us the benefit of your experiences. Keep up the good work!

  7. Extremely enlightening. Thank you for writing this?ÄîI learned something. I think that the idea of “not interfering with the organism” applies to lots of other areas in music. The printed score indicates the “what”, but the “how” apparently doesn’t require extensive documentation because of how natural and personal the process it.

  8. Tim,
    How much of your writing/arranging is influenced by your knowledge of exactly who is going to play it? For example, if you’re orchestrating tonight, knowing the guys you’ve got playing it tomorrow, do you cater to those guys’ specific strengths (or dare I say, shy away from their weaknesses, as few as there would be)?
    I assume this would be particular to film scoring, given it is essentially a single-use format of writing…. Once it’s recorded, the chance of those charts being read again is minimal, no?
    In a big band chart for example, you’re expecting a plethora of different musicians around the world will play those same sets of dots, so it’d probably be a bit restrictive to who would buy it/attempt to play it if you were to write a Bergeron-esque lead trumpet part, or Goodwin sax section shout chorus…

    Does ANY of this enter your thought process? Or do you pure and simply put down what you want to hear, and leave it you leave it up to the fates about wether the players will get around It or not.

    • I am spoilt, I am writing for professionals most of the time. If I am doing a big band commission, then I do have to think about who will play it, but that does not effect how I notate it. That just effects how high or fast I can go. The same notation practices work for all situations. All new music is sight read the first time, so the same things pop up. All new music has a limited rehearsal time so being clear and concise is valid be it a studio, college read through or the LA Phil. The players are all the same, they all studied from the same books and grew up listening mostly to the same music. In junior orchestra or band they all played the same stuff. So when they get to the next level, the underlying programming that has gone on is……. the same. The guys I work with can just do it faster and higher.

      • Hi Tim,

        I agree with most of what you are saying, and I agree we shouldn’t be redundant. However, your idea of the default is not necessarily a universal concept. Every musician’s musicality is shaped by their individual experiences, teachers, geographical location and even non musical influences.
        Take the music of Debussy for example, if we played enough of his music we know what his norm is. Very different from what the norm is in Mozart or Bach or Brahms or Piazzolla or Messiaen.
        When working with an unknown composer’s work we don’t have the same reference points, when working with young players they might never have been exposed to playing in a specific style.
        I think we have to contextualise each situation. Asking yourself how many rehearsals, who are you working with, how familiar are they with your musical style, what are the things that you want to control? And then like you say step back and look what is really necessary. Sometimes that will include hairpins for the first phrase or senza/molto vib, or a pedal marking for the first few bars and so on.
        The other dangerous thing is to assume everyone can see/understand your intent. I have seen this with my student’s work.

        In a nutshell context is everything.

        • Hi, Thanks for the comments. I agree with you, but my point to the ‘default’ is that it applies in absence of a known performance practice. If you are playing Debussy, there is a known practice. When confronted with new music, not by an ‘known’ composer who’s style you know, then we have no ‘performance practice’ to fall back on so a crotchet is a crotchet. It is a glass of water. There are hundreds of things you can do to make the water taste different, but a glass of water by itself still has a taste that we all know. Some people will taste it a little differently, that is what is great about us. But you can still predict a lot of things about that glass of water!

  9. Very good article! This fits in very nicely with what I tell my students all the time, too. You are not just writing for an instrument; you are also writing for the player and all the baggage and experience that player brings with him/her.

    The best reason for not over-notating is that if the articulations simply state what common performance practice is, then the players start to ignore them. Then when something unusual crops up (say, a long quarter note in a medium swing) then half the players miss it because it was lost in the swamp of redundant markings.

    I will be back to read some more. This looks very promising.

    • Hi Christopher, thanks for the comment. I have an article on The Jazz Default in the works. I can’t stand to see newly published big band works these days, every note has an accent. Is that not how a big band plays forte anyway? It is in the performance practice (default). Now when you really do want a note to stick out….um… When I was working for John Clayton, check his writing out if you do not know it, amazing stuff, he sent me a sketch one day to orchestrate and there were only a couple of dynamics, no artics. I called and asked him if he had forgotten to do them, he said “no, let’s see what they do.” They played it exactly as we would have articulated it, short quarters, accent on starts of long notes at forte and pushes. Not saying that going to that extreme is good all the time, but people now are in the habit of treating the band as a robot that needs to be programmed. The computer is killing the art of jazz notation in a big way. Could go on for hours but will save something for the actual article!

      • Know thy ensemble.

        I do a lot of jazz style writing that is performed by college students. They’re very talented, but have little real world experience. If I don’t load the parts up with articulations, I get playing that is so square it makes you cry.


        • Hi Neil, thanks for the comment. I know I am making an extreme point and in education more information is needed, I just want people to think about it.
          For example, I see a lot of charts where EVERY note in the shout chorus has an accent. At forte, I would argue that a big band will accent every note, it is in the style. I spend more time telling bands NOT to accent certain notes as by default they always want to. Save the accent for the end of the phrase when you need it as by putting one on every note. I am working on an article about The Jazz Default.

  10. I just discovered you blog and really enjoy the insider’s perspective. Thanks!
    I wanted to mention in regards to your example ‘breathe when needed’.
    I have found myself using that for psychological reasons. Of course they are going to breathe when needed but this shows the player that I am aware that they need to breathe – and written the page full of notes out of necessity and not ignorance. This can make a difference when working with living composers and orchestras that can be borderline hostile to new things. Probably not such a problem in the film scoring world.

    • Hi, you make a good point and in those cases it makes sense. Thankfully I am dealing with people who show up knowing they are playing new music! I am working on an article about this topic, staggering and breaking up lines etc.
      My take on it is that you should never put the player in a position where they decide when to breathe, in either the studio or the concert hall. 90% of the time the default takes care of the breaths. Natural phrasing, etc. In the situation where there is a longer line that needs to be broken, I always break it, either by putting in a slur, comma or a rest, whatever makes musical sense. This way I am controlling when the breath happens and I can have it at different times in different parts. If we are sight-reading and I have 2 flutes and tell them to breathe when needed, unless they have a discussion about it, there is a really good chance they will breathe at the same time, they have the same DNA. It is similar with telling them to stagger breathe. Now we are relying on them to make sure there are no gaps. There may not be time to plan it out, they may not be hip to what is needed to carry it out or they may just be lazy and not bother to sort it out, probably what would happen with a hostile orchestra.
      If it is a long note and I am not sure if they can make it in one, I will put a comma, but not break the note. I am now telling them I want a long note, sneak it here if you must. I will stagger the commas in the parts so they do it at different times, otherwise… they will try and sneak it, but probably at the same time.
      Thanks for the comment.

      • I appreciate the reply and look forward to reading the article to get your thoughts on breaking and staggering. You touch on a good point. Even the most repetitive minimalism has somewhere where you can break it. And it should probably be ‘me’ (the composer or orchestrator) who does it. Or else the staggering needs to really be worked out – not just left to chance. And if I have followed your advice to not notate every little thing the players will ‘take it seriously’ when they see a breath mark – knowing that it is there for a reason. Interesting stuff – thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience!

        • Well put, people tend to ‘crying wolf’. If you have over notated already, players start to ignore you. Keep it clean, trust the default, and then when you want to break it, it is obvious and they will do it.


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