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Stating the obvious, why say it twice?

Over the years I have noticed that people have developed a habit of saying the same thing twice, often combining an articulation with a text description of said articulation. Some of these are standard conventions that I just think are a little silly, others are things I have seen people do without thinking. A lot of my approach has to do with thinking like a player and trusting them.

ripA wavy line up to a note means to rip into the note, that is all it can mean. Similarly, a line going down from a note can only be a fall.

sforzandoA sforzando is an accent.

marcMarcato: marked, is performed by accenting. An accent means to give the note more emphasis than the ones around it. Save the accent articulation for when you really need one.

The tail means to let ring. The staccato is pretty universal for short, has been for a few hundred years — and don’t get me started on using an exclamation mark on the redundant ‘choke’.

Snap pizzThis articulation can only mean snap (or Bartok) pizzicato so there is no need for the text. Also note that it is only valid for the note it is above, so no need to cancel it.

A tremolo mark in a flute (or any wood or brass) part means flutter tongue. It ‘could’ be a valve or keyed tremolo, but you would go out of your way to ask for that. Flutter is default.

The triangle note head up high means highest note, nothing else, it is universal these days.

The wavy line between two notes can only mean to gliss. What is the text for?

+ in a horn part can only mean stopped, o can only mean open. And as it only applies to the note it is above, it never carries; I don’t even put the o as common sense would say that if there is no + it is not stopped. I have never had a question from the horns about it. These are also universal for open and closed, whether you are writing a high hat part or a plunger part for the brass.

Circles above notes mean to play as harmonics in string parts at sounding pitch, unless it is harp where it sounds and octave above.

If you write the fingering for a harmonic, there can only be one outcome, why state the obvious and clutter the page?

Glockenspiel (and harp) would let the notes ring by default, no need to tell them, they have been playing since they were ten and know how their instruments work. They will play with hard mallets by default.

There is nothing wrong with clarifying. It will not do any harm, and if there is something out of the ordinary, then you should make it clear to the performer. But if the technique is obvious and covered by the standard notation, there is no need for extra specifics. Trust the players. Feel free to let me know of other examples of redundancy to add here.


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  1. I tend to think of > and ^ as more of an attack accent, and sf, fz and sfz force accents, so double accents (above and below the note) should theoretically be possible. Also, some notation publications and music dictionaries describe sf = >, fz = ^ and sfz = ^_

    In your estimation, how annoyed would session be if I attempted to be this specific, but was willing to accept the results without too much fuss?

    • You can write what you want, but I think that there will not really be any difference that is worth the fussiness. I have never noticed any differences when I have used different ones or combinations.

  2. Hi Tim,

    I think you may be my rescue here, as I’m arranging a score for performance that incorporates all public domain classics. I’m finding it a bit difficult to work out what is going on here, but I did a search for “orchestral scores and staccato markings” and came upon your site, which I am very grateful for! For example, the William Tell overture has staccato markings for a section, then when the same notes are repeated, the staccato marks are missing. My guess is that as you say, the orchestral musicians “work it out” themselves. Also, with music engraving being done on plates years ago, having to punch in staccato markings for a section that repeats itself in style, and almost exact notes, would have been tiresome, so I wonder if this was a practical agreement between composers and engravers that if a section was staccato, and then a similar or exact section repeated, the orchestral musicians and conductor would naturally guess what would obviously happen from the previous parts of the score.
    I’ve found this for example in the William Tell overture, and a very old engraving, but when you got to the “popular” part of the overture – I’m guessing this is what is happening. If anyone wants to check this out, the score is here. Go to page 30 and check the strings out, and on page 31 in a replication of the same passage, the staccato are missing.

    I’m guessing that my Sibelius score should follow the same example, however, it’s quite easy to select the same section, and staccato it, but, is it really necessary? Once the strings have played it staccato, when they see it staccato, they’ll naturally play it staccato again. Am I correct here?

    thanks if you can clarify this for me.


    Steve Martin

  3. Hi Tim, I would disagree with you on the triangle note head. It can also mean “any very high note.” At least, it does these days in this part of the world.

    For the sake of clarity, I would remove the ledger lines from it too. Unnecessary and confusing otherwise.

    • Hi Matthew! Yes, I would agree, but it depends on the context. If one had a bunch of them (without ledger lines) and you wanted different ‘highest’ notes, one might put them at slightly different heights, and then a player would understand what you mean. I should have put this more in context, I most often see it at the end of a big gliss or slide up, for example the violins at the end of a ‘rise’ or a horn rip. In these cases it is not a specific note, it is ‘around’ the highest, but each player will have a slightly different one. I have found in practice in my context that the interpretation is the same with or without ledger lines and it is quicker to leave them in. In a case of repeated high notes when you want different ones, then I can see an advantage to no ledger lines as it removes ‘any’ possible first target from the brain. So I guess even though I say ‘highest’ note, in my examples it really means around highest note, your choice, and like any ‘non standard’ notation it is context based.

  4. Hey Tim, Keeping with the “Less is more”….how do you feel about abbreviations like N.V, S.t , S.P, etc…. for non. vib. , Sul tasto and Sul pont.? I like the idea of shorting the instructions down to just a couple of letters as it save’s me time writing them out but I’m not sure all players have become familiar with this yet. What do you tend to use?

    • I was just thinking about this the other day. I was putting non vib in a violin part. For some reason I prefer the medium abbreviations, sul pont, non vib, to the really short ones. I think the ones I use are standard in print where as the ones you mention are more applicable in a hand sketch, they are shorthand. It takes no more effort for me to put in my version in a score. Also, they are international.

      • Thanks For the info Tim. I’m always torn between using abbreviations and short abbreviations when I have a lot to put down over the same starting point in a measure. I looks super cluttered having to say 3 or 4 verses just 2 letters from each word but if players aren’t hip to them then it creates more of a problem at the recording session to stop and explain. I guess there’s a time and place for everything. Do you know if most players would be hip to N.V, S.t, S.P and sord. ? I refrain from using them Unless I truley have to:)

        • I’m a violinist and violist. If I saw the 2-letter abbreviations, I’d probably figure them out, but I’d be scratching my head for a while. I recommend always using the intermediate forms (“non vib.”, “sul pont.”). “Sul tasto” is generally not abbreviated.

  5. What’s your take on using ‘simile’ or ‘sim.’ in parts? Is it ok to use this sparingly or do you need to write everything out each time (i.e. repeating accent patterns)?

    • I use it as much as I can. It means the score/part is cleaner and easier to read. Also, it makes it much easier to change something at the rehearsal or session. You only have to change one or two bars then the sim. still works. If you have pasted it out 20 times, you now have more to correct or to remember to play differently. One thing that throws composers is that they forget that the player is only looking at one part and only thinking about what they do. It is easy to see a pattern and remember it. When you are looking at the whole score, you tend to worry about everyone and want to dumb it down.

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. i think the problem with some of these “reduntant words” is that programs like Sibelius (which so many use) has a “line tool” where you draw the gliss between notes and the word is automatically applied. I don’t know if you can get rid of the word so it may simply be a software choice and not a arranger / orchestrator / copiest choice.

    Sometimes I do think being over clear is good— but I also understand cluttering the page.

    Did I ever tell you about what Corigliano told me about his sessions with Altered States? Ohh so much direction in that one..

    • Yes, in a lot of cases the programs are the culprit. In finale the default has the word on the gliss, but it is easy to change it. There will always be cases where some clarifications are needed and I am not against that at all. Would love to here the Corigliano stories, perhaps over a beer.


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