You’ve written a great piece of music. You’ve checked your playback carefully for any wrong notes. You’re feeling good. Then you bring it to the group to have it played. Instead of a beautiful musical experience, you get uninspired playing, poor sight-reading, and lots of grumbling.
You might have written the best music they’ve ever heard, but if your parts don’t look right they’ll never know. Musicians are very sensitive the way music looks. Much like written words, no one wants to read a big dense block of text with no punctuation. Do your parts look like that?
These adjustments are simple and take very little time. An extra two minutes proofreading your parts will save you much more time later. It’s a great investment in your music.
Let’s start with a completely unedited part (click the image for full size).
This came from typing the melody to “Autumn Leaves” directly into Finale using speedy entry. I did nothing at all to the layout beyond whatever is generated automatically. A good musician can still read this, but they won’t play it well. They’ll also assume the music is bad. Don’t underestimate this. When they see sloppy parts they’ll assume a sloppy composition. You will not get their best work.
1. Add a Title, Composer, and Footer.
Already this looks much better. You can get creative with the title font if you want. Increase the size until you feel it covers the space. The defaults are typically too small. Leave the others as a standard font. If you use a footer for your music keep it small.
2. Update the key signature and enharmonic spellings.
The tune is in G minor, so now we’ve got two flats. Finale incorrectly interpreted some of my Bb’s as A#’s, which are now fixed. This is a common error, and while it is still technically correct, musicians will stutter at these misspellings. Avoid mixing flats and sharps when there are notes outside of the key. Enharmonic spelling errors are a huge cause of missed notes, even among professionals. Pay close attention to this. This is especially important in film cues, which are often written without key signatures.
3. Add rehearsal marks and double bars.
Rehearsal marks should organize the piece around the form. Letter “A” should always be the beginning of the tune. “B” should come at the bridge. Use them whenever there is a new section. Err on the side of too many. If there is a small change, this can be indicated by a double bar without a rehearsal mark.
4. Create multi-measure rests and set staves at a consistent number of bars per system.
You’ll notice the melody is set at 8 measures per system while at letter C there are 4 measures per system. This is dependent on how “busy” your measures are. Whatever you choose, remain consistent. Also, notice that the 3 measure multi-rest takes up about 3/4 of the first system. Keep your measure length consistent. With few exceptions, rehearsal marks should be at the beginning of new line.
5. Align the dynamics and add a tempo marking.
A tempo marking is essential. Include a well understand style name and an approximate tempo. Next, horizontally line up all your dynamic markings. There are some excellent plug-ins for most scoring programs that do this automatically. Double check that there are no collisions. At this point you also should check for any unusual beams that may look confusing. I’ve adjusted a few at letter “C”.
The Finished Product
In just a few minutes this went from “mess” to “easy to read”. While there are quite a few more edits we could make regarding dynamics and articulations, this is more than enough to be readable. Also please note this example works for jazz and commercial music. If this were a film cue or classical piece, there would be a few other adjustments outside the scope of this article. Now go edit your parts!