How to Write Music: Musical Orthography

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How to Write Music

Musical Orthography


Clement A. Harris

Associate of the Royal College of Organists

Edited by

Mallinson Randall

New York

The H. W. Gray Go.

Sole Agents for Novello & Co., Ltd.

Copyright, 1917

Made in the United States of America

How to Write Music

Introductory.1.—It is reasonable to expect that a musician shall be at least an accurate and legible writer as well as a reader of the language of his Art. The immense increase in the amount of music published, and its cheapness, seem rather to have increased than decreased this necessity, for they have vastly multiplied activity in the Art. If they have not intensified the necessity for music-writing, they have increased the number of those by whom the necessity is felt.

Intelligent knowledge of Notation is the more necessary inasmuch as music-writing is in only a comparatively few cases mere copying. Even when writing from a copy, some alteration is frequently necessary, as will be shown in the following pages, requiring independent knowledge of the subject on the part of the copyist. (See e.g., par. 28.)

Yet many musicians, thoroughly competent as performers, cannot write a measure of music without bringing a smile to the lips of the initiated.

Many performers will play or sing a note at sight without hesitation, which, asked to write, they will first falter over and then bungle—at least by writing it at the wrong octave.

The admirable working of theoretical examination papers is sometimes in ridiculous contrast with the puerility of the writing.

Psychologists would probably say that this was because conceptual action is a higher mental function than perceptual: in other words, that recollection is harder than recognition.

The remedy is simple. Recognition must be developed till it becomes recollection: the writing of music must be taught concurrently with the reading of it.

This was once the case: music-writing was a necessary part of a musician’s education. One may be the more surprised at its falling into disuse, inasmuch as phonography—in the musical sense—is a distinctly pleasant occupation. Without being either drawing or writing, it partakes of the nature of both.

But many points in the writing of music are not now considered to form part of the Rudiments of Music, and are not included in primers on the subject.

Hence the following pages.

While containing some matter which may have escaped the attention of more advanced musicians, they should, in an educational course, either be used along with a Primer on the Elements, or immediately follow it.

Choice of Paper.2.—The first matter to claim attention in making a manuscript copy of music is choice of the right kind of music-paper. This will primarily be determined by the number of staves each score requires. Most paper contains twelve staves to the page. This is a most convenient number, allowing for a two-, three-, four-, or six-stave score.

Song-paper: three-stave score, two staves being braced for the piano part, with a third for the voice part. This latter is at a considerable distance above the other staves, to allow room for writing in the words.

Organ-music paper: three-stave score, two staves braced for manual part, and another underneath for pedal part.

Quartet-paper: four stave score, no brackets or clefs.

Quartet-paper with accompaniment: six-stave score, two bracketed for piano part.

Full-score paper: much smaller than short-score staves. Very useful for other purposes where a small, narrow stave is required.

For piano and violin music, paper should be chosen the staves of which are wide apart, to allow of the large number of leger lines frequently required.

Scoring.3.—The paper chosen, the first use of a pen will be in ruling the score-lines. A "score" technically is as many staves as are performed simultaneously: two in pianoforte music, three in organ music, four in an unaccompanied quartet, six in four-part vocal music with piano accompaniment, and so on. These staves have a line drawn down their left-hand edge. Hence the name, from their being scored through.

Their position always being at the left-hand edge of the staves, and their length determined by the number of staves, they may be drawn before the length of the measures has been arranged.

Care must be taken when a page is ruled at a time not to draw the score-line through more than the necessary number of staves. Except in a full score there will generally be at least two, and, of course, very often more, scores to the page.

Barring4.—After the score-lines come the bar-lines. And with the arranging of these begins that careful mapping-out of the whole work, neglect of which will lead to endless annoyance and dissatisfaction.

Some music is so uniform that a given space may be assigned to each measure, and consequently a uniform number of measures to each score, provided that there is no change of key or time. In determining this space allowance must be made (1) in the first measure of each movement for the key and time signatures, which may require a considerable space; (2) in the first measure of each score for the key signature: the time signature is only repeated at the beginning of each movement or when the time is changed; (3) regard must be had to where a turn-over will come, some passages allowing of this so much more easily than others; (4) also to the number of measures in the entire movement, otherwise a new page may have to be added for only one measure! (5) in vocal music careful regard must be paid to the words as well as the notes. A syllable will often require more space than a note, consequently in very simple music the words require more space than the music. In florid compositions a syllable, on the other hand, is often sung, not to several notes merely, but to several measures, and the music requires much more space than the words. In the former case the author has found it a good plan to write the words first, or at least a measure or two of them, as a guide in estimating their average length. But, while the words must not be cramped, they must fall under the notes to which they are to be sung, and as these notes must occupy as nearly as possible their proportionate part of the measure, the skilful scribe will keep both words and music in mind simultaneously. Where, however, in vocal or instrumental music the measures vary greatly, one having, perhaps, a single whole note and the next thirty-two thirty-second notes, it is necessary to plan each score separately, or the end may be reached with too much space for the last measure, but not enough for an- other one. Carrying a measure from the end of one score to the beginning of the next is not practised now, as it once was.

Bar-lines are usually drawn through each stave of vocal music separately, and in instrumental music through as many staves as belong to the same instrument or group of instruments, e.g., through the two staves of a piano part, and the four or five belonging to the "strings" in a full score. . These instrumental staves are also usually connected by a brace at the left-hand edge of each score thus:


Fig. 1.

Uniform bar-lines may be ruled a page at a time, if care be taken not to make the line continuous through more than the required number of staves. It is a fault which one commits the moment watchfulness is relaxed, and entails much scratching out. Where the measures vary in length the ruling will most readily be done in light pencil with a T square, and afterwards inked. A single bar-line out of the perpendicular will spoil the appearance of a whole page.

Clefs5.—The first actual musical characters to be written are the clefs. Misconception of the function of these is so common, not among practical musicians only, but on the part of elementary theorists, that a few words of explanation are necessary. The commonest fallacies are to suppose that if clefs are the right shape their exact position on the stave does not matter, and that their position varies. Both suppositions are, to quote a delightful Ruskinism, "accurately false." A clef identifies and originally was used with a single line, and identifies others only by their relationship to this. Hence its precise shape is of less importance than its being on the right line. Indeed, the shape of clefs has varied so much that many able practical musicians do not know that they were originally simple letters, the treble clef a small "g," the bass clef a small "f." From this beginning has been evolved so elaborate a sign, sometimes not merely covering all the lines of a stave, but going beyond them, that it is necessary to explain which line a clef is on. Thus the "G," or treble clef, is on that line which its interior termination is on, and which it curls round, touching it in all four times. The upper part of the treble clef is sometimes kept within the stave, but, as in the present examples, more often rises above the stave. The point is merely a matter of taste.

The C clef is on that line which has an oblique or straight stroke, or pot-hook, above and below.

The F clef is on that line which its interior termination is on, and which it curls round either to the right or the left, and which has a dot above and below.

Fig. 2.

And this position never varies. Whatever line the F clef is on is F, however many or few lines may be above or below it.

In olden days any clef line might be taken with any number of lines above and below. For instance, the F line with two lines below and two above; or three below and one above. This is not now done with treble and bass clefs, which are only used with respectively the top and bottom five lines of the Great Stave of eleven lines. Hence care must be taken to write the treble clef on the second, and the bass clef on the fourth line of its stave. But it is still customary to use the C clef, especially in viola and trombone music, with both two lines above and two below, making the alto stave; and three below and one above, making the tenor stave. These staves are also used in old vocal music, and familiarity with them is absolutely necessary in all advanced theoretical examinations. The C clef, therefore, appears to move, being sometimes on the third and sometimes on the fourth line. Really it is always on the same line, and it is the selection of lines which varies. Hence the misdescription of the treble and bass clefs as "immovable," the C clef as "movable."

Note that all clefs are on lines; no clef is in a space. This is because the first attempt to accurately represent music to the eye was by means of a single line with a letter at the beginning. This was what has since become the fourth line, the clef line, of the bass stave.

In pianoforte and organ music, high parts for the left hand, or low ones for the right, may be written either:

By means of leger lines (Fig. 3, a);

By changing the clef (b); or

By writing the part in the stave proper to the other hand (c).

\relative c'' {
  \new PianoStaff <<
    \new Staff {
      \time 4/4
      r4_\markup { \italic (a) } g8 a b4 d | c1
      \bar "||"
      r4_\markup { \italic (b) } g8 a b4 d | c1
      \bar "||"
      r4_\markup { \italic (c) } <<
        { g8 a b4 d | c1 }
        { g8_\markup{ \small L.H.} f d4 f | e1 }
      \bar "||"
    \new Staff {
      \time 4/4
      % By default, Lilypond shows clef changes with a smaller clef.
      \override Staff.Clef #'full-size-change = ##t
      \clef "bass"
      r4 g8 f d4 f | e1
      \bar "||"
      % By default, Lilypond places clef changes before the bar
      \override Score.BreakAlignment #'break-align-orders = #(
        make-vector 3 '(
      \clef "treble"
      r4 g8 f d4 f | e1
      \bar "||"
      \clef "bass"
      s1 | s1
      \bar "||"

Fig. 3

The example, of course, illustrates a high part for the left hand.

The first method is the hardest to write and read. There is not much to choose between the second and third. If the third be adopted care must be taken not to insert rests in the vacant stave: their absence shows that the hand is not resting.

When a part, in organ or piano music, though mainly in its proper stave, begins with notes more easily written in the other, the clef proper to the part should be inserted, as showing its general character, and immediately followed by that in which the notes are most conveniently written. Thus Fig. 3, b, if the first measure of a composition, should have an F clef immediately preceding the G clef in the left-hand part.

A change of clef affecting the first note of a score should be anticipated in the last measure of the previous score, and repeated in the measure affected. This is especially the case in regard to the first score of a new page involving a turn-over. In addition to anticipating the clef, the old plan of inserting a "direct" is to be recommended. See Fig. 4.

Fig. 4.

The signature should be repeated in the changed clef. After a change of clef in the middle of a score this is, of course, not necessary.

Signatures. 6.—Following the clef comes the key signature. In printed music this is repeated at the beginning of every score. As preventing many mistakes the repetition is desirable. But in manuscript music it is very usual to repeat it only at the head of each page. Common faults are:

(1) Placing the sharps or flats at the wrong octave. The first sharp should, in the treble clef, be on the top line, not in the bottom space. And the second flat should be in the top space, not on the bottom line. The customary way of writing signatures is not, in the writer's opinion, invariably the best. But solecisms, though not in themselves inaccurate, should be avoided as causing unnecessary trouble and confusion.

(2) A perhaps commoner fault is in not allowing sufficient space for the signature, and therefore cramping it. Each sharp or flat should be well to the right-hand of the preceding one, never over or under it.

(3) Sharps, flats, and naturals, like clefs, cover much more of the stave than the single line or space which they govern. Not nearly enough care is usually exercised to make the

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).