Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Musical Detail (3)

I just finished going through a submitted score for this second project, and, in the interest of saving you all some time and potential grief, I'll share with you some of the detail issues that came up. You may be feeling as though you understand all that needs to be understood about musical detail ("I get it! My score must be really detailed!"), but your score may be suggesting otherwise. In no particular order, here are some of the issues that came up in the score I just saw:
  • Tempo indication (i.e., Moderato) should only be at the top of the first line (i.e., violin) in the score, and sometimes above the piano as well, since piano usually reads from the score. But each PART gets its own tempo indication. (In orchestra scores, each instrument family gets its own tempo marking.)

  • If you change tempo, use the same format you used at the beginning of your score. In most cases, that will mean having a tempo indication word ("Moderato") as well as a metronome marking ("quarter = 92").

  • As just mentioned, the pianist typically reads from the score, presumably because someone in the ensemble needs to know how it all is supposed to fit together. Sometimes the instruments above the piano use slightly smaller staff sizes, in part to make it easier for the pianist to distinguish his/her part from the others, and in part to allow more systems per page. But don't try for, say, 3 systems on a page if doing so results in a cramped appearance.

  • EVERY entry following more than a bar of rest should get its own dynamic.

  • Hairpins should have a destination dynamic, like "f" if crescendo, or "pp" if diminuendo. They also need a starting dynamic, but it isn't necessary to write a starting dynamic if it is clear from the previous measures what the dynamic should be.

  • Don't attach dynamics to rests (!).

  • Make sure there are no improperly-grouped rests or beams. Groupings usually follow the basic beat structure of the metre and its subdivisions,

  • If writing for wind instruments, where do they breathe? If you whistle through the part at tempo (don't worry if you don't get all the pitches right!), it will make it easier to determine where the best places to breathe would be.

  • String bowings MUST be in the score. This doesn't mean the 'up' and 'down' direction indicators, necessarily (although you can put them in when there is some specific direction that you want, like a series of downbows, for example), but it does mean putting slurs over groups of notes that are to be played with one bow. How to do this if you're not a violinist? Go through your string part playing 'air violin' or 'air cello' (in other words, bowing through the music on an invisible instrument; probably best attempted in private!), and feel what the best way to group notes would be. Then, once you have marked in your bowings, take it to a string player and ask them to play through it with a real instrument, and figure out how close you came to achieving what you actually want. If you do this a lot, you eventually develop a natural feel for how best to bow your own music.

  • Don't create big, loopy slurs; they tend to collide with other score elements, like other slurs, dynamics, notes, accents, etc.

  • Speaking of collisions, AVOID THEM! Notation software sometimes creates (or at least allows) collisions between dynamics and articulations, or slurs and notes, or written instructions and slurs, etc. These must be fixed.

  • Be picky in your page layout. If using multiple systems per page (which applies to everybody), make sure the systems are far enough apart so that dynamics, articulations, slurs, etc. in the bottom line of one system do not collide with anything in the top line of the next system. There is sometimes slightly more space between the piano part and the instruments above it, again to facilitate reading from the score for the pianist.

  • Also, keyboard instruments only need one dynamic, in the space between the LH and RH, unless the LH and RH are playing different dynamics.

  • And don't forget to find the clearest enharmonic note spellings possible; notation software is notorious for occasionally making poor choices for you in this regard.

  • Proof-read everything, especially parts. It's amazing what you can miss if you don't go through every part, bar by bar, checking to make sure all dynamics and other score information are there.


Jessica Blenis said...

Heh....Good to see that my score went to good use! I got a lot of good stuff out of this particular blog entry, and learned some things about how to properly prepare a score before handing it in...What fun is life, though, if you don't make a bunch of mistakes along the way? Thanks for all the help!

NBus said...

As far as the formatting goes, does it matter if one page 3 systems and the following has a different amount? And when you say every entry after more then 1 bar of rest needs a dynamic marking is that completely nessecary? I ask because, in my piece when the clarinet is playing the solo line the tenor sax plays a background figure, then rests for one full bar, and then comes in with another background figure that is similar to the first, to me having an additional dynamic marking here seems redundant.

Oh, and do arco and pizz go above or below the staff? And when you have one of those and a dynamic which one is above the other?

Jill A. said...

I really appreciate this post as a good reminder of what should be included in the final scores of our compositions. I know it is very important to put in the details as you go, but when editing and trying to get your piece completed it is quite easy to forget something. Also, not everyone knows how to notate certain instructions on their scores.
Thanks for the all of the help and reinforcement!

Clark Ross said...

Neil, I only just saw your comment, so apologies for the delayed response... Briefly, 'pizz.' and 'arco' go above the staff, dynamics below. When an instrument comes in after a one-bar rest, and it continues in a similar way what was before the rest, a dynamic is probably not necessary, strictly speaking. But it is still a good idea.

It is not unusual in orchestral music to have pages with different numbers of systems, but it is less common in chamber music (but still possible, if one instrument is resting for a long time).

Melissa said...

mmmm, yes... proof reading. I always learn the hard way about proof reading. It really does help! And saves you a few dozen marks I would assume!
I have to remember that it is just like writing a paper. But writing a paper has been something I have been doing since high school, so proof reading is second nature to me now. I just need to remember that music is so much like writing. Its hard to see the similarities when you're new at it.

Thanks for the tips Dr. Ross!

Heidi said...

anyone have any idea how to switch instrumentation in the middle of a piece in the finale program? Me and my computer resourcefulness have completely failed at arriving at a solution for this problem. i've had to create two different staffs for "percussion" and "bells" even though it's the same player. Ptherwise does anyone know how you can change the name of the instrument on the side of the score?

saird.larocque said...

My scores always end up looking like a huge jumble. It is because of my whole written score vs. computer score dilemma. Do I have a weird looking, messy score? or Do I have a clean looking score that doesn't include everything I want?

James Bulgin said...

This is a very helpful and precise list of things to keep in mind when polishing up a score. I certainly found it helpful when going over mine (although I've doubtlessly overlooked stuff, nonetheless)

I found specifying bowings tricky, though. I think I just don't have enough experience with writing for the real thing or even hearing it played. After I read this post, I made a point to try to observe the bowing of other people's pieces as they were performed in class. Hopefully the ones I've notated in my own score are in reasonable positions.

Michael Bramble said...

In response to James' post, I found the best thing to do for learning about bowings was to invite a string player over one evening and just go through the entire piece with all possible bowing solutions. It's amazing how changing an up bow here or a down bow there can complete change the sonority of the piece. In payment I usually offer a plate of cookies or food, haha.

Kate Bevan-Baker said...

I always think that the little details will take less time than they actually do. Bowings especially are tricky! I suppose it's easier for me since I'm a violinst, but I don't want to write too much in my scores because I hate getting music that has every single bowing written in. It's hard to find that good balance, especially when I'm dealing with violin and cello and I want them on the same bow for most of the piece. Dynamics are also tricky because of balance issues. It's hard to put all the dynamics in when you haven't heard your piece yet. You have to guess which instrument will be the loudest texturally and who you want to be heard the most.

I know I could have put in a lot more detail to my final score, but I think I got the main things in there!

squinlan said...

I kind of enjoy sifting through my work and making it all nice and uniform. Maybe it's because of my own OCD compulsions. But going through and ensuring all the dynamic markings, stylistic notes, and technique notes are there gives me great satisfaction!

Adam Batstone said...

This was probably the thing that I learned the most about. Musical Detail!!

Particualy fingerings and string markings for guitar. This can become quite tedious a you can imagine. I used much of the modern rep that I am studying as a reference for my scores.

Actually writing the music is only a small aprt of the compositional process. You have to constantly be editing and thinking about your potential preformers.

Vanessa Carroll said...

This is so useful! This would be such a good final checklist before submitting a score.

I sometimes wish there was a "Writing Centre" for music that was like the Writing Centre on campus! Editing can be so time consuming and draining!

Thanks Dr. Ross!

Evan Harte said...

Every composer should have a copy of these guidelines on them at all times! I find that Sibelius especially (and probably finale too) doesn't always do these things right. For ex. sometimes, Sibelius will try to put expression markings above the staff and sometimes below. This is just a suggestion, but Dr. Ross, this might be a good thing to print off for the composition seminar class at the beginning of the year, just to have. Or at least, make the students aware of this blog entry!

Brad said...

I would definitely say one of the biggest, 'non-musical' things I have taken away from my study here is the importance of the musical detailing. I have seen it in action in the Tuckamore Festival when I had my piece performed there and just listening to the students practicing my piece. It's amazing how a little dynamic turn, or shape can completely lift a whole section into beauty! It is so important, so this is definitely a post to keep bookmarked when writing a future composition.

Byrann Gowan said...

Looking at this blog, it was really surprising that there are people out there who struggle with this type of thing. As a Double Bassist, for example, it is always good to include bowings in a part. Bowings not only detail which way you want the bow to go; it indirectly affects how the phrasing of notes, as well. So, it is important to include some bowings, since it affects the music more than what most people think.
Also, I have seen people not write a tempo in. Without a tempo, you are leaving your piece up to chance. There is an excellent chance that your piece will not sound as good as you wanted it to, because the person will be playing it too fast or too slow; the reason that they are playing it too fast and too slow is due to the fact that there is no tempo. So, INCLUDE A TEMPO MARKING!