Jump to content

Notation: an adjunct to Orchestration

Guest QcCowboy

Recommended Posts

Guest QcCowboy

Notation, notation, notation

This special chapter of the Orchestration Masterclass will cover some notational issues that have popped up in various forums I have visited, and in some student scores I have examined.

The first thing to understand about a properly prepared score, is that it takes time to do so. You, the composer, are the person best placed to know what articulations should go where, which slurs should connect which notes, and which of the myriad other details require attention.

Brackets and Braces

Each section (henceforth called a “choir”) of the orchestra will be contained in a single bracket in your score. One bracket for your entire woodwind section, one for your brass, an optional one for your percussion, and another for the strings. Soloists using grand staff will have a brace at the head of the grand staff, as will the harp parts.

An additional square bracket should include any “groups” of similar instruments in your score. For example, piccolo and flutes should be covered by an additional bracket, oboes and cor-anglais, the clarinet group, and bassoons and contra-bassoon.

Don't forget to bracket groups of similar brass instruments together - the horns, trumpets (if on multiple staves), and trombones.

For string instruments, it is traditional, though not absolutely obligatory, to use a brace or a square bracket to include 1st and 2nd violins. This practice appears to be falling out of favour with time. Likewise a brace or square bracket was used to include both staves of the celli and contrabasses. Again, this seems to be losing favour with engravers. There was logic to this practice: since 1st and 2nd violins are basically the same instrument it was deemed normal for their staves to be collected within the same bracket. As far as the celli and contrabasses are concerned, the historical practice of contrabass doubling the cello part was at the origin of this notational convention.

If you have a staff for a solo violin playing at some point in the score, then it should be included in the brace or bracket that covers 1st and 2nd violins, as well as the staff being clearly marked “solo”.

Instrument Names

Instrument names will be included on every page of the score. On the first page of your score, the name will be complete, while an abbreviated form will be used on subsequant pages. Instrument names do NOT go above the staff, regardless of how some notation software insist on placing them. The staff name goes to the left of the staff, centered with that staff. If the staff name covers two staves, then it will be centered between the two staves.

Score order

The order in which one places the staves of an orchestral work has become relatively standardized. The only place you will find some disagreement, is when incorporating non-standard instruments into an orchestra, and in the percussion section.

The various choirs of the orchestra are placed in a pretty standard order: woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings. If you add a soloist (for example, in a concerto), it will go immediately above the strings. A chorus or vocal soloist will also go immediately above the strings.

Woodwinds and brass

One of the simplest organisational principles to follow is the “highest to lowest” idea.

Generally, and we have to insist on the “generaly”, the instruments of each choir of the orchestra are placed in descending order of pitch. So with the woodwinds, you would start with the very highest – piccolo – then flutes, oboes, english horns, clarinets, bass clarinets, bassoons, and finally the contrabassoon. Generally speaking, if you are adding some other auxilliary instrument to the grouping, you would place it in relation to its relative pitch relationship with the “standard” instrument of that family. So an Eb clarinet would be above the Bb. If you decided to add an oboe d’amore to the mix, then it would go below your regular oboe, and above the cor anglais. And so forth.

An important detail for when you are creating parts from your score: auxilliary instruments (piccolo, cor-anglais, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabassoon) are always played by the "last" desk of a grouping. In other words if you have 2 flautists, and require at some points a flautist to take up the piccolo, then the 2nd flute is the one who will do this duty. This gets a tiny bit confusing since the piccolo staff goes ABOVE the 1st flute (if there are two flute staves), and might lead you to believe that the 1st flute will share piccolo duties. This is not the case. Generally, established orchestras have a third desk player for each of the woodwinds, who specializes in the auxilliary instruments. Amateur/community orchestras MAY not have access to any auxilliary instruments at all (they are generally rather expensive). Other than the piccolo and the Eb clarinet which are both placed above their respective staff groups, all the other auxilliary instruments go below their family staves: cor-anglais below oboe, bass clarinet below clarinet, contrabassoon below bassoon, thus keeping our "highest to lowest" idea going.

Moving on to the brass section, we come across the first wrinkle in this process of "highest to lowest": the horns in F. They will be the first staves of the brass grouping. Generally, in a full orchestral work, there will be two staves for the horns, horns 1 and 2 on the upper staff, horns 3 and 4 on the lower. Follows the staff or staves for trumpets. It is usual to find 3 trumpets in an orchestral score. This means that it might be a bit tight on a single staff. You could resort to single staves for each trumpet (I have myself done this in some scores) however, it does make for a very small font choice when printing. Generally, the trumpets will be divied up between 2 staves. It is up to you to decide, depending on the complexity of the musical material, whether 1st trumpet is alone on its staff, while 2nd and 3rd share the second staff, or whether you can allow the 1st and 2nd trumpets to share a single staff, while the 3rd trumpet gets its own staff. Whichever disposition you choose, stick to it from beginning to end.

Your trombones will be treated the same way, with trombones 1 and 2 on a single staff, and trombone 3 either alone on its staff, or sharing a single staff with the tuba.

If you are considering including a saxophone in the orchestra, it is best to think of the sax as a clarinet-auxilliary. Meaning that the instrument will generally be played by a clarinetist who also happens to specialize in saxophone. (It is rather rare for an orchestra to hire a pure saxophone soloist when a score calls for that instrument in a non-solo capacity, for instance Ravel’s Bolero, or Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances)


The percussion section causes us a bit of trouble, since it is far from being completely standardized. Generally, the timpani (kettle drums) are the top staff. Then any other “pitched” percussion instruments (glockenspiels, xylophone, bells, vibes, marimba, etc…), and then the non-pitched percussion, following more or less the “”highest to lowest” rule.

In an orchestral score, my own preference is for single staves for single instruments in the percussion section. Meaning that you would use a single line staff for each unpitched instrument, and a single regular staff for pitched percussion.

When writing for your percussion it is also important to understand the limitations that your performers must live with. Be aware that a percussionist needs time to move from one instrument to another, and to change from one type of beater to the next. Some of these changes can be relatively fluid and simple, while others require a bit more preparation. A large bass drum beater can be held in one hand while the tiny triangle stick is prepared in the other hand, however, to drop two xylophone sticks and pick up a pair of piatti within a very short period of time is more problematic. This is one of the reasons most large orchestral scores rely on multiple percussionists.

The very first thing you must know about percussion is: timpanists do not play other instruments. In the world of unions and classical symphony orchestras, the timpanist has become a sort of virtuoso of that single instrument. While most percussionists are able to play pretty much every instrument at their disposal, there is an unspoken rule (and actually, sometimes, it is a union-enforced rule) that timpanists play only timpani. An important note: this is only true in the magical surreal world of the classical symphony orchestra. This rule does not apply to chamber music involving percussion.

Which brings us to a very difficult part of score preparation: divying up the percussion part. The best way to do this is to print out ONLY your percussion parts as a sort of mini-score. From this temporary score you can then consider how many percussionists you will need.

Some important questions to ask yourself:

1. Do I need all the percussionists I have requested for the entire score?

2. Is there some way I could consolidate some of the percussion parts?

3. Am I using the percussionists in the most efficient manner possible?

You can then assign areas of the stage to your percussionists. You can generally assume that certain instruments will be in certain parts of the stage: generally, bass drum to the left, tam-tam somewhere towards center stage of that, large keyboard percussion (xylo, glock, marimba, vibes) will be lined up side by side. Some instruments can exist in multiple examples: you can insist on multiple snare drums, triangles, cymbals. However, for larger instruments it is best to consider the minimum number as the limit. If you require two different percussionists to perform on the same small instrument, it is best to indicate in the score that two (or more) of that instrument are called for, even if they are not meant to play at the same time.

You can now go through your percussion mini-score and assign numebrs to instruments, imagining the movements that must be made by the percussionists to access those instruments. Most large orchestras have at their disposal anywhere between three and seven percussionists. A safe number to start with is three (plus your timpanist).


The heart of the orchestra is the strings section, at least, so sayeth conventional wisdom (19th century wisdom). And the strings are also a very particular case. They are the only truly homogenous section of the orchestra. A phrase can move effortlessly from one instrument to another of that section, without the audience being any the wiser.

The string group generally is marked with a single large bracket, but with a curly brace for the 1st and 2nd violins, and another curly brace for the celli and basses.

Barlines, spacing, staff names, etc…

Barlines will be unbroken within a choir of the orchestra, however, they WILL be broken between the various choirs of the orchestra.

You should be ready to give more room between various staves, on a page by page basis, as the score requires. For example, you will often find that notes from your clarinet part and those from your bassoon part are conflicting. These are two instruments that happen to regularly have notes outside the staff. Therefore, you will more than likely find yourself often giving additional space between those two particular staves.

It is also considerably neater to create a slightly wider gap between the various choirs of the orchestra. Thus a larger space between the bassoons and the horns, between the tuba and the timpani, and between the lowest of your percussion and the 1st violins (who also happen to often find their parts playing in the high additional ledger lines).

It is obligatory to include EVERY instrument in the score on the first page of of your orchestral score, regardless of whether they have notes to play on the first page or not. While this is not a prerequisite for the percussion (you should simply include timpani and a single blank staff called “percussion” if no other percussion instruments play on that page).

However, staves, empty or otherwise, must be present for each woodwind, each brass, as well as harp(s) and strings.

Some scores will optimize out (ie: erase) staves that contain no music for multiple pages. It is a good idea to consider whether you want to follow this tradition and to what extent you will do so.

Generally I find scores that skip from page to page with different quantities of staves rather messy and difficult to read. As a conductor, you get used to a certain amount of space allotted to the various choirs of the orchestra.

If you have multiple pages in a row where the layout changes, it might be in your best interest to consider not optimizing out staves, or at least keeping certain groups of staves. For example, if one page has only strings with a horn staff, then the next only strings and a flute, then back and forth between those two layouts, you would be wiser to keep the blank flute and horn staves on the pages. In other words, your layout would be multiple pages of flute, horn and strings, with some pages having no notes on one staff or another.

A single page with only a few staves on it, between two pages of full orchestra, creates a rather confused look. You would also, in this case, be better off leaving a bunch of empty staves. At least the layout will be consistant.

Link to post
Share on other sites
Guest QcCowboy

Boom! Crash! Collisions…

Leave enough space horizontally so that the notes are not squished together, and so that accidentals do not collide with notes. However, be reasonable. Try to avoid a lay-out that is so spaced-out that you end up with only one or two measures per system with notes all spread out.

Leave enough space vertically so that extreme low notes, or extreme high notes in any staff do not create undue clutter with notational elements of adjacent staves. If the high notes of your bassoon are colliding with the hairpins below your clarinets, then you must give additional space ebtween those two staves.

It is imperative that notational elements do not collide. Slurs should not collide with notes, nor dynamics, nor ties. Likewise, nothing should collide with notes.

And accidentals should definitely not collide with notes or each other, or other elements of the score. It is best to sacrifice a page at the printers than to sacrifice clarity in your score. Better a 101-page long score that is readable, than a 50-page score that is gibberish.

Slurs, phrases, curvy lines and other pretty things

This is one notational element that gets mistreated in more scores than I can shake a conductor’s baton at.

Be aware that a slur (phrase marking) means something completely different for a wind player, a string player, and a keyboard player. For the keyboardist, it simply indicates the beginning and end of a phrase. It can imply a style of playing that is more legato, but this is not an absolute rule. It is, generally, a phrase indicator.

For the wind players, however, a slur indicates tonguing and breaths. With no slur over a phrase, the wind player will tongue every note (“tu tu tu tu tu… “), which gives a marked little accent to each note. This doesn’t necessarily create a staccato effect, but it is not a smooth legato. You will hear an attack on each note. Placing a slur over a number of notes normally indicates that those notes will either not be tongued or only very delicately be tongued. The phrase will be as smooth and legato as it can be. The length of a phrase you can realistically include under a single slur is dependant on the amount of breath a musician can supply. An instrument that requires more wind will be incapable of the lengthiest of slurred phrases, while an instrument that requires very little wind will be able to get away with considerably longer phrases.

For string players, much the same principle applies. A slur over notes indicates that a single bow stroke will encompass those notes. This is entirely dependant on the tempo of the music as well as the dynamic and length of the bow. When writing bowings in a string part, try to be realistic about the number of notes to be included in a single bow-stroke. Soft music gives you a tiny bit more leeway on slur lengths, as less presure on the bow means a tiny bit more bow length to play with. Loud music, conversely, will require more bow pressure and give you considerably less length of bow to play with.

Tied notes that end (or begin) a slurred phrase, require that the tip of the slur go from the first of any tied notes to the very last of any tied notes. This is an error I see far too often in scores. While this type of notation IS found too frequently in published scores, you should remember that many editions attempt to keep the composer's original notation as intact as possible. Most composers were NOT engravers, therefore, were often prone to make notational errors. Editors, meanwhile, were trapped between correcting obvious notational errors and respecting the integrity of the original manuscript. Regardless of any intent to respect which editors may have faced in the past, you as young composers have no excuse not to learn the correct notation for such a device.


While there are rules about the placement of slurs:

  1. a phrase with all stems up will have slurs beneath the notes
  2. a phrase with all stems down will have a slur above the notes
  3. a phrase with mixed stems (up and down) will always have the slur above the notes

there is a certain flexibility where clarity in your score is concerned. You may find that a phrase where the slur should be placed below the notes causes a conflict with a hairpin or other dynamic element. You may take a certain liberty, in this case, with the actual positioning of the slur.

Instruments where this sort of situation might arise include most bass instruments, and instruments that regularly cover a wide swath of space on the staff:

  • clarinets
  • bassoons
  • horns
  • tuba
  • violins
  • celli and basses

Which brings us to another notational bugaboo: hairpins. Some notation programmes allow for slanted hairpins. Don’t! Just say “no!”. Hairpins should be horizontal in all notation. If you find that the music is too tightly spaced to include a horizontal hairpin, then by all means! add space between the staves. This is part and parcel of the engraver’s work. Regularity of spacing is not a prerequisite. Enough space for notational elements, however, is!

Link to post
Share on other sites
This topic is now closed to further replies.
  • Create New...