Music Notation Guide

These advanced instructions in alphabetical order are shared from the Indiana University standard instruction guide, Oscar van Dillon’s excellent blog on musical notation, and other sources. We have created a synopsis of these sources and added some elements of our own. ​Please study carefully the parts about beaming, meter, and rhythm, these elements are the parts most professionals do not master. The goal of transcribing perfectly is to eliminate confusion and invoke a beautiful performance of your music.

- Use accidentals for new octaves of same pitch class.

- Use a courtesy accidental for a natural pitch in a new bar, following the same pitch name in the previous bar with an accidental.


- Articulations should be placed on the note head side, and with the exception of the staccato mark should be placed outside the staff.

There is a wide variety of possible articulations, many of which can be notated. But as articulation depends not only on style but also on the musical instrument used, these articulations can greatly vary in practice. Even such basic articulations as staccato are very different in performance between for example a violin and a flute player, both classically trained. One should always check how certain players or types of players respond to certain articulation signs before prescribing these in a musical score.

Some examples of articulations are provided in the example below:
​In different styles, there are different attitudes as well towards notated articulation. Jazz performers are used to choosing most if not all articulations themselves, often on the spot, as improvised, even when they are written out exactly in the sheet music; leading to a lively performance for sure, though perhaps not as a composer originally intended. In Jazz big bands one can expect more discipline as to the exact performance of notated articulation, especially with regard to slurs and short or accented notes. When working with classically trained musicians on the other hand, one needs to always provide at least a minimum of notated articulation, or none at all will be performed: in this tradition, players don’t usually add their own articulations and are not used to improvising even these, unless they are soloists and performing as such. Especially string players that perform in sections need to coordinate their bowing, and will always change bowing direction when notes are not slurred. For this reason, at least the slurring of groups of notes into phrases can be recommended for string orchestras, because in this case (and only in this particular case: with string groups) it is true that adding slurs is almost mandatory, as writing them will always lead to a better and more coordinated performance, almost even independent of how the slurs are placed.

When providing articulation however, one should take care not to overburden the sheet music with too many signs and symbols, as this may lead performers’ attention away from the more essential structural elements of the music, such as phrasing and breath, and so as not to provoke unnecessary mistakes.


a) Use double barlines to indicate sudden changes of tempo - both isolated changes and strict tempo modulations (quarter = dotted quarter).

b) In some situations, it can be helpful to use (single) heavy barlines to indicate phrase divisions, or groupings of bars. An example would be in a fast piece conducted in one; a thick barline here and there relating to the musical phrasing will help players not get lost. 

c) do NOT follow the old practice of using double barlines at changes of meter.

d) barlines should break between choirs according to the large group bracketing.


Beaming Reinforces Meter.  A common error is beaming to show phrasing instead of meter.  Articulations alone can serve this purpose.  Cross-bar beaming is not uncommon in solo music, but adds unnecessary difficulties to large ensemble writing.
When writing or typesetting music notation, great care has to be taken to make the beams that touch each stem point in the proper direction, which can be either left or right. The preferred direction follows from the rhythmical grouping, where each group or subgroup is made into a visible unit by means of the value flags from the first note onwards all pointing to the right (reading direction), whereas the last one to close the group points left, backwards, to indicated its belonging to the prior notes. Any note following a beam pointing left should be on a beat or subbeat.
A further refinement in beaming is possible to be able to visually group the rhythm notated by breaking beams under a common 1/8 beam, thus clearly showing the subdivision of each beat.
It is also possible to beam across staves, see below under directions of no testems.


For orchestra: bracket each choir (woodwinds, brass, percussion [not timpani, piano, harp], strings); secondary brackets on like instruments (flutes, trumpets, violins, etc.); third level brackets for violin divisi.



For trumpet and trombone, specific mute indications should be used: st. mute, harmon mute, cup mute, etc. 
Muting should be cancelled with "open." (Leave "senza sord." for the strings, unless you are going to translate 'straight,' 'harmon,' and 'cup' into Italian as well - inadvisable.)

Harmon mute: at first occurrence, indicate either a) stem in, b) stem extended, or c) stem removed.
Mute reminders should be placed on all left side score pages, Generally use abbeviations placed either just below abbreviated staff name, or above the staff, using parentheses.  See STAFF NAMES

Legato groups of notes played without rearticulating with the tongue. If you feel you must indicate phrasing, use dotted slurs.

Multiple instruments per staff for brass is allowed, provided the music is very easy to read. Passages that are at all complex should be divided into separate staves for each instrument.

CUES (for parts)

Generally, include a cue if an instrument is resting for more than 10 bars. Beyond true 'cues' that insert other instruments' music, one can also include 'cues' that help a player through a long rest by indicating prominent changes of texture: "brass", or "flute solo", at the start of multi-measure rests, for example.


As seen in the basic forms of notes, those symbols with a notestem have two versions: one with the notestem upwards, one with the notestem downwards. The proper direction of the notestem depends on several circumstances:

1. The position of the single notehead (with 1/2 and 1/4 notes): only on the the third line of the staff one can choose freely, but should still sometimes take some care at producing a logical sequence of notes, depending on the grouping; noteheads below the third line have stems directing upwards, noteheads above the third line have stems directing downwards (bars 1 and 2)

2. When the average of the beamed group is neither above nor below the third line, one can freely choose in which direction the stems should point. (bar 3)

3. In more complex groups of notes connected with beams, the amount of “upwardness” of “downwardness” of all the noteheads is calculated per group; when on average below the third line, stems go up, and when on average above the third line, stems go down; (bars 4 and 5)
In staff systems performed by one player, it may be desirable to improve legibility by connecting rhythmic groups between registers in a single group beaming, connecting notes across staves. This is called cross staff beaming and is shown in the example below, containing piano notation.
The first bar is the best practical notation, as the path the eye needs to follow to read all the information, is more or less in the middle of the notation. In this first bar, the stem directions vary per register group, which for the piano player means: different for each of his hands. In the other two bars, a more extreme approach makes it harder to see the beams and the tones at a glance. In different situations, composers and publishers may need to choose between such options.

Note that all these bars also have partial beam breaks through the 32nd beam line, in the middle of the rhythmic figure, visually supporting the grouping. In the first bar, where there are different stem directions within a group, the third beam is therefore added to different sides (upper or lower).


One common hallmark of the amateur arranger is a lack of information. Ensembles — especially the players in the huge symphony you’re writing for — need some very specific instructions in order to play consistently. How would you play this music without any direction?
Adding accents, staccato dots, and other markings make it much easier to interpret:



Tempos: large enough to be easily read by a conductor from 3 feet away from score. (Generally, 18-24 point works well, depending on the page reduction level)


Principal tempo indications are capitalized: Adagio, Moderato, Allegro, Tempo I, Fast, Slow,...
Tempo qualifications and changes are not capitalized: a poco a poco, assai, molto, meno, little by little, accelerando, a tempo, ritardando, più mosso, rubato, stringendo,slowing, quickening,...


Less common foreign language terms should be italicized, but many words commonly used in music scores need not be italicized, including: pizz., arco, div., unis., a tempo, etc.


Use measure numbers well, preferably in the following four ways:

a) At the start of every system (not enclosed, unless the measure number also serves as a rehearsal landmark)

b) At structural points and/or rehearsal landmarks. Rather than letters (which is also acceptable), using the actual
measure number, preferably in a larger font and/or in an enclosure, is the best way to indicate rehearsal landmarks. Just one counting system to deal with, and rehearsal spots are quickly found.

NOTE: ALL PLAYERS should have these numbers, so make sure to break multi measure rests at these points.

Additionally, for parts:

c) At barlines following all multi-measure rests.

d) Sprinkled liberally throughout the part, especially toward the right side of systems, where it might take some time counting to find certain bars in rehearsal. After a part is edited and formatted, go through it once, adding measure numbers where appropriate.

WARNING: Never use the system of placing measure numbers every 5 or 10 bars. This breaks up multi-measure rests into un-musical divisions.

ALSO: It is acceptable in large ensemble scores to place a measure number below every measure (not in the parts, though).


Metric considerations.  There are three categories of meters:

1. Simple meters.  Beats naturally divide into two divisions (e.g., 4/4).

2. Compound meters.  Dotted note beats naturally divide into three divisions (e.g., 6/8).

3. Complex meters.  Beats divide unevenly, into a combination of two, three (or four) units (e.g., 5/8) or asymmetrically (e.g., 2/4+3/16)

Some meters are more comfortable for most players than others.  Remember the following rule: rhythms will be performed more accurately and confidently in familiar time signatures.  When orchestrating a piece that uses unfamiliar meters, consider converting to more common ones.  Contemporary musicians are most familiar with simple meters that have quarter note beats (3/4, 4/4, etc.) and compound meters with dotted quarter note beats (6/8, 9/8, etc.).  Though complex meters in Western music are less familiar than simple or compound ones, they are often necessary, and are most easily read when the denominator is 8 (5/8, 7/8, 11/8, etc.)  If the option exists, make reading music as easy as possible—use familiar time signatures.

Dividing Complex Meters.  Since the beat value of complex meters is not consistent, the division of all measures must be immediately evident to the conductor and all players.  If not, rehearsal time will undoubtedly be wasted as this information is communicated verbally to the ensemble.  There are several ways to clearly delineate this information:

1. Performance Note.  If the complex meter is always divided in the same way, make some kind of note about this (e.g., all 5/8 measure are divided 2+3).

2. Rhythmic Notation.  The rhythmic notation should always reinforce the metric divisions.  Some correctly notated rhythms are inherently ambiguous, and must be combined with numeric delineation.
3. Numeric Delineations.  If a 7/8 measure, divided 3+2+2, is followed by a 2+3+2 construction, simply write the divisions on the manuscript.

4. Rest Delineations.  Though whole rests normally fill full measures of rest in any meter, empty bars in complex meters may print rests to show the beat divisions. 
Changing Meters/Metric Modulation.  When switching between meter types (simple, compound, and/or complex), the relationship between beats must be clear.  Markings such as (eighth note = eighth note) show that the eighth note stays constant.  Tempo modulation (or Metric modulation), shown by markings like (quarter note = quarter note) indicate that the beat stays the same, but its division changes.  A thin double barline should always accompany a metric modulation.  The parenthetical tempo markings below are included to reinforce the tempo relationships. 
​Meters With Too Many or Too Few Beats.  Use Meters of 2, 3, 4 beats for the most part. Sometimes 5 or 6. Avoid large meters of 7, 8, 9, or more beats in a bar. These are usually broken down into twos and threes anyway, and the downbeat is easily confused. Players sometimes get lost when following a conductor through measures with seven or more beats.  Consider dividing the measure with a dotted barline or splitting these into two separate bars.  This technique may be helpful for five-beat bars as well.  One-beat measures can be problematic as well; grouping two bars together may be easier to read. If you can't resist your inner Beethoven and are writing music "in 1", consider using thicker bar lines to mark phrase divisions - this helps avoid players getting lost.

Scores to be conducted MUST be sized so that the music can be read from 3 feet away. It should be expected that for orchestra and other large ensembles, system to system vertical spacing adjustment will be necessary to avoid collisions. It is NOT acceptable to size the music extremely small, with large spans between staves simply to avoid all collisions in one fell swoop. On the other hand, do not size the music too large; this leads to scores with many unnecessary page turns and makes phrasing and musical flow hard to follow.


Format all scores and parts in PORTRAIT Orientation. This is the professional publishing standard. Sometimes composers use landscape because they think it fits the ensemble size better; in such cases, composers should simply format for two or more systems on each page. Landscape scores fall off stands, necessitate unwieldy, even theatrical page turns, often require two stands, and simply look unprofessional. Remember that once a portrait-oriented score is opened, it is wider than it is tall, so opening a landscape score makes for a doubly wide document. 

NOTE: Composing on landscape manuscript paper (11x17) is a different matter and highly recommended - just don't 'engrave' your final scores in that format!


Score optimization should be used only in certain circumstances, like when doing so will allow two or more systems on one page. You should NOT optimize every page as a matter of course, as this can create too many irregularities from page to page, making scores difficult to read.


- Bind all scores and parts properly. If you can print on 13x20, fold and staple. Absolutely never hand out loose sheets that can easily fall off stands, or get out of order.

- Best for parts and thin scores (if large paper, like 13x20 is available): folded and stapled in center. Get a large stapler to make this easy.

- Best for thick scores: Coil. Note - buy coils that are long enough. 

- Good: Tape. Works for parts, rarely for scores. Use a flexible tape, like medical tape or duct tape (!). You can buy a "tape binder," but they are expensive. You can also learn to stack the pages, sort of bend them back and forth to fan the pages out, lay down on flat surface, and tape. The fanning out makes the tape reach each page. Also, this should be done so that the next page that needs to be turned is sticking out a bit.

- Plan page turns carefully, on odd-numbered pages, starting with 1. While in RARE cases it might make sense to start a part on the left side page, with the first page turn on 2, this should be avoided in preference for the professional publishing standard of a right hand page start. There is no reason to begin a score with a left page.

1) Page Turns are more important than saving paper. Plan page turns where there is plenty of time, even if it means      having just a couple of systems on a page.

2) Instrumentalists should not have to play immediately following a page turn. In other words, try to have bars of rest      either side of a turn. (No surprises!)

3) Place a warning (V.S.) when a quick page turn is necessary.


Reminders should be placed on all left side score pages, so conductors don't need to flip back through the score to figure out what instruments are being played. Generally use abbeviations placed either just below abbreviated staff name, or above the staff (using parentheses in that case).  See STAFF NAMES.

A list of all percussion instruments used in the work should be included in the score on the instrumentation page and at the start of the percussion part. If appropriate, a set-up diagram should be included. However, do not rely on players and conductors memorizing this - be sure to indicate changes of instruments where they occur in the music.

Drum Set Notation:

Alternate staves with fewer lines are acceptable, especially if that part only uses one or two instruments. When writing a part with multiple instruments and fast changes (or simultaneous use of different instruments) it is best to use a regular five line staff to avoid frequent staff changes.


For orchestra: at minimum, at top of score and above string section; possibly above brass and above percussion as well, depending on size of the orchestra. For band: top of score, above brass, above percussion.


Rehearsal landmarks, using measure numbers or letters, should be included at frequent intervals, usually about every 10 bars.


While there are often multiple ways to beam and group given rhythms, some solutions are easier to read than others.  Incorrect rhythmic notation greatly increases the risk of misplayed rhythms, and is one of the “deadliest” errors made by young orchestrators. 

Show Me The Beats!  It is useful to think of “levels” of metrical hierarchy when notating rhythm. For example, in 4/4 time, events that happen on the half-note level (beats 1 or 3) are one metrical level higher than events on the quarter-note level (beats 2 and 4). One level lower is the eighth-note (events which occur on the “and” of the beat), further divided into the 16th-note level (events which occur on the 2nd or 4th sixteenth note of a quarter-note beat).   If a note begins or ends on a level two degrees lower than a beat through which it sustains, the note should be divided, with a tie used to show the higher level beat.  Observe the examples below.

​​Rests Reinforce Meter.  Rests notation follows the same stipulations as notes with a few additional considerations.  In a three beat measure, avoid the use of a rest equaling two beats in duration (ex. avoid half rests in 3/4).  In measures with four beats, beat 3 must usually be shown, so use a half rest to cover beats 1 and 2 or 3 and 4, but two quarter note rests for beats 2 and 3.  Whole rests are used to cover a full measure in ANY meter (with the single exception of rest delineations in complex meters, as described above.)  
Augmentation Dots.  Dotted rests at the beat level or higher should be reserved for compound meters.  For example, dotted quarter rests should not appear in a measure of 2/4.  Rests at the division or subdivision level may be dotted (i.e. dotted eighth rests in 2/4 are actually clearer than writing an eighth rest followed by a sixteenth rest).  Dotted notes are fine, as long as they emphasize the meter, and don’t break any of the rules above.  Double dotted notes and rests are confusing, often misplayed, and should be avoided.
Thirty-Second Notes.  If a piece requires frequent thirty-second notes, consider doubling the note values (ex. thirty-second notes in 4/8 become sixteenths in 4/4).  In the example below, the first measure shows a written rhythm, the second bar includes a common misinterpretation, and the final measure demonstrates a foolproof alternative notation.


Avoid using "simile"  -- this weakens the visual character of your score and creates ambiguity regarding how long the "simile" is in effect. Articulations, dynamics, slurring and hairpins are easily copied independent from pitches. Redundant markings are not distractions, but welcome reinforcements.


Finale "staff styles" (or the Sibelius equivalent) should be used as extensively as possible to indicate the prevailing instrumentation as the instruments are listed in the left margin of every score page. These are absolutely necessary for instrument doublings (eg., Fl/Picc., Piano/Celesta). These may also be used to indicate the prevailing mute situation, extended pizzicato passages, and percussion instrumentation.

Suggested abbreviations:  Picc., Fl., Ob., E.Hn., Cl., Bcl., Bn., Hn., Tp., Trb., Btrb., Tba., Timp., Pc., Hp., Pn., Vn., Va., Vc., Cb.



- Div. = section divided; unis. cancels the divisi. 

- Tutti follows indications for partial section playing, like solo, soli, or la metà.

- Non divisi and/or brackets should be use to indicate undivided multiple stops.

- The divisi situation should always be indicated with div., div. a3, etc. near abbreviated staff names or group names.  

- Divisi sections that are at all complex should be divided into separate staves for each line. Block chord long tones can remain on one staff; divisi in rhythmic counterpoint or with fast moving lines should be separated in both score and part.


a) Use metronome speeds for tempo indications (not simply "Allegro"). These should be either clear directions for a new tempo (no parentheses) or reminders/clarifications of a tempo (with parentheses, as when associated with a "Tempo I" indication).   

b) Horizontal placement: The left edge of the tempo indication should align with the left edge of the meter, or the first notational element.

c) Use only one number, not a range, unless the tempo is supposed to be in flux, speeding up and slowing down within a range.
NOTE: Neither a or c overly restrict players, who, as human beings, will approximate tempo, and vary as necessary depending on the situation (acoustics, etc.). Giving precise tempo indications is particularly important in works with a variety of tempi, as the relationship between different tempi is then clear. Musicians will appreciate the clarity of intent.

d) Use numbers found on analog metronomes:40, 42, 44, 46, 48, 50, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, 63, 66, 69, 72, 76, 80, 84, 88, 92, 96, 100, 104, 108, 112, 116, 120, 126, 132, 138, 144, 152, 160, 168, 176, 184, 192, 200, 208; musicians are familiar with these tempi. Avoid speeds like 113, unless a precise tempo modulation gets you to that somehow.

e) Express tempo and meter in terms of the duration that will be conducted or felt as the pulse. 
Exception: when the meter doesn't clearly express the pulse (5/8, 6/8, 7/8, etc. conducted or pulsed in quarters and dotted quarters.)


The recently coined term “tuplets” refers to irregular subdivisions of metrical units; triplets and sextuplets are the most familiar.  Always grouped by either a beam or a bracket, the amount of notes per unit must be shown with a number.  There has been some debate about the “correct” way to notate tuplets.  Some feel that they speed up a note value, while others argue they slow it down.  For example, beat-long quintuplets in 12/8 have been notated as five quickened eighth notes or five slowed down sixteenths; more recently, as in the music of Elliott Carter or Oliver Knussen, this quintuplet is written as five dotted sixteenths, which is the most accurate representation. If the beat unit being divided is in any way ambiguous, it is recommended that a ratio (5:3) or an equation (5 = [dotted quarter]) be given. 
Duplets and quadruplets can cause confusion as well, especially in large ensemble situations, and there are many good reasons why they should be forever replaced by actual non-tuplet dotted notes; a dotted half divides perfectly into two dotted quarters and four dotted eighths, with no tuplets required. 
All tuplets should be easily read.  There is not complete agreement on a rule to handle all tuplets, but in general:
- use square brackets if a bracket is needed, as when the tuplet begins or ends with a rest.  [Do not use slurs for tuplets.]

- place the tuplet number outside staff.

- do not allow a tuplet to separate a note head and its articulation.

- avoid cluttering up the note head side (articulation must be on note head side; adding slurs and tuplets there can create problems).
Possible 'systems' to follow, advocated variously at IU (consult your chair for preferences):
1. tuplets always on stem (or beam) side.
2. tuplets always above.
3. varied, according to the situation, choice made for maximal clarity.
In any case, the notation should be clear and consistent, and have no collisions.


Slurs = legato groups of notes played without rearticulating with the tongue. If you feel you must indicate phrasing, use dotted slurs.
Multiple instruments per staff for winds is allowed, provided the music is very easy to read. Passages that are at all complex should be divided into separate staves for each instrument.


Read, Gardner. Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice. Second Edition. Boston : Crescendo Publishers, 1969. (paperback edition: New York : Taplinger Publishing Company, 1979)

Stone, Kurt. Music Notation in the Twentieth Century: A Practical Guidebook. New York : W. W. Norton, 1980. (Based on the International Conference on New Music Notation in 1974.)

Weinberg, Norman. Guide to Standardized Drumset Notation. Lawton: Percussive Arts Society, 1998.
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