Balancing Part Layouts for Better Readability

This post explores a couple of ways to redistribute your music notation on the page for better balance and readability.  Regardless of the notation program use, hopefully these tips will help you improve the presentation of your music, and help your musicians in the process.

A common approach to preparing part layouts for commercial music I see fairly often is some variation of the same number of bars on each system. This system evolved back in the days of hand copying for commercial music, where “advancing the layout” would allow copyists to reuse a master template to copy notes into. However, modern computer notation software has effectively changed the chronological order of music engraving processes. We have the freedom to finesse the layouts as a final step, if we want.

Well-prepared parts by music publishers tend to balance the look of parts by balancing the number of events per system, rather than casting off a fixed number of bars.

Let’s dig a little deeper into what makes for a well-balanced part layout.

Here is a typical example for a commercial recording, where the notation program has magically provided a layout:

Note that the last system has only two note events in it, vs. the top system which has eleven note events.  If you look at the systems in terms of total in-staff objects, the top staff has 25 note, rest and dynamic events while the bottom system has 7.

Another thing that sticks out to me in above layout is that several of the tied notes appear across two systems. If everything else about the layout was perfect, there would be no problem with this. However, since the layout needs to be changed anyway, it presents us with an opportunity for a subtle improvement in layout clarity.

A tied note is technically one performance event, displayed as several connected events. So, unless there are punctuation constraints preventing it in the layout, why not place them sequentially on the same systems, so they appear as clear, grouped events for the reader?

Here is a layout with a better distribution of total events in each system, which also consolidates the tied notes on each system:

You’ll notice that I also changed the text crescendo marks to hairpins. The reason for this is visual clarity. The original score had two different ways to express the crescendos, adding, in my opinion, visual noise.  It is important to try to use consistent visual signposts which represent the same instruction. If you can simplify, and get the same point across, do so. With consistent hairpins rather than a mix of text and shapes expressing the same thing, the player will have less visual clutter to process.

Here is another layout example, where the first system has many fewer “events” in it than the second:

Since this particular part is 44 bars total, there is plenty of available room on the page, so we can redistribute this much of the layout from two to three systems, providing a more balanced look:

Note that I also consolidated the multi-rest starting in bar 16. First, because there is a Horn cue provided for orientation, and secondly, because if the phrasing of the score is not actually 8+2, this could be potentially more confusing than helpful for the player. If the piece is a pop chart, then the phrasing is usually symmetrical, however, music which is scored to picture very often has uneven phrase lengths to match media, so don’t be tempted to break multi rests automatically into even groupings if there is no clear or helpful purpose to do so.

There is quite a bit more to this topic, but hopefully this much has been helpful.

for Landon Ashby

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