Finale Blog: Ten Ways to Improve Your Notation

This weeks’ guest blogger is Jonathan Feist, editor in chief of Berklee Press.

Here are some tips to help you keep your notation looking polished and professional.

  1. Avoid collisions. Notation elements (e.g., slurs/notes, articulations/chord symbols, lyrics/dynamics, etc.) should almost never overlap. The effect is that they cross each other out. Give everyone some white space! This is particularly difficult with fingerings. Try to break the staff line only once, per numeral. Definitely, don’t let the horizontal line of a 2, 7, or 5 overlap a staff line.

    While the various Music Spacing functions (Utilities > Music Spacing…) clean up a lot of collisions, you sometimes have to nudge things a bit manually. You can use the Selection tool for most of these adjustments, zooming in at 200% or 400% while you are fine-tuning. The Special Tools palette can be a great ally for some of the more persnickety spacing issues. 

  2. Organize notation elements from specific to general. When trying to figure out where to set various notation elements, set specific items (articulations, lyrics) closest to the notes, and more general items farther away (chord symbols, repeats, tempos). For instance, chord symbols go below repeat ending brackets (closest to the notes) because they apply to a more localized region. But nothing should come between a note and its tie, which is intrinsic to its definition. Again, work from the inside out.
  3. Maintain narrative threads of like elements. For example, all the dynamics should relate to each other, being on the same line, and with consistent spacing between crescendo wedges and dynamic letters. A dynamic should be set either just left of or exactly centered with the first note where it begins. If you have any dynamics, set an initial dynamic in the first bar, to kick things off. Generally speaking, dynamics go
    below the staff
    and tempos go above (though there are exceptions…). 
  4. Set measure numbers, repeats, and tempo markings just once, above the top staff of each system. Redundant use of these elements often increases clutter rather than facilitates communication. For orchestral scores, you can repeat them once per instrument family. Except in special cases (such as film scores), set measure numbers just once at the beginning of each system, rather than every measure. (Set them above the top staff, in a multistaff score via Measure > Edit Measure Number Regions, using the handy checkboxes there that control this behavior.) 
  5. Omit obvious staff names. Staff names are only necessary in multi-instrument scores. If one instrument is piano, in a duo, set the instrument name in the page header, not next to the staves/group. Make sure the names make sense. If you only have one guitar part, you don’t need to label it “Electric Guitar” (which might appear automatically).  Just “Guitar” is fine, and less clutter. The staff of a piano/vocal score with lyrics doesn’t require the label “Voice” or “Soprano.”  That it is the vocalist’s staff is obvious, and what appears by default might not be what you actually mean. Also, if any instrument transposes, transposition names for all instruments should be present. Don’t have “Trumpet in Bb” and then “Horns.” The horn name should include “in F.”
  6. Use Expressions, not Text, for words associated with measures. Expressions will travel with the measure, if you readjust the layout. Text items stay in place on the page, which can lead to confusion/errors being introduced if they are not used properly.
  7. Align everything. Whenever you add a new element, consider what similar elements are on the page, and make sure that they align sensibly, to avoid a chaotic look. Every single element should feel deliberately located. The composer name should probably right-align with the rightmost barline of each system. The copyright notice should be centered, exactly aligned horizontally with the title. The bottom systems of all pages should rest on the same baseline. 
  8. Use easy-to-read fonts. Handwriting fonts (such as Jazz or Broadway Copyist) are fun, at a glance, but they require more effort to read than do the more classic fonts (such as Maestro). Also, in time, unusual fonts sometimes become hard to find or obsolete, which can complicate revised editions, years in the future. (Time goes by faster than you might expect….) Save your funky fonts for t-shirts and coffee mugs, and save them when you archive your project. 
  9. Even out bars per system. Try for a roughly similar number of measures per line, throughout, and bring in the right-hand margin if your last system must have fewer bars. Four is a nice, even number of bars, throughout, and it’s ideal for the layout to support the music’s phrasing and form, but physics don’t always permit this. It’s better to have three easy-to-read bars per line than four crushed-looking bars per line. You might start by using the Selection tool and Utilities > Fit Measures to do a basic layout for the whole score, and then make manual adjustments by clicking measures and using the Up and Down Arrow keys to move them around. You can also choose a region of the score (often, a section of the form) and apply Fit Measures just to those. 
  10. Facilitate easy page turns. Try to reduce the total number of pages in your score as best you can, and plan page turns in places where the music is relatively sparse and the musician might have a hand free, or can glance away without missing critical information.

Awkward notation makes the mechanics of performance more difficult, distracting musicians from their higher goal of creative expression, so as a Finale engraver, it is critical to know how to make all these adjustments. In my Berkleemusic online Finale course, while I spend a lot of time teaching “click this tool to do that,” my grander agenda is teaching the mindset that we consider the reader’s experience paramount. Then, we figure out how Finale can help us arrive at the clearest ways to render our ideas. Finale gives us incredible control over the minutia of notation, with so many great ways to make our scores easily readable. Mastering them will result in better performances. 

The next semester of Music Notation Using Finale begins January 14, 2013. I hope to see you there!

Jonathan Feist is editor in chief of Berklee Press, a publishing activity of Berklee College of Music. He teaches two online courses through Berkleemusic, Berklee’s online continuing education division: Music Notation Using Finale and Project Management for Musicians. He is author of the book Project Management for Musicians (Berklee Press, 2013) and editor of Finale: An Easy Guide to Music Notation 3rd edition (by Tom Rudolph and Vince Leonard, Berklee Press, 2012).   

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