How To Format In 10 Easy Steps

“When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment, we have no compass to govern us, nor can we know distinctly to what port to steer.”

-Edmund Burke


I’ve got a few pet peeves. Everyone does. It bugs me when drummers leave their snares on during long tacet sections. I think a beautiful fermata at the end of a chart doesn’t need every single horn player arpeggiating and embellishing their note. I find it truly offensive when guitar players noodle during rehearsal… You know who you are.


But my worst pet peeves all deal with formatting music. Since a poorly formatted part can mark the difference between a chart being easily sight read and being completely unplayable, I thought it would be useful to take a look at some of the most common errors.


Now I don’t normally do top 10 lists, but I feel like setting a few rules down in stone could help me run into fewer headaches down the road, so here we go…



#1 Don’t hide big downbeats. Especially beat 3.


This should be every serious arranger’s mantra. A simple, mundane rhythm can easily turn into the most foreign, perplexing figure without clear downbeats. Unfortunately, I still run into this mistake time and time again.


When I say to show the downbeats, I really mean that there should be either a note or a rest on nearly every downbeat, but especially on beat 3 (when in 4/4). The following is an example of a hidden downbeat passage:


And this is how I fixed it to be more readable:


Beats 2 and 4 can be hidden with half notes or half rests. Obviously, a whole note is perfectly acceptable. Another rhythm that tends to work perfectly is a quarter note followed by a half note, and then another quarter note:


It gets even more important to show downbeats when there’s a sixteenth note subdivision. Here’s another example of a simple rhythm made complicated:


And a much more sight-readable edit:


When there’s a complex time signature (6/8, 7/8, 12/8, etc.) the same rules apply. In 12/8, show beats 4, 7, and 10. In 5/8, 7/8, 11/8, etc. your downbeats should reflect the subdivision. For example, the following passage is in 7/8 with a 3+2+2 subdivision:


The left hand is clearly 3+4, but the right hand is too ambiguous:


If there is any question of the subdivision (which can be the case in highly syncopated pieces), it helps to simply write it out on top of the measure (see rules #3 and #4). This is especially true in a piece that maintains the same time signature but switches feels (i.e. a 5/8 chart that alternates between 2+3 and 3+2).


One hidden downbeat almost always equals one measure that won’t be read correctly.


#2 Give as little information as possible


Music should always be clearly notated, but the less information on the page, the easier it is to for the musician to process. Sometimes trills, dynamic markings, tempo changes, and style feels show up all at once in the same measure. But more often than not, simple notes and rhythms can become painfully obscure when there’s simply too much ink on the page.


This is something I’ve actually run into before in a professional arrangement:


And how to fix it:


This isn’t the only solution, but taking out all of those sixteenth rests helps the reader find the downbeats (see rule #1).


Don’t be concerned that I’ve altered the length of notes. As a young student I was taught that a staccato marking cuts the length of a note in half, but in practice the two examples above will be performed the same every single time (except that the second one will be sight read correctly).


Here’s another example of simplifying notation to give less information and a greater chance of success:


The above passage is just two bars repeated, so why not just write it out that way:


*Note: I would never use the two-bar repeat notation if it was only repeated a couple of times (see rule #5).


Although the repeat bars are an improvement (and will save paper when printing out the part), I’ve personally begun to prefer the following method of notation:


This is not the formal way to use slashes, but it gets the point across clearly. Numbering every other bar will not only let the drummer get his head out of the chart, but it saves a lot of space on the page. Now, if I add an ensemble hit on the part, it sticks out and becomes a very simple read:


A clean part is an easy part. The less ink on the page, the better.


#3 Put everything the musicians need to know right in front of them


One of our goals as a practical arranger is to bring in a chart, put the music in front of the band, count it off, and have them play it nearly perfectly by the second reading. We should avoid any amount of dialogue. Put everything from style to articulation right in front of the band.


I generally don’t like to overwrite articulations unless I’m dealing with student music (since they need much more guidance than professional players). That being said, some ambiguities exist that always need clarification. Quarter notes in swing charts are one of them:


A couple measures like this will almost always lead to the question “Are these quarter notes short?” Truth be told, there’s no way of knowing whether they’re legato or marcato. Experienced bands will have standard ways to treat these phrases, but a studio band thrown together may not. And it may take a few readings for the lead players to decide for themselves and relay the information to the section.


All of this can be avoiding with just a few keystrokes:


I don’t need to mark that the first eighth note is long, nor do I need to mark the last quarter note short and fat. Conventional players will already recognize these clichés and play them accordingly. Plus, I don’t want to over mark the parts (see rule #2).


How about this situation:


A jazz drummer might interpret the hi-hat notation as the pedal, while a rock drummer would interpret it as sticks on a closed hi-hat. A little bit of language will pre-empt any questions:


Which leads us to the next rule:


#4 When in doubt, use words


This is somehow so easy for us to forget. In a world of precise notation and a library of Italian phrases, sometimes all we need is some plain English (or whatever your primary language is).


If you want a soloist to use multiphonics, just write it on the part. If you want a guitar riff to sound like Led Zeppelin, write “a la Jimmy Page”. A few simple words can be much clearer than an overwhelming amount of notation (see rule #2).


I find words to be most effective on drum parts (both orchestral percussion and drum set music). The clearest way to notate a choked cymbal is often the word “choke”. The simplest way to notate a china cymbal are the words “china” above the notehead.


#5 Avoid codas and repeats. Keep the musician’s eyes moving left to right, up to down.


This is a rule of thumb that must be broken every now and again. That being said, musicians train for years to keep their eyes moving ahead in the same direction. Every time you write a repeat, D.S., D.C., or coda, you’re asking them to go against their naturally trained instinct. Of course we all have experience dealing with these notations, but it just takes one member of a band to train wreck a D.S. al coda.


As an aside, there’s a right and a wrong way to notate codas. When you do need to use them, it helps to have a big visual cue. That cue, more often than not, is space. Look at the following example:


Not only is the coda indented, it’s on an entirely different page. Finding that jump is made so much easier by not sticking it in the middle of a system.


If you want all the music on one page, a simple indentation can help:



Likewise, when creating a 2nd ending in a repeat, use a new system. Musicians’ eyes should never have to leap far. Putting the 2nd ending on a new system allows the reader to just jump down casually, not dart around:


This leads to the next rule:


#6 Keep double bar lines and rehearsal letters near the left side of the page.


This isn’t always possible, but it helps for three reasons. The first is that it’s easier to get a band back to the same spot if they get off during rehearsal. Shouting out a letter is useless if it takes them 5 bars to find it.


The second is that it will help to clearly format parts. Most musical sections are 8 bars long. Most phrases are 4 bars long. Since double bar lines and rehearsal marks usually accompany the starts of phrases, it keeps the musical line together. A 5 bar phrase of music should stay together just as much as a 4 bar phrase. It helps not only readability, but execution.


The third is that it creates more space. If you format your parts with the key signature on every system (and I hope you do –see rule #3), there’s always room to move the rehearsal letter/number around to make room for dynamic marks or ledger lines that might otherwise get in the way.


This is a simple rule to keep, and it tends to really improve readability. Some good exceptions to the rule are pieces that have strange phrase lengths or that start phrases with pick up bars:


*Note: The above example breaks rule #2 by using too many cautionary accidentals and rule #7 by being inconsistent in how they are notated (one in parenthesis and the rest without).


Another key exception to rule #6 is in order to reduce the number of pages on a part (see rule #11).


#7 Be consistent within a single chart.


Since you won’t be using lots of codas or repeats (see rule #5), you’ll have to rewrite your themes a few times. Every time one comes back, make sure it looks the same way.


Don’t use a G# the first time and an Ab the second time. Don’t write Moderato the first time and q = 120 the second time. This is even true of formatting. If you break up the 9 bar phrase with 5 bars on one system and 4 bars on the second system, do it the same way every time that phrase reappears.


Musicians will more easily recognize the reoccurrence of themes if they look exactly the same every time. Humans are visual creatures, and recognizing visual patterns are far easier than discerning them using intellectual and aural receptors.


#8 Never write an eighth note on a downbeat unless you’re in 6/8, 9/8, etc.


This infuriates me to no end. Write a quarter note with a staccato or marcato accent. Simple rhythms can become painful thanks to that extra eighth rest you’ve just created (see rule #2):


Every time I see this I cry a little. Just write it this way:


As an aside, I have seen examples of eighth notes on downbeats in classical literature, especially if the performer is subdividing to the eighth note. However, music notation has grown and changed much over the past hundred years, and I feel strongly that this is one rule worth standing by 95% of the time.


#9 Sharps ascend and flats descend in chromatic sections, but not in modal or scalar sections.


Enharmonic notation can give clues to the performer. A#s tend to resolve to Bs. Ebs tend to resolve down to Ds. These visual cues can help especially with keyboardists or woodwind players who need to use certain fingerings to get through a passage.


The following example is made difficult by its mix of notation:


And simplified here:


The Db at the end of the first bar could have stayed, but it hides the major third relationship with the A that follows (see rule #10).


When writing within a particular mode, however, it’s more important to be consistent with which enharmonic is on the page (see rule #7):


The above whole tone example is confusing with the mix of flats and sharps -especially the penultimate bar, which includes both a Db and a C#. Using all sharps is one way to alleviate the problem:


Alternatively, a mix of sharps and flats can be used (just be consistent!):



#10 Make 3rds look like 3rds and scales look like scales.


Musicians practice 3rdsand scales all day long, year after year, come rain or come shine. There’s no reason to hide it from them:


The previous example hides the 3rd relationship in the second bar and obscures a basic A major triad:


The same holds true for scalar passages:


A simple F dorian is hidden with a perplexing mix of accidentals:


The C# at the end of the phrase remains there to accentuate the implied resolution to A major. Using a Db would simply obscure the 3rd relationship.


The same rule holds true for vertical chords:


The inconsistency of sharps and flats (see rule #9) hide a simple progression of C#9 – F#7alt/C – Bminmaj7:


*Note: Writing the chord symbols above the voicing would make things clearer to a point (see rule #4). Just don’t break rule #2 by writing too many needless chord symbols.


And finally…


#11 Horns need to breathe, drummers can’t turn pages, and pianists only have two hands.


Try as I might, I couldn’t keep the list at 10. This final rule is important, but often overlooked. A composer can’t shrug off a physical impossibility in the hopes that the performer will just “figure something out”. That’s our job, not theirs.


At moderate tempos, always give horn players at least one beat to breathe every 6 bars. 4 bars are ideal, especially for students.

*UPDATE: To clarify, this depends largely on the ensemble. Orchestral musicians are not only trained to sustain notes for longer periods than jazz and rock horns, but they are playing at softer volumes (which requires less air).


Give brass players two bars to put a mute in and one bar to take it out at minimum. They can do it quicker, but don’t expect them to nail it every time.


Doublers need ample time to switch instruments. In extreme cases, only one bar can be enough, but around four measures at a medium tempo gives more leeway. Since saxophones are the only woodwinds strapped around the neck, it’s always easier to switch from saxophone to flute/clarinet/etc. than to switch back to saxophone.


Try to keep rhythm section parts as short as possible. If you can only fit the music on 7 pages, try to find a spot for them to turn pages halfway through. For example, if the piano goes to one hand for four bars midway through page 3, try to reformat those bars at the bottom of the page instead (or the top of the next page). This frees up one hand for the page turn.


Sometimes the best solution is to create repeat signs that only apply to the rhythm players and not the voice, horns, or anyone else. This usually involves creating two files for a score –one that’s just for rhythm, and one for everyone else. Taking a small amount of time for the performers will make their lives immensely easier. Be sure to mark rehearsal letters accordingly to avoid confusion.


Read through each part before printing. Imagine being the performer and dealing with the challenges you’ve laid before them. Are they reasonable challenges? Is there a way to make them easier without taking away from the musicality of the piece? I generally prefer practicality over virtuosity.


Unless you know the musicians in the ensemble intimately, don’t assume that they can perform super-human feats.


So in conclusion:


1) Don’t hide big downbeats. Especially beat 3.


2) Give as little information as possible.


3) Put everything the musicians need to know right in front of them.


4) When in doubt, use words.


5) Avoid codas and repeats. Keep the musician’s eyes moving left to right, up to down.


6) Keep double barlines and rehearsal letters near the left side of the page.


7) Be consistent within a single chart.


8) Never write an eighth note on a downbeat unless you’re in 6/8, 9/8, etc…


9) Sharps ascend and flats descend in chromatic sections, but not in modal or scalar sections.


10) Make 3rds look like 3rds and scales look like scales.


11) Horns need to breathe, drummers can’t turn pages, and pianists only have two hands.


Follow these simple rules and you’ll be golden.

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