Music Performance 361, Fall 2005: Introduction to Composition
Basic notational practice

Notation (and especially contemporary notation) could be a course in its own right; there are lots of subtleties involved, especially when you start to consider issues like the possible divergences between the "best way" and the "traditional way" of notating a particular idea. Ultimately notation is a part of personal style: what you say is inseparable from how you say it, and you'll want to choose notational strategies that reflect your particular compositional and musical values.

With that in mind, here are some starting guidelines, keyed particularly towards relatively traditional notation -- if you want to move "farther out" (perhaps following some of the works that Schwartz and Godfrey suggest, or that we'll be looking at in class) then some of these isssues may not apply.

Use pencil and paper (along with a ruler and eraser) as you compose.
- No tools are value-neutral, but pencil and paper don't make nearly as many stylistic assumptions as notation programs or sequencer software do. Take advantage of the flexibility, the ease of use, and the speed and spontaneity of pencil and paper. Train your ear and your imagination together (and avoid the temptation of thinking that your music sounds anything like the MIDI playback from a notation program).
Make your scores as legible as possible - your performers will thank you.
- Use a ruler to draw barlines, staff grouping lines, stems, beams, vertical lines in G and C clefs, etc., etc.
- Leave lots of white space, and skip a staff line in between systems of music.
- Space beats carefully: you can rule them off before you write in the music, and then erase your ruler marks afterwards.
- Place the instrument name to the left of every staff; begin every staff with a clef.
- Use manuscript paper with clean edges ( is one source where you can design and print your own; notation software is also very useful for this).
Specify your music carefully.
- Musicologists aren't explaining your particular compositional style in books and articles (at least, not yet) -- so the more information you can give your performers (and your teachers) about your intentions, the better. Dynamics and phrase markings, timbral indications, and adjectives (whether musicians' Italian or English) are all extremely helpful in communicating the effect you want. And tempo markings are essential -- a piece isn't finished until you've got one.
- If there are things that you deliberately want unspecified ("the performer is free to play any cluster chord here"), then you want to explain that in a note -- otherwise it may seem like you just forgot to include the unspecified element.
- Finally, one thing not to specify: don't use key signatures! Your thinking and your music will be much more flexible if you're not locked into a particular set of seven pitches. Just provide accidentals as you need them to get the pitches you want.