The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Score Design

Let’s take a brief break from talk about finances, and discuss something slightly more aesthetic this week, shall we?

One of my major hobby horses is the quality of engraving in a score, which I’ve written about before, and I’ll write about again in more depth in the coming weeks. This week, I’d like to take a slightly wider view, and talk about the quality of a score as a whole.

For those of you who have bravely (and smartly) decided to publish your own works, you’ll do well to view your scores as a whole product comprised of several key elements: the engraved music, the physical materials, the visual design, and the non-score inside matter.

The score itself, obviously, should be well-engraved. The purpose of your score is to communicate to performers what you want them to play, and when and how you want them to play it. Proper, clear engraving facilitates that communication, and offers a clarity of expression that a messy or unclear score couldn’t possibly hope to attain.

While some see engraving as drudgery that takes time away from the creation of actual music, I’ve come to view it as a highly artistic part of my process. By making sure that my scores have proper spacing between notes and staves and systems; by avoiding collisions between slurs, accidentals, noteheads, etc; and by making sure that my dynamic and expressive markings are clear and well-placed, I know that I’m allowing the performer to exercise her own artistry much earlier in the rehearsal process, making for a much freer and more intimate and personal performance. She doesn’t have to wonder, “What does he mean here,” or, “How loud should I be,” or “Wait, is that a mistake?” Instead, the score tells her clearly what I want – without being too fussy, of course – so that she can get to the part where she starts interpreting and being expressive much sooner.

My engraving certainly isn’t perfect, but I know from experience that performers appreciate a well-notated score with as few collisions and as much clarity as possible. Cleanliness, as they say, is next to godliness!

For those who still see engraving as drudgery – it’s not just page turns and collision avoidance. Spacement and placing can have a huge psychological impact on a performer. Take, for example, this phrase from one of my pieces, Starfish at Pescadero, which more and more I feel the need to revisit, engraving-wise:

Although I’m fairly clear about tempo, the performance of this particular phrase is always WAAAY too fast because of the notational choices I’ve made. The sixteenth notes (consistent with the rest of the fast-paced movement) and the tight spacing always conspire to make the soprano think that the line should be sung very quickly. When I do finally make the time to correct this page, I’ll at the very least double the note values, and put each measure on its own line to give the notes and text more room to breathe.

As a performer, I’m no stranger to the value of a score whose visual aesthetic matches the musical aesthetic. I, too, have rushed through passages that were too tightly-spaced, been tense and white-knuckled through scores fraught with collisions and poor spacing, and just plain scratched my head at unclear notational choices. In one piece I performed last year, I always – ALWAYS – railroaded through major a tempo change because it happened a) across a page turn (ouch), and b) without a double-bar (sin of sins!). It’s these considerations that allow us to communicate better with our performers, and to flex our visual artistry muscles.

To tie in briefly with last week’s discussion of paper size and the idea that “My dear, it simply isn’t done,” I’d like to say that I have no intention of bucking the entire system. I think that – for traditionally notated music, which mine is – certain traditions and “standards” are there because they work. Engraving is one of those areas where I think that tradition has it (at the very least mostly) right. Engraving standards are standard because they work, and because they communicate effectively within the strange, temporally-notated world that is concert music.

Not everyone works within the standard style of notation, of course. Some modern concert works can’t be notated within the standard tradition of music engraving. In which case, I exhort the composers, still: be clear in what you want. However you notate it, notate it clearly and in a way that (should your music not absolutely necessitate your being a part of it always and for all time) communicates more or less precisely what you want.

OK, we’ll come back to engraving in MUCH more depth later, of that there is little doubt. I have examples and examples and examples of weird engraving that made my brain seize up, melt, and start dribbling out one or both of my ears, as well as a list a mile long of Recommended Reading for those wanting to learn more about the art and craft of engraving.

Two subtle considerations that can make a HUGE difference in printed scores are paper quality and binding style.

Using regular, 20 lb. bond paper for scores isn’t awful. But using a slightly nicer grade of paper can bespeak a certain level of care and professionalism. So, too, can a nicer style of binding lend a greater air of authority to your works. We all grew up with traditionally published scores, and the paper weight and quality are much higher than what’s used to run off copies at Kinko’s.

In my experience as a performer and as a producer of a concert series, I’ve seen a lot – and I mean a LOT – of scores with comb binding. While I know that a lot of composers swear by comb binding, I’m generally a little…offended by it. It’s noisy to turn pages with, multiple comb-bound scores don’t play nice with one another on a shelf or in a pile, and it’s obviously the cheapest option available at Kinko’s.

If I have to do a fast-and-dirty binding for a last-minute submission to a competition or call for scores (of which I’m never guilty…</sarcasm>), I prefer coil binding, which I know isn’t always available at some print shops (read: my favorite one). It’s just a little more…elegant…than the other cheap options.

Generally, though, I prefer saddle stitch binding for scores that aren’t a billion pages. It conforms nicely to standards for professionally published scores, and is remarkably inexpensive. It does, however, require that the number of pages in your score be divisible by four (think of 11×17 paper folded in half, and you can see why). For large scores, and scores that absolutely must lat flat, saddle stitching isn’t the way to go – a comb or coil really is right for that if you can’t manage the happiest of all binding styles: perfect binding. I’ll be experimenting with perfect binding as soon as I finish enough songs to complete my Songbook project, the cover of which you’ll see below.

Now, using nicer paper and a more elegant binding style can add a bit to the cost of each printed score (one reason not to go crazy with the super nice papers). These aren’t costs that you should eat, if you decide to go this route – instead, the costs should be accounted for in the way you price your scores. Until I re-attack the issue of pricing, see this post from last year on practical pricing:

You should also always use the best printer at your disposal. Scores printed on inkjet printers are nowhere near as crisp and neat as laser printed scores. And while those printers at Kinko’s and Staples are laser printers, they’re not always the best-taken-care-of, and can leave streaks and smudges that undermine your efforts at quality. Best to head to a good print shop, where they really know their craft, and can help you find exactly the right materials for your score. The crispness of the printing, while subtle, sends a subtle but clear message that you’re using the right equipment for the job.

These small considerations can make a real difference in the perception of your scores: they show an attention to detail and a thoughtfulness that lend greater authority to your scores, as well as show a higher level of professionalism.

Cover and Visual Design
“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” the saying goes, though we all know that’s complete and utter crap.

OF COURSE you judge a book by it’s cover! Why else would it have one?!

Similarly, scores get judged by their covers. Maybe rather less so than books, but that’s probably because the general cover design for published scores leaves quite a lot to be desired.

For good or for bad, legacy published scores have a particular look to them that inform the whole industry. If I say “Boosey & Hawkes”, you can conjure up the few major looks they’ve had in the past few decades: plain, marbled, or solid colors – with a schmancy treble clef. “Universal Edition?” Black and white. “G. Schirmer?” YELLLOOOOOWWW!! (and green).

Each publisher has created a visual brand that we associate with them.

You, too, should consider the idea of a visual brand when creating your scores.

I’m just guessing, but half of you probably just thought “Visual Design?!” and your brains exploded with delight. The other half thought “Visual Design?!” and your brains exploded in fear and dread. For the happy ones, hold on a second – we’ll get to you. For the ones cowering the corner, rocking back and forth in abject terror, take a breath, and remember that you don’t have to do it all yourself. Really.

We all have friends who have skill sets outside of our own, and those friends are probably willing to lend us a hand (especially if we float a bit of cash or a few drinks or a dinner or two in their direction – whatever you workout between yourselves). One composer on the NewMusicShelf has a friend who happens to be a painter, and he licenses photos of various of his friend’s paintings to be the cover art for his scores. They look really nice, and they lend a unique look to his scores that mark them as being from the same person.

For those of you running off in search of pencil and paper to start designing your new look, hang back a second.

Composers, in my experience, generally have a pretty horrible sense of visual aesthetics. Not all, certainly, but a significant number. When I started designing websites, the vast majority of composer sites were a total mess – especially those designed by the composers themselves. Consequently, I always advise…not so much caution as…care…when approaching a visual project like web design (which I’ll obviously be delving into pretty majorly later on) and score design. Care, and a few extra sets of eyes. It’s really easy to get so wrapped up in the giddy-making little details that we forget to take a step back to make sure what we’re doing is actually…good. So showing drafts of the work to someone else – or a few someones else – can be really beneficial.

With score design, as with site design, I always say recommend limiting the number of fonts you use, and limit them to those that are easily readable. I’ve been privy to conversations in which composers obsess over the fonts they want to shoehorn onto the cover of their latest score. “This one’s gonna be goofy, that ones’s gonna be art deco, that one’s gonna be…” horrid – a visual nightmare. For my own scores, I’ve worked to limit the number of fonts I use across the board – I have a small handful that I’ve selected as my pool of basic fonts.

Here are a few examples of my covers:

All of my score covers are based on these layouts, and generally use these fonts. As I continue to refine my visual brand, I expect to move more to this design, and similar even-more-consolidated looks:

And for inside matter – program notes, texts, instrumentation – I use a mix of standard fonts and those fonts I use on the covers. Compare these texts pages to the cover from echoes, where they’re from:

Note the continued use of the typewriter font as a highlight for small pieces of important information. The poems, for the sake of readability, are clear, reasonably common fonts – this information needs to be straight-forward and absolutely readable, not cute or clever or particularly visually interesting.

(A small design note, but one I’m kind of proud of: compare the two-word lineation of the poem “perfect” to the description of the cycle on the cover and the dedication.)

I really recommend using a consistent look or set of looks across all your scores. In other words, start to create a visual brand. My earliest visual branding, as seen in the covers for Elegy and My True Love hath My Heart, emphasized clarity over all else, and is, frankly, a little boring, which is why I’m in the process of moving toward the look of the Songbook – it incorporates the color scheme of my website, which creates an added layer of recognizability, and uses the typewriter font that is increasingly among my favorites.

Inside Matter
The non-score inside matter is just as important to a performer or ensemble as the music itself – it’s where you put your texts, list full instrumentation, map your percussion instruments (I’ve been yelled at a few times for leaving this one out), put your table of contents for collections of pieces, or give notes on whatever nit-picky notational devices that composers are known for using.

In addition to texts, instrumentation, and percussion mapping (where appropriate), I like to have a page for premiere and commissioner information – it’s a nice way to acknowledge the people who helped usher the piece into the world. Credit where credit is due. And loving appreciation.

Also, because of the divisible-by-four requirement of saddle-stitched scores, I often have an extra few pages at the end of a score that I feel weird about leaving blank, so I’ve taken to filling those pages with advertising for other scores. At the back of my Duo for Violin and Piano, I had two leftover pages facing one another, so I turned the left-hand page into “Additional Works by Dennis Tobenski” that are instrumentally related to the Duo, and the right-hand page advertises scores by other composers. (This latter bit is something I want to expand on when I get to marketing your works, so take note of it now, and think on how it benefits you, your colleagues, and the field of new music in general.)

The inside matter is a great opportunity to draw performers deeper into your music. If you have the room, put in a detailed program note that talks about the genesis of the piece, what musical and extra-musical ideas inspired it, or any particular points in the piece that you find interesting or noteworthy. Having these insights into the piece – and into you – can be a selling point for the score, or can trigger a connection with performers (and listeners, if these notes are available in the program at performances) that draws them further into your work. And that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Connecting?

What have I missed? What have I short-changed? What interesting things do you put in your scores?

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.


Response Part 2

After I posted here the other day about my comment at the J.W. Pepper blog, there was a fun and lively conversation on Twitter about self-publishing. Those that were involved generally seemed to be of the opinion that they’d much rather go the route of self-publishing because of the level of control that it affords them, as well as the higher royalty rate and the fact that they keep all of their rights.

The next morning, my comment was approved, and the composer/blogger who wrote the original post responded. Unfortunately, his response didn’t really address any of the points that I made, and instead continued to plug the legacy publishing system without offering any support for why he thinks it’s a good idea. Here is his response (which you can also find here):

Dear Dennis,
Thanks for your response to my article. I’m not surprised by your comments, and I can see where you’re coming from. No question, great music deserves to be published, recognized, and performed, and I know it can be extremely difficult, or impossible, to find an established publisher that considers the work to be a profitable investment. But, when I see self-published music that does have the attributes of a profitable publishing investment, I like to encourage the writers of those works to go the route of commercial publishing. I realize that in some cases self-publishing might be the composer’s only reasonable alternative.

And here is my lengthy response:

I still completely fail to see the benefits of going the route of legacy publishing (if you want to know why I use the word “legacy”, Google the phrase “legacy system“).

First, I have to give up *all* rights to my creative efforts. I give away my copyright, and all claim I have to the piece I just spent days, weeks, or months writing, to a corporate entity with no real stake in its success or failure.

I can’t even write an arrangement of that piece anymore without asking the permission of my publisher. I wrote it, and they own it now. In exchange for what? I have absolutely no say in cover design, pricing, distribution or marketing methods, or whether or not my piece actually makes it to print. A publisher has zero obligation to actually put the piece into print once the contract is signed – they own it, they can do with it what they will. And unless it’s stipulated in the contract, they don’t have to create parts (another horror visited upon one of my friends – he wrote a piano trio, which was published by one of the big houses, yet they never made parts; instead, the score is sold in sets of three for over $100 – it’s never been bought, ever, and it’s been sitting in a warehouse since the mid-’80s). If a particular piece turns out to have been a “bad investment”, then it’s just left on the shelf, and no further effort is put into promotion. And if they decide to license the work for a cause that I find completely abhorrent – oh, well – they own it, and can do with it what they will.

So: I lose all claims to the piece, and have no control over its uses. Fun!

Editorially, there’s not much benefit. Publishers are now requiring composers to engrave their works themselves or at their own expense.

Monetarily, I’m entitled to royalties, but royalties are net of all expenses incurred by the publisher. But what expenses exactly? That’s a good question, and one you’ll never get a publisher to answer with any level of specificity. Salaries of the marketing / legal / art / editorial staff? Rent for their offices? Pencils / paper / office supplies? All are needed to sell my piece, but not all are direct expenses, especially once the piece is printed and on the shelf of some warehouse. However, the accounting departments of publishing houses are quite creative places, and any expense can be used to justify keeping a little more of the pie. Generally, though, in the end I’m left with a royalty of around 10%. Plus, if the piece is ever commercially recorded, the publisher banks the bulk of the recording royalties, as well. Good luck paying your mortgage with that!

And the fun continues! Brick and mortar music stores are essentially off-limits to concert music composers. Patelson’s shut down years ago; the two music shops in my hometown don’t stock concert music, except the Czerny exercises and some beginner piano stuff; and the music shop in the town where I went to college – there were two big schools in town that both had good music programs – didn’t stock anything written after “Mikrokosmos”. Brick and mortar stores are mostly around for instrument sales and rentals, or to peddle the Glee songbook.

Promotion is one of your big reasons for working with a legacy publisher, but again I have to ask: what can a big publisher do that I can’t? I’ve not seen much of this promotional muscle you mentioned, and I do enjoy buying scores and looking for new works to perform – both for myself as a vocalist, and as a concert presenter. In fact, I couldn’t tell you a single new thing that any of the major publishers have picked up in the past few years. I know that Boosey represents Du Yun, but only because I read it on Twitter. Beyond that, I, as a consumer of concert music, have not been marketed to. At all.

And if Twitter is the best promotional tool at the disposal of the big publishing houses, then I should point out that it’s one of the promotional tools at my disposal, too. I have slightly over a quarter of the number of followers that Boosey has, half of Schott, nearly as many as G Schirmer and Peters, and almost two and a half times as many as Subito. If this is the future of concert music promotion, then I’m playing with the big boys.

Ok, yes, the publishers have an easier time going to conventions, and have more clout with the major orchestras. But what’s to stop me from banding together with some of my composer friends, renting a booth at one of these conventions, and marketing our works directly? Just by being there, we’ve gained some name recognition, and we can market our works directly to performers and directors – much more passionately and personally than a publisher could do.

A publisher is interested in making sales. Any sales. They have no interest in the individual welfare of their composers. Individuals who work for a publisher may take an interest, but the corporation itself is interested in one thing only: maximizing profits and minimizing risk/loss. And to romanticize the role of the publisher is, frankly, silly. A publisher is a business partner, not a friend, and should not be a source of artistic validation. The gatekeeperism inherent in the system has been romanticized to a degree that has crippled countless composers’ careers. My works are only valid or good if some faceless corporation says they are? I’m sorry, no, my works are valid and good because I stand behind them, because performers enjoy presenting them, and because audiences enjoy hearing them.

While you didn’t really address any of my points in your response, this idea seems to be at the center of it: composers who are good enough should get a publisher (*snap*, get one, just like that), and those that aren’t good enough, well, self-publishing is a reasonable alternative whose relative obscurity won’t get in the way of works that have been vetted by the sales department of X Publishing.

There are a lot of composers who are very successful, and who self-publish their works. Most notably, of course, is Jennifer Higdon, who I think it’s safe to say is good enough to get a publisher if she wanted. And she has some pretty interesting things to say on the nature of publishing and self-publishing at the NewMusicBox. That a composer as successful and respected as Ms. Higdon should consider the idea of giving her rights to a legacy publisher to be “absurd”, I think is very telling.

Meanwhile, I’m making sales this week and pocketing 92% of the cover price (these are digital sales). That’s a royalty rate that no publisher could ever offer. And while my score sales aren’t going to be paying my rent (yet), I’ve covered my web hosting fees for the month (read: I’ve recouped my marketing expenses). I made those sales the way that composers have been making sales for ages: one person heard me perform one of my own song cycles with the American Opera Projects recently, and the other is filling out a series of recitals and found me by Googling a phrase that is particularly pertinent to me and my music.

And unlike with a legacy publisher, I’m creating a personal relationship with both – I’m thankful for their support and for the fact that they enjoy my music; and in creating this relationship, I’m hopefully paving the way for new collaborations or commissions or score sales. With a legacy publisher, there’s a monolithic wall between the composer and the score buyer that discourages such a personal connection. Had either person I mentioned bought my music through a legacy publisher, I wouldn’t know it, they wouldn’t know me, and there would be no way to know that there are already plans to perform those song cycles in various parts of the country.

One final point, and then I’ll stop typing for now.

Author Kristine Kathryn Rusch ( has been making some great arguments in favor of self-publishing for writers (as have Dean Wesley Smith and Joe Konrath, whose blogs I encourage everyone to check out), and while there are some qualitative and quantitative differences between the book publishing world and the concert music publishing world, certain tenets hold true across the board. I’m not completely against legacy publishing, but I don’t think it’s a very good *business* decision at this point in time. (As I said before, I’m much more interested distribution at this point, which doesn’t require a publisher.) And that’s the heart of my argument – every decision a composer makes regarding her scores and their uses should be sound business decisions. I’m not speaking of artistic choices, which are entirely separate – it’s after the artistic choices have been made, we must be savvy in the way we approach our careers. So I’ll end with a quote from Ms. Rusch’s blog, substituting “Composer” for “Writer”:

Composers Are Responsible For Their Own Careers.
Composers Are Professionals.
Composers Are In Business, And Should Behave Like Business People.

As always, thoughts and responses are welcome in the comments section!