A man and his Hobby-Horse, tho’ I cannot say that they act and re-act exactly after the same manner in which the soul and body do upon each other: Yet doubtless there is a communication between them of some kind; and my opinion rather is, that there is something in it more of the manner of electrified bodies,—and that, by means of the heated parts of the rider, which come immediately into contact with the back of the Hobby-Horse,—by long journies and much friction, it so happens, that the body of the rider is at length fill’d as full of Hobby-Horsical matter as it can hold;—so that if you are able to give but a clear description of the nature of the one, you may form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character of the other.

— Laurence Stern, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

One of my favorite musical Hobby-Horses – one that I can ride for hours on end — is engraving: That is, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, the art of putting the notes on the page so as to make the score legible and attractive – a far more important aspect of composing than most people, many composers included — mostly young, but surprisingly often not —, realize.

A brief history of my own engraving abilities, practices, and standards: I started my compositional life using a scaled-down version of Finale called Notepad, which allowed me to put on paper what was in my head. The results, although essentially accurate, were unattractive at best. It seemed to me, still about 5 years away from my first composition lesson, that the important thing was to get the notes out, and that the score was good so long as the individual notes were legible and not literally piled on top of one another (a frequent issue with Notepad, and later, albeit to a lesser degree, Finale itself). My earliest scores were a bit of a wreck – the notes were crammed together on the staff with no regard for proportional spacing, and elements of the score often collided. The scores were legible, but barely.

In college, my engraving improved (though I was still completely unaware that such a term existed, let alone that there were standards to such a thing). Since my works were being performed with some regularity, I found that I had to put more work into making the score readable, which wasn’t exactly the most pleasing realization at the time, as I much preferred sitting down at the piano and hammering out something new than sitting in front of the computer, clicking away entering notes and dragging things around to create more space and take up more paper. At a certain point, though, one of my composition teachers started getting frustrated with the legibility of my scores, and would spend more and more of our lesson time marking up the score with a red pen, pointing out the problems with the engraving. I seriously resisted most of his suggestions – they weren’t musical criticisms, and therefore weren’t worth much of my attentions. (Ah, youth!)

The idea of attractive engraving as a desirable thing started to leak into my brain toward the end of my undergrad career. I was recommended a book written by a friend of one of my professors, which purported to set down exact rules and procedures for staff sizes, positioning of articulations (down to the pixel!), etc. I realize in retrospect that this is all pure foolishness. This made a science of engraving, when it is in reality an art.

When I was invited to study privately in NYC, my new teacher, who had spent much of his youth as a Broadway copyist and an engraver for Ned Rorem and Virgil Thomson, among others, made a number of immediate, sweeping changes. I was forced to buy Sibelius. Having been a Finale Man for eight years, I hated the idea of switching software (the Finale/Sibelius debate is nearly as heated as the PC/Mac silliness, both sides being completely entrenched and unbudgeable). And we spent a sizable portion of our lesson time discussing engraving practices: how to avoid collisions, proper spacing, the general rule for how many measures should be in a system, etc.

In time, I came to love Sibelius. Rather quickly, actually. I can’t imagine myself going back.

And in time, I came to be quite proficient at professional-level engraving. I now do some freelance engraving work from time to time. And I’ve integrated the engraving process into my compositional process. As I input a score into Sibelius, even if I’m still composing it, I do a significant level of tidying up and formatting as I go. It saves time later, and really helps me to see the score for what it is, and helps me to assess where I am and where I want to go with the piece.

I end up seeing a lot of scores by young composers, now, and the quality of engraving I see varies rather widely. Some scores are super clear and very attractive; others have clearly received little attention in the way of formatting or “beautifying”.

I understand the mindset of those young composers who don’t put the time into their engraving – “The music should speak for itself.” I agree – the music should speak for itself. But it can’t unless it is properly engraved. Reading a score that hasn’t been given attention to visual detail is like listening to someone speak with a very heavy accent. Or reading horrible handwriting. The content may be there, but it’s so much work to figure it out.

Even looking through a stack of well-engraved scores is a frankly tiring endeavor. That, plus the additional effort required to decipher any number of poorly-engraved scores, is absolutely exhausting!  It’s all too easy to dismiss a poorly-engraved score out of hand.

So what can composers do to make their scores clearer and more attractive? Think about the performer – consider what you can do to make the performer’s life easier.

A few points to consider:

1) Are the beats clear? Can the performer easily make out the basic division of beats in each measure? (I.e., does a 4/4 bar look like two sets of two quarter notes? Do your 3/4 bars look like 3/4 bars, and not 6/8 bars, and vice versa? Are the rhythms – especially complicated rhythms – notated in a way that facilitates counting them out?)

2) Do the notes have enough room to breathe? (Are there too many or too few bars per system so that the system feels cramped or empty? Are lyrics spaced so that they are easy to read?)

3) Are the staves and notes a reasonable size? Too many composers leave their software at the default size settings so that everything seems far too large, which gives it the sense of being “easy” – music for beginners: the notes are large and safe.

4) Are your articulations and markings placed clearly and correctly? (Expressive instructions are italicized, instructions for playing techniques are non-italicized, articulations generally go on the side of the notehead rather than the stem….etc)

5) Are you consistent with your accidentals, and are your intervals properly spelled? Nothing is more maddening than constant switching between sharps and flats. There are occasions when sharps and flats may peacefully co-exist in the same measure, but generally one should stick with one or the other for as long as possible. And few things are more confusing in the moment than augmented or diminished intervals. These should be respelled – especially for vocalists – to be as immediately-readable as possible.

The general idea is to consider how you would like the score to look if you hadn’t seen it before and had to perform it with virtually no rehearsal time. That doesn’t mean dumb down your music. It means make your hard music as easy to learn (and perform) as possible.

Look at professionally published scores, and see how they’re formatted. And – most importantly – ask your performers if there’s anything that they found particularly difficult, or if a particular element of your notation was confusing. Then change it!

For my hobby-horse, if you recollect a little, is no way a vicious beast; he has scarce one hair or lineament of the ass about him—’Tis the sporting little filly-folly which carries you out for the present hour—a maggot, a butterfly, a picture, a fiddlestick—an uncle Toby’s siege—or an any thing, which a man makes a shift to get a-stride on, to canter it away from the cares and solicitudes of life—’Tis as useful a beast as is in the whole creation—nor do I really see how the world could do without it—