Scores and band parts

In the book we examine good and bad habits in an attempt to improve the standard of score and band part writing, which often falls well short of ideal. Under the microscope in this blog are the need for consistency across all written parts for the band, and quality control.

Using, for example, repeat bars, D.C. or D.S. in some of the parts but not in others will often cause confusion at rehearsals. Similarly, if some instruments have a dynamic change, or some other marking, half way through a compressed rest appearing in the other parts, I split the compressed rest to show the change. It’s common for a bandleader to say ‘take it from the so and so’ and if the marking isn’t shown confused players will be shouting ‘where’s that then?’ which wastes rehearsal time.

All instructions to the player except dynamics go above the stave unless lack of space prohibits this.

Some computer notation programs have a nasty habit of ignoring time signature changes when compressing rests, so this is another goof to watch out for.


The ability to extract parts from the computer score promises to relieve us of much of the drudgery of writing parts by hand. Unfortunately there is, as always, a price to pay. The extracted parts require adjustment to the flow of the bars to ensure that we write 4 bars to a line (as far as we can) and place each section of the piece at the beginning of the stave. I particularly hate situations where a new section, with its reference letter, begins on the last bar of a stave, especially the last bar of a page. Sometimes it can’t be helped.

One program I used caused all graphic elements – reference letters, hairpins, dynamics etc. – to fly all over the place during this process and they had to be put back in order. This process took considerable time and was so troublesome that I often used to leave all this stuff off the score until the band parts had been extracted. In this context the term ‘graphic’ refers to all elements not included in the music notation font.

We mentioned there’s a price to pay, but how about some discount? When, for example, the first trumpet had been extracted and edited to perfection, I could ‘save as’  trumpet 2, 3, etc. and make necessary changes to the pitches instead of ‘extracting’ them all from the score. The more similarity (e.g. unisons) between the different parts there were, the more this technique made sense.

On the other hand, this old program allowed varied spacing and positioning of staves to be achieved by selecting and dragging, which is more complicated to do in my current program, which only allows a common level of spacing to be specified between all staves. It also allowed the number of bars to a stave to be individually specified, whereas my current program requires the use of a line break tool, which can cause problems in the last stave of the part because there’s nowhere left to go.

Having ‘finished’ my work I check, check and check again. I’ve produced a quality control sheet listing every element that had been found, at one time or another, to be wrong, or missing. I methodically check each item against the score and each band part. Pitch errors can usually be spotted aurally during playback.

In my experience there will almost always be some error somewhere, anyway. It may be a reference letter omitted or misplaced, or a dot omitted from a note used in a tempo marking, or some other minute but crucial error. I have an agreement with a local band that, if they ‘test fly’ an arrangement, they get a free copy (whether they want one or not!).

Errors are not confined to the work of independent publishers. They’re frequently found in parts produced by mainstream houses – even in test pieces for use in contests.

For many years, publishers in the USA set the standards, for band parts, especially. I recently played a terrific arrangement by one of England’s favourite writers but the publishers had produced parts on small sheets of paper with as many as 13 bars to a line, with a small staff size. Unfortunately this writer, a pianist, also didn’t understand the need to allow trombonists sufficient time to insert and remove mutes. In one piece, an eighth note rest was all I got to insert my straight mute and I already had a cup mute between my knees in readiness for the next change. This wrecks presentation, which can’t be ignored in live performances. Trombonists need both hands unless they have a sustained note in first (closed) position. Personally, I only use muted trombones for colouristic effects, not in brass section writing, unless it’s for a small brass section. Four or five trumpets in a big band give all the muted colour needed.

I do not have hands-on experience of all the many music notation programs, so input on this topic would be welcomed.

A free program that’s well worth using is MuseScore. It has a slightly different way of working but it’s easy to learn, providing the user sticks strictly to the correct procedures, especially when inputting drum parts. There’s a very useful and active forum built into the downloaded material and requests for help are often answered by the program’s developers. The playback is easy to use and superior sound fonts can be substituted for the in-built font, depending on computer memory, etc. It’s nice to know there are still people around willing to put so much time and effort into something and then just give it away.

Please forward a copy of this blog to a friend or associate.


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