Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Keys to Great Looking Manuscripts


Over the years, I've received several compliments from editors on the neatness and clarity of my manuscripts. I take pride in that because, next to accuracy and timeliness, clarity of intent is the next most important attribute of a transcriber's work. A manuscript that is free of clutter and has proportionately spaced and properly aligned text and music elements is easier for editors and proofers to read. Neatness minimizes misunderstandings and makes it easier to spot mistakes. During the time I've spent writing transcriptions, I've been able to develop tools and techniques that enable me to write a clean, clear manuscript with relative ease in a shorter amount of time.
In this installment, I'm going to share some of the habits I've learned and developed that have made writing clean and neat manuscripts one of the easiest parts of my transcription routine. I'll reveal tools that everyone—amateurs, students and professionals—can customize and use to improve the look and clarity of their work. I'll also cite some handy references for those who might want to study further the history and practice of music notation, from which I draw the foundations of my manuscript style.

Tools of the Trade

Most of the tools and instruments I use to create clean manuscripts are available at any office supplies retailer. One tool, which I call a “Manuscript Spacer,” I've developed myself and involves the use of a computer-assisted score writing program (like Finale, Sibelius or LilyPond). Any of the “lite” versions of major commercial scoring programs should be able to produce a customized Manuscript Spacer that will fit your particular situation, so long as it allows you to alter print margins and staff size, and print your spacer in landscape format. I'll demonstrate how to construct one shortly. But first, the office supplies:
  • Mechanical Pencils – 0.5 mm and 0.9 mm thickness
  • Refillable Click Erasers
  • 12'' Metal Ruler for drawing lines
  • A small T-square

Constructing a Customized Manuscript Spacer

With a ruler, measure the margins and staff size of the manuscript paper you use to write your music on. In your notation program, set the margins and staff size to conform to that of your manuscript paper. Next, set up a number of evenly-spaced lines that will serve as your Spacer lines for various measure widths (mine has 5 lines). Finally, put measures and notes on your lines. I put all notes on the middle “B” line, with the stems pointing downward. You can customize yours however is best for the style of music you're writing, but I use the following configuration (for a 4/4 Manuscript Spacer):
  • One line with one bar, filled with 32nd-notes
  • One line with two bars, each filled with 32nd-notes
  • One line with three bars, each filled with sixteenth-notes
  • One line with 4 bars, each filled with eighth-notes
  • One line with 5 bars, each filled with eighth-notes

When you're done formatting your Manuscript Spacer, print it off and fold it up. You should fold the paper along the “B” line of each staff. Mine has 5 folds. I use the edge of a paper cutter, but if you don't have a cutter around, you can use the sharp corner of a table or counter top to make your folds. Then, use your thumb (or a burnishing tool) to make the crease.

If you want, use clear packing tape to reinforce each of the creases. You can use scissors or a paper cutter to cut the edges even so that no tape is hanging off. Now, you have a custom-made Manuscript Spacer that you can use to align all of the elements of your hand-written music.

Manuscript Method

For writing notes, chord symbols and most other music elements (like dynamic markings), I use the 0.9mm mechanical pencil. It draws nice bold lines which easily stand out against the lines of manuscript paper. I find the music easier to read at that weight, since it is mostly within and intersects the staff lines of the paper. I use the lighter weight pencil for most text elements (like lyrics and directions) because it allows me to write smaller with greater legibility. The ruler and T-square are for any straight lines like bar lines, repeat endings or hairpin crescendos and decrescendos. These are things that almost anyone who hand-writes music is familiar with.
When I'm ready to write a section of music, the first thing I do is make a decision about measure width. I always strive to fit as much music on a line as I comfortably can. Taking all of the musical elements into account when making this decision—notes, accidentals, lyrics, density of chord changes, tab numbers (if present), and of course, overall layout considerations (how many staves per line)—will prevent frustration as you go along. When I've determined the optimal measure width, I use the Manuscript Spacer to mark off the bar line positions and the ruler (or T-square) and 0.9mm pencil to draw the bar lines.
At this point, I'm ready to start writing the music.
Once the bar lines are marked, spacing the notes using the Manuscript Spacer is a breeze. I simply align the Spacer's bar lines with the bar lines I've already drawn and then start writing the music, using the Spacer to align notes and rests. I do this for each instrument and voice in the texture.
Pretty soon, I have a page full of music and I'm ready to begin adding any text elements like lyrics and directions to the score. I use my 0.5mm pencil with the Spacer to align any lyrics and in-staff text indications (like ottava directions and certain articulations) to the staves. The reinforced crease is good to use as a straight edge for drawing lyric extenders and line spanners.
Then it's time to add chord symbols, out-of-staff text indications (like recalls of labeled figures) and section headings or rehearsal marks. I prefer the 0.9mm lead for chord symbols and headings and the 0.5mm for almost all other text.
You can see that with a minimum of extra effort, a free-hand manuscript can be beautifully spaced, and elements precisely aligned. Whether you're writing sketches for band rehearsals, music for yourself to remember, music theory assignments or preparing scores for professional engraving and publication, using the Manuscript Spacer can help you write clear and legible music that will earn the appreciation of anyone who has to read it later.

10/18/09 - David Stocker

Text and Images Copyright © 2009 David B. Stocker

Further reading on the practice of Music Notation:
  1. Read, Gardner. Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice, Second Edition. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1979. Print
  2. Gerou, Tom and Lusk, Linda. Essential Dictionary of Music Notation. Los Angeles: Alfred Publishing Co., Inc., 1996. Print

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