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Topic: Notation: Wrestling with accidentals

  1. #1

    Notation: Wrestling with accidentals

    I'm finding it difficult to get my accidentals as easy to read as possible in my Concert Band scores.

    One of the first things Rodney "composingatnight" pointed out to me when I started delving more into notation, was to not trust the automatic spellings Sibelius comes up with. The program will come up with goofy things like E# for an F, when musicians want to get the straight goods - it's an F, for cryin' out loud, so spell it that way. That's an overly complicated spelling that's easy enough to spot in a score. Double sharps and flats are theoretically correct, but musicians, especially the students in school bands, don't want to deal with them, so write those as the natural pitches, regardless that it's not strictly correct. Fine.

    But as I try to proof read the spellings, there are many cases where I'm just not sure what to do.

    Here's a screenshot of a Tuba line, bass clef, key of F. Is that the way it should be? In the third measure, the Db doesn't really belong in the key of F. C# is the theoretically correct spelling, just as the Gb would be an F#. Considering that last passage, those last two notes are going up, so should I rely on the basic theory that sharps are used to indicate a rising passage and flats are used for descending passages? Or do I say to heck with any consideration except the advice I've had to just always use flats for the tuba, because that's all the player wants to see?

    But then from the guidelines posted by band music publishers, I see that all sharps are to be avoided, and at least in a Grade 3 piece, to never write in sharp key signatures. What then of the transposing instruments which are always in keys with sharps when the concert key is something like F with one flat?

    So, as I pulled up my chair to dig into fixing up the accidentals in my current band piece, I was immediately stymied by these kinds of questions.

    Thoughts? Advice?


  2. #2

    Re: Notation: Wrestling with accidentals

    Here's a recurring tuba bit I'm not sure what to do with.

    The advice is clear and sensible to avoid having two pitches of the same letter next to each other in combination with accidentals. Should I apply that rule when the two pitches are in two different measures?

    Screenshot one - The way I have it now. Same letter notes are together, but on different sides of a bar.

    Screenshot two - Same passage with the last note in measure one changed to C#. That avoids notes with the same letter, and makes the entire passage look simpler, since none of the notes in the second measure are now effected. There's just the one accidental in these two measures instead of three.

    BUT, as I said in the previous post, I'm paranoid about using sharps for this part in the key of F, since publishers request we don't use sharps in school band pieces.

    What to do?


  3. #3

    Re: Notation: Wrestling with accidentals

    Hi Randy,

    My thought on it is if it is in different measures than the B flat to B natural would look fine to a performer. I guess the best rule is what makes it easiest for the performer to understand what you are after. If the B flat is in the key signature than adding the flat sign next to the B is a reminder to clarify the next measure starting on a B natural. That would make perfect sense to me if I were playing that section of your music.

    Now, I am not a professional notation expert and am not in the publishing business so take my 2 cents with a grain of sand (or is it salt - I get confused some times).
    [Music is the Rhythm, Harmony and Breath of Life]
    "Music is music, and a note's a note" - Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong


  4. #4

    Re: Notation: Wrestling with accidentals

    Quote Originally Posted by RichR View Post
    ...My thought on it is if it is in different measures than the B flat to B natural would look fine to a performer. I guess the best rule is what makes it easiest for the performer to understand what you are after...
    Thanks for the input, Rich - My main concern is indeed trying to make things easiest for the performers. But keeping that in mind still doesn't always make the right decisions clear to me.

    OK, so you think screenshot one in my post #2 is OK, even though the second screenshot looks more clearn with the single accidental. Do you have an opinion on the rightness or wrongness of having a sharp, the A# when we're in the key of F, as in this example?

    Do you have input to offer on the screenshot in my first post where I'm showing the use of flats instead of the more theoretically correct sharps?


  5. #5
    Senior Member Tom_Davis's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2005
    Ellendale, ND

    Re: Notation: Wrestling with accidentals

    A safe key for Concert Band, especially younger bands, is Eb. That transposes Bb Instruments to the key of F with one flat - Bb. If your put a nice long run for clarinets with a B natural in its midst, you'll end up with clarinets lying all over the floor.

  6. #6

    Re: Notation: Wrestling with accidentals

    Quote Originally Posted by Tom_Davis View Post
    A safe key for Concert Band, especially younger bands, is Eb. That transposes Bb Instruments to the key of F with one flat - Bb. If your put a nice long run for clarinets with a B natural in its midst, you'll end up with clarinets lying all over the floor.
    hehehe, thanks, Tom. Right, I've seen from all the publishers' recommendations, that Eb and Bb are the basic, easiest keys. By Grade 2 they're adding F and Ab, then in Grade 3 they add C.

    The first thing I was adapting for CB was in the key of G! Yikes!--- Fixed that in a hurry once the problem was pointed out to me.

    Tom, while you're here on the thread, do you have any input on those specific questions with the screenshots? I just had to put my current project away this morning, too frustrated in trying to respell notes in the best way. The score's otherwise ready - now if I can just feel confident about doing the accidentals correctly.


  7. #7

    Re: Notation: Wrestling with accidentals

    Hi Randy:

    The problem of what "accidental" to use for some notes in a piece (phrase, motive, etc.) has been an involved discussion for many years and, as was previously stated by those above, involves many variables; ex: are we talking about a horizontal, melodic treatment of a line or are we reading notes that are members of a chord (harmonic treatment)?

    But first, a little hint about your "tuba" part. From your narrative, it is obvious that your instrument part is in the BASS CLEF, but without your mentioning the instrument, we don't know what clef your notes reside. So, it's a good policy to ALWAYS put the proper clef sign in an example in case folks hastily go the example without fully reading what it is all about. No biggie here, huh?.......LOL

    Next, the rule governing the "readability" of the instrumental part (how the performer sees it) is a basic ingredient of good writing. So, what I'm getting at is this: Is the performer used to reading "melodically" (horizontally) or both "melodically" and "Harmonically?" (both horizontally and vertically). This is what you, as an orchestrator must take into consideration when notating your scores. Also, sometimes orchestrators notate the conductor's score in more of a vertical fashion (to show harmonic progression changes) and the performer parts in more of a horizontal fashion (to make it easier and faster to read). These points are considerations that you will use to make your final decisions.

    Additionally, orchestrators also consider what instruments they are writing for. An F# on the piano always sounds the same because it is a well-tempered instrument, but a string instrument is a little different. An F# to a violinist tends to be a little sharper than a written enharmonic Gb. Their fingering automatically allows for this when they intone the note before actually playing it, so one has to be careful how chords are spelled when writing for strings. Wind players also use a technique similar to this when playing an F# up to a G or a Gb down to an F. They can bend the note to fit the progression. Unless one has perfect pitch to define the actual pitch of a note, it must be approached as best as possible with one's ear and proper fingering/breath control.

    All of this probably doesn't help you much, but I have always considered the "horizontal" approach first and then deliberated on the "vertical" second. Sometimes I've made changes that make it easiest for the performer because, after all, that's what we want in the long run.....a good reproduction of what we have written with the least amount of difficulty involved.

    In your examples, I would use the C# to D (this is easy to read an also could identify a chord member in either the C# Diminished chord (C#-E-G-Bb) going to D or the third of the A7 dominant 7th chord (A-C#-E-G) going to D). Who knows if we can only see the performer's part and not the conductor's score? In the second example, I would use what you have written. That Gb is possibly a Gb Major member (Gb-Bb-Db). I would think it odd to use an F# here UNLESS it was definitely proven to me that it was definitely warranted.

    Hope some of this helps with your dilemma. This enharmonic discussion (problem) is ages old and many fine musicians have contributed to it's solution. I think, to be fair, it has to be an individual's preference (orchestrator) which would make the music easy to read and result in the best production of sound, the ultimate objective of any performance, to say the least.

    Jack Cannon--Toshiba laptop, 2.8 GHz CPU, 1.5 GB RAM, GPO4-JABB3-Auth. STEINWAY-Gofriller CELLO-Stradivari VIOLIN-COMB2-WORLD, FINALE 2009/11, RME Digiface, Cardbus, V-Stack---Mac Pro 2.66 GHz CPU, 8 GB RAM, DP 8, MOTU Traveler, MOTU Micro Express.--MacBook Pro 2.2 Ghz CPU, 8 GB RAM.

  8. #8
    Senior Member rpearl's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2005

    Re: Notation: Wrestling with accidentals


    Keep in mind that a notation program can only guess at the spelling - if you inputting from a MIDI device. If you are using the computer keyboard, you can indicate whether you want C# or Db. It can try to suss out the context, but it will always be a guess. That being the case, there are a lot of times where an E# is preferable to an F, and not just for intonation. Chord spellings, scales, etc. are like polysyllabic words, and they are taken in at a quick glance. For instance, take a C#7 chord ( a Dominant 7): C#-E#-G#-B; spell it with an F, and it will sound just fine (on a tempered instrument) but will cause the player to hesitate. I'm probably telling you something you already know, but context is everything. I often illustrate this in class by asking the students to come tell me how to spell the syllable "lee" - the "correct" answers are: lee, li, ly, lea, leigh. Each one sounds exactly the same to the ear, but each signifies something different - a name, noun, adverb, and so on. So it is with spelling. Your best bet is to show the part to someone who plays that instrument (the harp is particularly tricky on this point).

    Sorry for the lecture - but your mini-rant caught my eye.

    I'll go now...
    Ron Pearl





  9. #9

    Re: Notation: Wrestling with accidentals

    Quote Originally Posted by Rhap2 View Post
    ...I have always considered the "horizontal" approach first and then deliberated on the "vertical" second. Sometimes I've made changes that make it easiest for the performer because, after all, that's what we want in the long run...
    Jack - Tremendous reply, thank you so much.

    Right, in the text I said my examples were tuba in the bass clef, but you're right that not everybody will read that, and go straight to the picture. The screenshots are from the conductor's score, in the middle of a page, and I didn't have a way to include the key sig or clef. Oh well!

    I pulled out the quote from you in order to stress that ease of reading is my Major goal. It doesn't matter to me at all to use academically correct notation if it gets in the way of readability, especially when dealing with young band students.

    Thanks for the in-depth reply and your specific advice on the examples I posted. Great.

    Quote Originally Posted by rpearl View Post
    ...Sorry for the lecture...
    I need lectures, so Thank you, Ron, for your reply!

    The primary specific input I've gotten on my CB scores from folks who have really scrutinized them, is that The Most Important Thing is making the horizontal flow as absolutely easy for student musicians to follow. Where an E# crept in, I've been told to take it out, and to Definitely ban all double flats and sharps, and to not confuse trumpet players with sharps - I'm trying to juggle all the advice and I'm not so confident about the results, because I still don't feel anchored to the task. My dread is that a piece will be rejected out of a hand by a publisher if the notation choices are deemed hopelessly inappropriate.

    And so, on I go. Thanks for the help, guys.


  10. #10
    Join Date
    Jun 2000
    Chandler, Arizona

    Re: Notation: Wrestling with accidentals

    I would not worry about enharmonics and how they affect intonation for Grade 3 students. They will play C# and Db the same as they are more concerned about just playing the notes and the rhythms. A more advanced ensemble of grade 3.5 to 4.0 may start worrying more about intonation. Another thing to remember is that most Grade 3 students are still playing with student model instruments which will have all sorts of intonation issues!

    It's very rare to see things such as E# and Fb in this level of music as the key signatures rarely venture into this territory.

    I think the 2nd screenshot for the tuba part is much easier to read especially if the part is in C major.

    The concert key of Eb Major is very common at this level as it keeps the instruments out of the sharp keys. One note to avoid in many instruments is the high C# as many student models have problems with this note.


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