Is this still an acceptable way to draw stems?

Edited: July 21, 2018, 1:58 PM · I see this a lot in baroque manuscripts, but not so much in modern scores. Whenever I draw stems like this, my teacher teases that my music looks like wizarding runes. Admittedly, it does look kind of funny sometimes, but, in many cases, it's simply the most space-effective way to write the music (it can get tight when you only have a few millimetres between staves).
What do you think? Would seeing stems like these (on the left in the image) in your scores make your eyes bleed, or would you not mind them?
(Perhaps I should clarify that I'm asking exclusively about stems and not about noteheads or anything. This image isn't an excerpt from anything—it's just random notes for example that I scribbled out.)

**F I N A L C O N C L U S I O N**
I dunno. People started talking about Musescore and typesetting and nice fountain pens. From what I understand, it's fine as long you don't overdo it and everything is clean.

Replies (23)

Edited: July 19, 2018, 7:50 AM · I honestly think that looks rather poor. Get Musescore.
July 18, 2018, 11:07 PM · the last measure you had is easier to read because when you join stems going in different directions it can be distracting. that being said, if your stems are interfering with something in the other staves, that is a much bigger problem and you should do whatever is the clearest. I think either way looks fine, but that's coming from a person who writes a vague squiggle instead of actual beams
July 19, 2018, 6:29 AM · I still write and copy music using pen and ink (never ball-point or fibre, and quill is difficult to get), or pencil (grade B or 2B). As long as I can read it, that's fine. I can't be fussed with the complexities of digital.

July 19, 2018, 7:21 AM · I don't think it should be just about minimizing effort when writing the music, but should have musical utility in mind, such as identifying or separating voices. I've been told that baroque music was written with that in mind.
July 19, 2018, 7:39 AM · - Bach's autographs are readable - and his stems are slashes, and his beams curly.

- We can't expect musicians to read from quick sketches.

- I prepared, the photo-copied, my own staff spacings, with sufficient space between the staves, and still more between the sytems.
And small staves swith lines as thick as the large staves t(to be read at the same distance..)

July 19, 2018, 9:34 AM · As a former teacher of music theory at the college level, I don't see what's so bad about your stems. Students are encouraged to make them straight and perpendicular (we recommended they use a straightedge they conveniently carried around with them: their student ID).

The bottom line is always this: can the musician reading your notation play it accurately without having to scrutinize it too closely or guess?

I were to have graded your paper, you would have gotten a couple of points off in the last bar for two reasons:
1. you have an extra slash on your beam, and a musician could easily mistake that for 32nd notes instead of 16ths.
2. There is what looks like an extra note head on the very last note.

One of the biggest problems people have with notation is the actual note heads, which can end up looking quite ambiguous. Most of yours are pretty good, but look at the second 8th note in bar 1. Is that an E or an F? I'm guessing F, but I shouldn't have to guess. The very next F5 in bar 2 is better, and the F5 in bar 3 is the best. However, what is the upper pitch on the chord of the downbeat of bar 3? D4 or E4?
Finally, the 3rd 16th in bar 4 is touching the line for D5, but more of it is actually extending into the E5 space.

Paul recommends just getting software, but I believe that there is real value in learning to notate well by hand. For one thing, computers aren't always available, and can be more time-consuming. For another, I have played many software-notated scores with mistakes or poor rhythmic groupings. When people use software, they ASSUME it will be perfect, which isn't always the case. So they begin to abdicate their responsibility to check everything. And if they never learned what good notation looks like then they definitely won't catch the mistakes.

The Norton Manual of Music Notation (George Heussenstamm) is a good reference, although my edition is from 1987. Not that music notation has changed much since then...

July 19, 2018, 10:01 AM · One issue that I always seem to have when notating by hand is judging in advance how much space I will need for the next bar. Musescore takes care of that for you.
July 19, 2018, 10:03 AM · If other people are expected to read and play your notation it is best to follow convention. If it is only for your own purposes, it doesn't matter. Writing music the way you showed for other people to play, you're just a careless or thoughtless slob (sorry!) . But if you write this way to quickly record your own compositions or for your own playing, I think it's fine. Any musician who might later copy it, either by hand or to computer should have no trouble with it.

I was "raised" on music from certain publishers (Schirmer, Fischer, Peters, International, etc.) and I am most comfortable sightreading music that looks like theirs as to spacing, contrast, and note "shape" and arrangements. I run into trouble with handwritten scores where convention is abandoned and weird things show up (like 4 and 5 ledger line notes being lower than those with 3 ledger lines [in Shostakovich 1st violin parts]). Other breaking of convention - like 5 16th notes under the same "double bar" or 3 connected eight notes under the same "bar" such as usually indicates triplets are also troublesome when trying to read at playing tempos(sometimes you even see these things in printed music.)

July 19, 2018, 11:07 PM · All four examples are readable and understandable, and each followed the rules that govern it.
Edited: July 19, 2018, 11:45 PM · Joel, if you showed up to a Broadway orchestra pit for a dress rehearsal and you opened your 50-page part to discover it was all written in such notation, I think you'd lose your marbles by the end of the overture and you'd be asking the music director WTF.
July 20, 2018, 2:28 AM · How about this Handwritten copy of Pachelbel's Canon. The vertical placement of the note heads is quite accurate, but all the ones with the stems pointing down are reversed. This Bach manuscript has the note heads pointing more conventionally, so it's not necessarily related to the era.

What kind of pen would one use nowadays that can draw thin stems as well as fat beams and note heads?

July 20, 2018, 8:35 AM · Han, a reason for reversing the stems (having them following the note heads instead of preceding) is that it is actually quicker to write, which has been my experience. I believe calligraphers use the sort of pen you're asking about, but I've never used one. The place to enquire would be an artists' store, which might even stock quill pens. Or search online.

One way of writing music manuscript to minimise confusion of where exactly the note head is placed ("is it meant to be on the line?" etc) is to write it as an inclined thick dash. It is then much clearer whether it is between the lines or crossing a line.

July 20, 2018, 9:17 AM · Has anyone had to play the handwritten mess in the official Porgy and Bess score?
What a nightmare. I especially love it when ledger lines are inconsistently notated.
July 20, 2018, 10:51 AM · Looks pretty legible to me! Have seen much worse.

But I have a high tolerance for reading from manuscript. For your drafts, you can write it Egyptians hieroglyphs if you wish.... But if you want musicians to read your music with minimal accidents, do yourself a favor and typeset it so it's easy to read.

Edited: July 20, 2018, 2:15 PM · Before the computer era I used to do pen and ink music copying. Music Copying used to be a craft with high standards, with their own section in the musicians' union directory. It can look beautiful when done right. The pen tip is one of the calligraphy italic tips, ( 0.9 mm is my favorite). It makes a thin line vertical and a broad line horizontal. The flags on the eight notes look fancy. Side note; those dash marks above notes in Ur-texts of early music may just be ordinary staccato. The italic-tip quill pen does not make dots, only dashes the size of the tip.
Edited: July 20, 2018, 2:39 PM · A long time ago I did some music copying using a calligraphic fountain pen. I found it rather cumbersome, since you have to rotate your wrist or the paper all the time. To reproduce a G clef nicely you'd have to rotate the pen tip several times. Ledger lines are horizontal and thin, so they require yet another hand angle, as do whole notes. Half notes are even more difficult to get right.

I was hoping that there was some kind of pressure-sensitive pen on the market, that could produce thin and thick lines on command. The Pachelbel manuscript suggests that a feather quill does the job, but I'm looking for something more modern.

July 21, 2018, 10:10 AM · "To reproduce a G clef nicely you'd have to rotate the pen tip several times"

That's crazy talk. You're supposed to rotate the paper.
I suppose rotating your desk would work as well. If the desk will not rotate easily, clear a path around it and walk the pen around it.

And please send a video.

July 21, 2018, 10:58 AM · All of that was fine for when this site would have instead been printed in a newspaper and we'd be sending our entries on typewritten postcards.
July 21, 2018, 11:56 AM · The pressure-sensitive tip would be the thin-point steel tip commonly used in the nineteenth century for the various forms of copper-plate style handwriting. It is a different technique. the Italic tip works best for music copying. I'll be the first to admit that it is not fast.
July 21, 2018, 12:25 PM · When I studied composition, I had to deliver perfect manuscripts. I was suggested to use a Montblanc le grand fountain pen with massive gold nib. This does the job (and the nib is still as new after all that abuse!).

Paul - MuseScore is cheaper than that pen, but it creates better notes!

July 21, 2018, 12:27 PM · I wonder if this will be another dead end thread by the OP...
July 21, 2018, 7:33 PM · I've had several Montblancs of various types.
Good-for-nothing status symbols that constantly clog.
July 22, 2018, 5:41 AM · Mine doesn't clog. Wrong ink, maybe?

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