Courtesy Accidentals: Finding and Implenting Them in Your Parts

There is a simple thing that you can do to make your music easier to read. When formatting your parts, you will want to check all parts for one simple thing: the opportunity to implement “courtesy” accidentals. View the video below to learn how you can make your charts MUCH easier to read down the first time by using courtesy accidentals.

11 Replies to “Courtesy Accidentals: Finding and Implenting Them in Your Parts”

  1. anthony williams

    Nice stuff. You are right. Inattention to such details affects the playability of a part. Another consideration might be the use of enharmonic equivalents in order to make a part easier to read and make melodic sense, especially when writing soli parts. For example, in a sharp key a few flatted notes may occur in an ascending passage,using sharpened versions of those notes would enhance playablity. On the other hand, particularly for brass instruments the notation may affect tuning, mainly in medium to slow opuses (depending on where in the range its located), the arranger can thus use this fact deliberately for expressive purposes. Sorry for meandering, but I find that this is a discursive topic, and I agree with you that neglect in this area will rebound to the detriment of the music and the reputation of the arranger.
    Keep up the good work. Love what you do and will gladly pay for the instruction you impart.
    All the best for the Holidays.


  2. Jim Martin

    Anthony: You are right. Just after I made that video, I remembered that I forgot to mention correcting enharmonic notes.

    For example, I rarely let B#’s and E#s go without making them enharmonic equivalents (i.e. C natural, and F natural). I hate seeing those in parts and they simply add to the amount of brain cells necessary because we rarely see those two notes in parts. The only exception would be if a chart is in C# or F# major. But I can’t think of a big band chart I have ever played in those keys. For string players however, correcting those might not be necessary since they are more accustomed to sharp keys.

  3. Bill Frank

    Thanks for treating this subject–and adding comments about spelling accidentals–I’d like to add some of my thoughts: Chromatic passages should use #’s for upward motion, b’s for downward-with some keys requiring double sharps or flats. The odd spellings (Cb, B#, E#,Fb, double flats/sharps) should be avoided in horn parts except to avoid excessive accidentals or make melodic line smoother.
    In piano/guitar parts note spelling should reflect the underlying chord structure-even when it requires ‘odd spellings’. Courtesy accidentals are important just after key change or in accidentals tied over into the next measure but followed by same note again.
    The whole subject has to be considered in each part of an arrangement. I appreciate all the help you are giving us arrangers–Do keep it up–they are always constructive as well as instructive.


  4. Jim Martin

    Bill: All excellent points, and I do all of those as well. I am very adamant about having notes reflect the chord spelling, maybe too much so. For example, it really bugs me to have a Gb in a trombone part when the chord is D13, a “B” in a part where the chord is Abmi7. I have an under grad degree in music theory, so maybe my neurosis stems from that.

    You guys are really adding some good points though. Keep it up!

  5. david ricard

    On the same subject, courtesy key signatures are important when a tune modulates to C. If the key signature doesn’t display the natural signs where the accidentals were in the previous key, players may not be aware that the tune changed key.

    As far as note spelling goes, one thing I’ve begun doing (and I don’t know if this helps the player) is, if I have a descending line using flats but the last two notes are ascending, I usually make the note before the last note a sharp. That way it looks like the line goes down and then up. So the last two notes are C# and D as opposed to Db and D.

  6. Larry Fitzpatrick

    One of my pet peeves concerns “combined” parts (i.e. Trumpet 1,2).
    I’ve run across many pieces where the composer/arranger places an accidental for one part (e.g. C# for Trumpet 1) and assumes the Trumpet 2 player has seen it when he encounters the C later in the measure. This seems to be becoming more common with the increased use of Finale and other music composing software since sharping the second C would lead to a double sharp. The courtesy accidental would be very welcome here.

    Secondly, please clarify for me: when an altered note (not in the key signature) is tied to the same note in the next measure, does the accidental also tie over? It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, there always seems to be confusion as to what to do. Would a courtesy accidental be appropriate here?

    Thanks for all your hard work. Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday’s to you and yours.


  7. Jim Martin

    Larry: You must be referring to concert band parts where instruments are combined into one part, to save paper I would think. I personally hate those things, and I would never do that in a jazz chart.

    As far as an accidental tied to over a bar, yes, it is the same note and would not require a courtesy accidental. That would make it very confusing for the player I would think.

    If the tied note is followed by the same note, it would then require a courtesy accidental for sure. Earlier versions of Finale sometimes do not recognize the pitch, even though its tied, so when played back, it would often play the tied note a half step lower. That was really annoying. I use 2010 now and I believe that is fixed.

  8. Larry Fitzpatrick

    Jim –
    “…You must be referring to concert band parts where instruments are combined into one part, to save paper I would think. I personally hate those things, and I would never do that in a jazz chart…”

    Oops! I kind of forgot that this is a /jazz/ arranging class 🙂 but yeah, this is exactly the type of part I’m refering to. I’ve encountered them primarily in my church orchestra…usually 2 parts to a page but occasionally all 3 parts. Talk about confusing!!

    Thanks again for all you’re doing. It’s greatly appreciated!!


  9. curt streuli

    I was looking at I think measure 21 to 23, with an Ab in 21 and an a in 23. Two measures separate the the Ab to A natural, and no courtesy accidental, which seems right. I’m assuming that you only use the courtesy accidentals in the immediate next measure?

    Also it’s important to use the paranthesis if you are doing this by hand. Sometimes I run across courtesy accicentals without the paranthesis and they confuse me.

    I’d like to agree with the comment about 2 parts on one piece of paper. As I get older, , the eyes a little worse, and the mind a little slower, these things can be impossible to read. Especially if you are arranging for non professional musicians, it’s important to remember that for many of us, the bottom line is we may not read as well as we did when we were younger, even with the benefit of both experience and music reading glasses.

  10. Jim Martin

    Curt: You are correct, too much of a good thing can be confusing. I usually only use the courtesy accidentals when it is needed, i.e. the measure following the original accidental.

    Parenthesis are important as well, because they do signify that the accidental is one of courtesy only.

    I am now making parts about 93%, that seems to be large enough to read easily, but still get 9 staves on a page, 8 on the title page.

  11. Chuck Smith

    Jim, there is a cautionary accidental plugin in Finale. You didn’t mention the use of courtesy accidentals on octave notes. In modern music notation the accidentals only apply to the line or space where they occur not to the octave spaces or lines.

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