Tips for Music Score and Part Layout

Obvious arranging rule #1: The only way to get a chart played by real live musicians is to print out a score and individual parts for each player in the band.

In the “old days”, I used to stay up late hand copying parts from the hand copied score I had labored over for months. My manuscript eventually became pretty good and alot of guys (and girls too) made nice comments on how easy my stuff was to read.

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Back then, I used a calligraphy pen that had cartridges of indelible ink inside them. The pens never came with the right ink, so I had to get a syringe and replace the contents ever so carefully. Worked great, and thankfully I had no heroin habit at the time. 🙂 The music paper was from Judy Green, the real heavy stuff. Those of you who weren’t born after 1985 or so will probably remember Judy Green paper.

Then came computers, the Macintosh – and Finale music notation software. The truth is that I still hand copied stuff for a few years after the introduction of these great tools, simply because the computers were so damn slow it wasn’t worth the time and effort. After all, it took about 10 seconds or more for the screen to redraw each and every time. I remember it taking an entire day to format and print parts for a big band chart!

But eventually, computer speed caught up and now the only thing I do by hand is an occasional score in the event I need to scan and email the PDF to someone else to enter into Finale. (amazing how easy we’ve got it now!)

This lesson gives some tips on how I layout score and parts in Finale. Doesn’t matter what music notation program you use, your score and parts still have to be as clean and readable as you can make them. As usual, let me know if you have any questions.

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24 Replies to “Tips for Music Score and Part Layout”

  1. Matt Kern

    Another great video. The large format is the way to go. It looks very good.

    My only comment would be as a player it is harder to read a chart that has no rehearsal letters. Those tend to outline the form and as a rhythm player – most of what we play is inferred and not written. With no rehearsal letters it makes it harder to read/interpret.

    Thanks for another great lesson!

  2. Kevin Bowman

    Love the larger format.

    An excellent resource for layout and presentation is the book “Music Engraving Today” by Seven Powell. And, although I am also a Finale user, the book presents information and solutions for both Finale and Sibelius.

    I agree with Matt, I find rehearsal letters indispensible for reading. When I’m done with the score, I go back and add the rehearsal letters (or numbers in some cases) above the top line of the score. Unfortunately, the desired position does not alsways automatically translate well to the parts and some individual adjustmenst may be neccessary.

  3. Jim Martin

    Thanks Matt, that’s definitely something to consider. I used to put larger numbers in a box at the top of the staff to delineate form like rehearsal letters would do – every 16 bars or so. I guess I’ve just gotten lazy to do that any more. I guess rehearsal letters and numbers would be ok too. Maybe I’ll post that as the next poll at Do you prefer rehearsal letters, numbered measures, or both?

  4. Jim Martin

    Thanks Kevin, I’ll check that book out for sure. I still consider myself somewhat of a newbie with Finale even after 20 years, but I think my stuff is pretty readable these days. I always have to go through each part to make sure they each read well. As powerful as Finale is, it still misses some basic things as far as layout goes.

  5. Howard Wrightson

    Hi Jim,

    Great lesson! I struggle with the rhythm parts and spend a lot of time trying to notate them correctly and wind up leaving them off the score but I do print the parts.
    I see I’ll have to change some old habits and get to know the notation software (Overture) better.

    On the individual parts, do you try to make a boiler plate on each section? Say your 1st Alto for the saxes, Trumpet 1 for trumpets and Bone 1 for Bones?
    Do you try to keep your slurs over a couple bars, on one line, for parts?

    I know I’ll have other questions. Will ask later.

    Thanks again,

  6. Jim Martin

    Vaughan: I look and tweak every part before printing and make sure that its as readable as possible. You can’t really “boilerplate” them because oftentimes there are solo chord changes for other players, so that part will inevitably be longer than the others. As far as slurs, yes, I try to make it so they don’t go across the staves, but many times you can’t avoid it. In that case I move the slur up some so that it looks like it is crossing the stave to the next one. Pain in the ass, but that’s the only way to make it look like the slur needs to go to the next line.

  7. Howard Wrightson

    Hi Jim,

    Would I be wrong in using “Double Bars” where most older arrangers use rehersal letters? I agree with you about using numbers. So much easier to say ‘Lets go to measure #42″ without counting to and from a letter. I thought the “Double Bar” sometimes expressed a beginning or end of a phrase, etc., etc..

    I like the new format.


  8. Jim Martin

    Vaughan: Double bars can and should be used. They help delineate form of the music and I don’t think I have ever written a chart without them. So for example, an arrangement that has 32 bar form, you could put a double bar between the 2nd 8 bars (second A section) and the bridge, or even every 8 bars. Certainly between every 32 bars, or however you feel the form lays out.

  9. Rick Hirsch


    All *excellent* advice.
    I’ve been a Finale-based music copyist for 15+ years and think you’ve really covered the basics solidly.
    And I got clarity on some ideas, too.

    My approach is very similar to yours in terms of score and part layout, though I am a fan of using double bars AND periodic rehearsal marks as form/structure delineators. Personal preference, as you stated.

    I might add a couple of Finale defaults that I change to help the readability:
    1. set the thickness of ledger lines to about double that of staff lines.
    2. make the thickness of THICK barlines (eg. in a repeat bar OR a final barline) to double of Finale’s stock setting. This helps the repeats jump off the page a bit.

    Inre: Vaughan’s question about boiler plate formatting…. up until very recently, I would actually copy and paste similarly formatted parts. So, I’d lay out Tpt 1. Then I’d save it as Tpt.2, then paste Tpt. 2 music into this new part. Then tweak a little bit.

    Now, I’m finally learning to use Finale’s linked parts. They’re by no means perfect, but there’s a lot to recommend them. And, I recently discovered that one can change system margins to multiple parts at once — a handy feature if you’re laying out several similar parts (like tpt 1, tpt 2…. if you’re lucky…)

    Many thanks, Jim!

    ~ Rick

  10. Jim Martin

    Rick: thanks for the great input. That’s good pointers on the thickness of ledger lines and repeats. I’ll try that. Also, I used to do the same thing with part layout that you describe (ex. making tpt 1 and using it for tpt 2, etc.). But with 2010 you don’t really have to do that anymore because part extraction is gone. I find the time saved was well worth the upgrade. I was using Finale 2003 for years until last year when I upgraded to 2010.

  11. curt streuli

    Thanks for the new lesson Jim. A couple of additional comments. Younger arrangers may not realize this but when you get older and your eyes go, small notes get really hard to read. As an example those marches in the Sousa books that I could read no problem 40 years ago now have to be blown up on a copy machine.

    One thing you didn’t discuss are page turns. They need thought for everyone, but for brass players here are two extra points. A mute change takes time, and a quick page turn with a mute change needs extra time for the page turn. Also plungers require two hands, one for the horn and one for the plunger. We are currently doing a chart now with a page turn in the middle of the plunger passage, and no good place to just memorize a few bars and turn the page later. It’s virutally unplayable and what we all had to do was make extra copies and tape the pages together to eliminate the page turn.

    Personally I really like the rehearsal marks and the double bars help me organize my thinking when I play the chart.

    With Sibelius you need to correct individual parts. It has a way of putting the rehearsal letter and chord change in the exact same place for example.

  12. david ricard

    I’ve been told by players (especially trumpet players) that they really like to see the rehearsal numbers (or bar number) start on the left side of the page. So if there’s two measures of rest up front, they would rather see that on one staff and then the second staff starts at bar 3.

    It’s actually pretty easy to accommodate trumpet players this way since their parts are generally less note-y than everyone else’s.

    As a piano player I really like 4 measures to a staff but if there’s irregular parts like 10 measures in a section. I like the new section to start on the left.

    You can’t really on auto-formatting for these things. You have to go through each part and imagine you’re reading it.

  13. Ron

    Now that most(?) young arrangers use Finale or Sibelius, other than tradition, or “old school”, why does a jazz font continue to be the font of choice over the many clearer “publisher-type” fonts that are available today, and that are used in publications for concert band, orchestra, and piano, particularly, since clarity is the primary goal.

    I used to use a jazz font when I first started using software to print parts, out of tradition, mostly, but, being a school band director, I found that students had far less trouble reading a standard font that they had “grown up” reading in band class, method books, and solo and ensemble music, so I changed to a more conventional, “publisher-type” font and had far less problems.

    Is simulating hand-copied manuscript the only reason for continuing this practice?

  14. Jim Martin

    Ron: that is an interesting question and one that I never thought about. I personally think that a big band chart (or any jazz chart) looks a little strange if a traditional “classical” font is used. But that is probably because I am so used to the hand written and jazz font.

    I do think that having to read all sorts of manuscript from hand written charts made me a better sight reader. When I worked on a ship in the mid 80s, everything was hand written and we really had to read some chicken scratch at times. In some ways, the computer notation has spoiled us.

    I am actually thankful that I grew up first with having to do everything by hand, then moved on to computer notation. Writing out notes by hand helps ingrain things in the brain better I think than only learning to enter notes on a computer. Just like transcribing a jazz solo by ear (and writing it out) helps your ear more than just “reading” an already transcribed one, writing out an entire chart by hand helps in the same way.

    If anyone else has an opinion on this topic, please leave your comments.

  15. Rick Hirsch

    Inre the “Jazz Font”… I’m still partial to one of the original handwritten music fonts, Golden Age. It was designed by copyist Don Rice in the early 90s, modeled closedly after the no-nonsense approach by classic copyist Clinton Roemer. It’s less stylized than the JazzFont, and in many ways more intuitive.

    Not meant to slam Rich Sigler’s font — I believe it also has a lot to recommend it.

    ~ Rick

  16. Jim Martin

    Rick: I studied from Clinton Roemer’s book back when I was hand copying. That was a great book. Does the Golden Age font come with Finale? If not, where can I get it?

  17. Rick Hirsch


    GoldenAge doesn’t come with Finale. I don’t know if Don Rice (GA’s designer) still sells it, but I know he still uses it. In fact, I was in touch with him a month or two ago inre a little assistance integrating the font into Finale 2010.

    He’s 50% of anixter-rice music service, and can be emailed at:

    If you’d like to see the font, I can send you a couple samples of stuff I’ve prepared with it.

    see ya!
    ~ Rick

  18. David Cannaday

    I like the New format. I also like the four bar measure staves. It’s just easy to read.I number the measures, also letter every phrase (8,16,24) what ever it should be. Also notate ENS:Section. I also like the Score to have the solo part and empty staves if no one else is playing,again easy to sightread.Thanks again, David

  19. Glynn Garcia

    This was my first view of your site. Great stuff. I hadn’t heard Judy Green in years.
    I appreciate your attention to parts and score detail. If music is easy to read its more likely to be played. And when you have sub players on a recurring basis this is very important.

    You seem to be somewhat of a Finale guru. I have a question.
    I’ve been trying to create/adapt/modify/discover a way to show 4-bar repeats in Finale. (very handy in rhythm parts) Do you know how?

  20. Jim Martin

    Glynn: I’m far from a Finale guru, but after doing so many charts using it, I’m finally getting to where I can make a part look nice and uniform and readable.

    As far as the 4 bar repeat sign, I was just wondering that the other day. I don’t believe finale can do that, mainly because I believe that it is not standard and conventional to have 4 bar repeats. I believe that the 2 bar repeat sign is as far as conventional notation goes. I studied from Clinton Roemer’s book years ago and it seems like there is a rule that only 2 bar repeats are allowed.

    I could be wrong though so if someone knows better please chime in. I think making drums parts 8 bars to the staff with single bar repeats is fine. As long as you keep them 4 and 8 bars to the staff, drummers usually have no problem seeing the form quickly.

    So if anyone knows if 4 bar repeats are possible in finale, please let us know.

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