Behind the Notation: Musical Spelling for Composers – closing

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Other Handy Tips

Short on time? Need to scan your score FAST for possible spelling problems?

Check for mixed accidentals!

Flats like to congregate with other flats, and sharps like to hang out with other sharps. We wish they’d be more willing to mingle, but in general if they are mixed together in a given passage, it’s because one of the following is true:

A) You are in a minor key with a flat key signature, so there is a sharp for the raised leading tone surrounded by flats (for example G Minor has two flats, with F usually raised to F-sharp as the leading tone). or

B) The music is harmonically complex or very chromatic (think Wagner, Schoenberg, etc.), or

C) Your spelling should be simplified a bit.

For example, here’s an excerpt that can look much simpler with one little tweak:

Zahra Partovi: O You Masses of Pilgrims (excerpt)

This is not so much a guideline in itself — it’s more of a proofreading aid: scanning your score for mixed accidentals is just a quick way to spot potential spelling issues.

Transpose, if you can, to save ink! (or pixels)

Sometimes you can just transpose a piece, or section of a piece, to avoid having more sharps and flats than you need. If you end up in C-sharp Major with its seven-sharp key signature, you’re likely to end up with some double sharps. IF you could just as easily write it in C major, why not do it? (and use Noteflight’s handy transposition tools).

But if transposing will strain the range of a singer or instrumentalist, better to keep it in the key it was in. Very small transpositions (a step or minor third) are safer but not guaranteed to work. Also, keep in mind that strings and some other instruments generally have an easier time with sharp keys (D, A, E, etc), while some transposing instruments like clarinets and sax do better with flat keys.

Modulation is cool… recheck your spelling!

Look to see if a section of the composition has modulated, and consider accidentals according to the new key. When and whether to change key signatures can be a tricky question: generally, try not to change them too often — it’s ok for a piece to be in a key other than that of the main key signature, for a while.

On Cautionary Accidentals

In the Schumann song we discussed, you may have wondered about the E-flat in measure 2: it’s in the key signature, so why write it in? That is there to remind (or “caution”) the player that the E-natural from the previous bar no longer applies. This isn’t really a spelling issue, since the note is spelled the same either way. When to include ‘cautionaries’ draws divided opinions — some performers find that they just clutter up the score. So we will leave this question to the braver among you. In this case, we’re playing it safe and going with the way Clara Schumann did it.

Try this Spelling Brain Teaser!

Let’s get some debate going! Use the comments section inside the score to argue for which notes you think should be respelled! And/or make a copy of the score and respell it, then post the link to your copy in the comments section of the original score. After a few weeks, Noteflight Robin will share the answer key showing how the composer spelled the piece.
*If you recognize the music, don’t give away any details about it until the answer has been revealed!!

In conclusion…

Hopefully, some of these tips will prove useful as you go through your musical life composing and arranging. A lot of the time, good musical spelling mirrors and encapsulates good principles of music theory. So it’s partly about awareness: if you know what key you’re in (if you’re writing in a key at all), or if you know what chord or scale a given set of two or three notes hints at (B-flat, C, E-natural might imply a dominant seventh chord in third inversion, even if that chord is not present or if you’re not in a traditional harmonic context), then it helps you spell better. That in turn helps your performers navigate through your score quickly and easily. But you don’t have to be a theory expert to be a good musical speller.

Above all: when in doubt, keep it simple, and ask performers for their advice!

Now, go forth and SPELL SOME MUSIC!

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