Thursday, June 2, 2011

Behind Bars readthrough: Chapter 1: Staves, clefs and noteheads

Ground Rules: in which the basics of notation are established and expounded upon. For an introduction to this project, see the first post. Throughout Behind Bars, British naming conventions are in use: stave, crotchet, minim, etc. I shall use her terminology where applicable and revert to standard American where appropriate.

The stave [staff]
Ledger [leger] lines
Octave signs
Rest symbols
Rhythmic spacing
Spacing symbols

The stave:
The stave is the basis for all musical measurement. A stave-space (or, in American, staff-space) is the distance between two stave-lines and serves as a fundamental scalable unit. The stave size may change, but the proportional relationship of symbols does not. We will discuss appropriate stave sizes much, much later.

Almost all music is written on a five-line stave as it is immediately recognizable. The other frequently-used stave type is that of a single line. Its primary use is for indefinite pitch of all sorts and as a baseline to show approximate pitch. Two- and three-line staves are useful in percussion music. Kurt Stone recommends against four-line staves because players can more readily grasp positions on a five- or three-line stave. (p. 216)

Percussion Clef
Gould outlines the basic clefs: treble, bass, and the various C clefs. She recommends a double vertical-stroke clef for percussion and notes that it is optional for staves of fewer than five lines.

We will talk about the horizontal spacing of initial items (clef, key signature, time signature and initial note) a little later.

Her recommendations for changing clef are quite thorough and expand significantly on Ross, Read and Stone. Stone notes that clef changes should come one space before the barline and that "there are no specific rules for clef changes within a measure" (p. 46). Ted Ross and Gardner Read have some recommendations, but fall somewhat short of comprehensive.

Consensus rules for clef changes:
  1. Use a clef change where there is an extended constant use of ledger lines
  2. Avoid frequent clef changes (Gould: use up to three ledger lines rather than changing frequently. Preserve the contour of the line wherever possible.)
  3. Use a clef two-thirds of (Ross: two or three sizes smaller than) normal for the change.
  4. Generally place the new clef immediately before the note involved.
  5. If the change affects an entire measure, place the clef before the barline
  6. For mid-bar changes, use the whole beat immediately preceding the affected notes (Gould adds to use half-beats or other subdivisions if necessary.
Gould's additions:
  1. Changes between beats come after rests.
  2. It is better to keep the phrase contour intact rather than to keep to whole beats.
  3. Avoid changing clefs between ties; if you must, use a system break
  4. After periods of rests, change back to a conventional clef at the end of the system after the player has finished. If changing to a nonstandard clef, change according to foregoing rules.
Common clef change situations. Examples adapted from Gould: Behind Bars.

Gould’s recommendations amplify the standard texts in very helpful ways. Her central aim is to preserve the contour of the line and disrupt spacing as little as possible. The suggestion to change back from a nonstandard clef to standard is very interesting. When you put the change back at the end of a line, it's almost invisible. The next line starts with the proper clef and the performer doesn’t get the double-take when the new clef appears immediately before playing.


Black noteheads: oval shape that slopes away from stem.
White noteheads: 
  • Minim (half note): oval shape with diagonal shading following slope of the oval.
  • Semibreve (whole note): wider oval shape with shading slightly left of perpendicular.
  • Breve (double whole note): may have two lines, one line or be rectangular in shape.  
Diamond shaped noteheads are used for the following functions:
    • harmonics in instrumental writing
    • silently depressed keys in piano music
    • differentiate unconventional techniques
    • singing through a wind instrument
    • multiphonics
    • unvoiced vocal sounds
    • falsetto
Crossed noteheads are unshaded and fill a stave-space. Steven Powell in Music Engraving Today (Brichtmark, 2007) suggests to use a double-sharp sign in place of unshaded lines because it is more visible on the page. Gould demurs, recommending reserving the double-sharp sign for its role as an accidental.

Showing a minim or semibreve with a crossed notehead is done in one of two ways: a small x in the middle of an unshaded circle the size of a minim or semibreve or as diamond noteheads. I find that diamond noteheads are significantly easier to read.

Uses for crossed noteheads:
    • notating sounds of indefinite pitch on a five-line stave
    • to distinguish certain instruments in percussion writing
    • spoken text
    • differentiate between speech and singing
    • showing approximate pitch
Triangular noteheads are used for the highest or lowest possible pitch, where it cannot be specified. It may be black or white depending on duration and does not take a leger line.

Gould specifies that semibreve noteheads have a ratio of 2.5 to 3 black noteheads. This seemed off to me. I took several music fonts in current use and compared the sizes of black to semibreve noteheads and came up with a different result. Her ratio works out to .833; the actual number ranges from .71 to .76 with an average of .73. The designers of these fonts need to balance two things: ease of legibility and evenness of color. When the size of the black notehead and half-note is closer in size to the whole note, the page can flow more evenly, but it is subtly more difficult to quickly tell the difference between half and whole notes. If the ratio is too small (and Petrucci approaches this point) the line tends to have hitches in it which impede facile reading. 

An interesting side-effect of this exercise is the illumination of the various widths of the fonts. Opus is by far the widest music font and Petrucci the narrowest. Opus' generous space invites easy reading, but Maestro and Helsinki may be better suited to tightly-packed spaces. Sonata and Petrucci are quite outdated at this point and engravers will be better served with other choices. I would welcome comments from those more informed than I on this topic.

Next week: Stems, tails and beams (hooray beams!)

1 comment:

odod zappafans said...

whoa that's interesting .. i am a new with this kind of things, but i made my own font becaus i dont like those fonts especially opus fonts .. for me virtuoso font with taneyev treble clef just amazing .. how the noteheads shape are flawless .. but then again its a matter of taste :)
greetings from Indonesia