In Search of Beautiful Music Scores

Some time ago I told the story of coming across a lovely edition of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor in the back room of a little music shop during a visit to Spain. Immediately attracted by the quality and clarity of the score, I noticed that the bowing, fingering and phrasing slurs coincided pleasingly with my own ideas. It was a a work of real beauty and made reading a delight.

Casa Beethoven

In the Hand of the Composer

Some original music written in the composer’s own hand – known as autographs – are works of great artistic beauty. J.S. Bach’s are a great example. Others, like Beethoven’s manuscripts, are almost indecipherable, littered with numerous revisions and corrections, which nonetheless provide music scholars with intriguing insights into the mind of the composer.

J.S. Bach autograph

J.S. Bach autograph

Beethoven Ode to Joy

From Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (Symphony No. 9)

Musical scores are a musician’s primary source of study material. The language-like symbols of musical notation are recognized in most parts of the world. With a bit of experience, it’s possible to read them mentally – like a book, hearing the music inside your head.

Constantly in search of beautiful music scores during many years of playing and teaching violin, I’ve accumulated a mountain of printed music, rivaling my ex-professor’s friend’s vast book library, except – in contrast to his neatly ordered bookshelves – my scores languish uncategorized in boxes.

In truth I’ve collected more scores than I could ever use. (And my bookish friend rarely re-reads from his collection.) The heavy boxes dutifully accompanied us each time we moved house, yet the whole lot could easily be stored on my laptop computer’s hard drive – or in the cloud. In fact, a great deal of them are already there.

Digital Scores

Digital scores are very useful for teaching and travel, and my case, are somewhat easier to find. You can quickly email a piece to a student, print off a dozen or so copies for an upcoming concert and take the music you’re studying on holiday without lugging around great sheaves of paper. You can also keep copies at home and on a cloud server.

Admittedly, as with digital books, the screen lacks the allure of paper manuscripts and I haven’t yet had the heart to throw out any into the garden compost. They are like old friends with whom I’ve had long and deep conversations.

On the positive side, digital scores have the potential to save trees and physical storage space. (Actually, I wonder if they really do save trees, considering how easy it is to print off those extra copies.)

The fine art of music publishing still retains some of the traditional practices originating in the 16th century, when scores were engraved by hand on metal plates for printing. With the arrival of software programs such as Sibelius and Finale, the old ways began to decline and it became possible to create and print good looking scores from the computer – and hear the results without having to book an orchestra to test out your latest masterpiece.Finale


Understandably, a fair amount of skill is involved. Mastering these complex programs requires an experienced musician’s knowledge of notation and a relatively long lead time to acquire sufficient fluency in setting out and shaping the music into a good looking score. Thereafter it’s relatively easy to customize the music with elements such as fingerings, bowing, slurs and other directions.

I’ve enjoyed working with Finale for a couple of decades or so and the scores available on the Resources page were created with this program.

Talking about Scores

While there are universally accepted standards and conventions for good musical scores, the hallmarks of beautiful scores, like those of great musical performances, are to some extent in the eyes (or ears) of discerning beholders. The quality of beauty is easier to recognize than to define or explain!

The Features of Good Scores

Clarity and Readability – good scores have clean, intelligent layouts that make reading easier, with sufficient spacing, uncrowded measures and musically logical pages.

Form and Style – the typeface and symbols (especially noteheads) are shapely, elegant and the right size.

Interpretation – the slurs and expressions clearly communicate musical (and bowing) shapes, dynamics, tone colours and dramatic elements.

Accuracy and authenticity – the score faithfully follows the composer’s original scores, edits and intentions. (Unless you can communicate directly with the composer, this is not always easy to determine. The musical world is rife, often hilariously so, with controversies and questions of who, what, when and most notoriously, authenticity. Did Anna Magdalena write Bach’s cello suites?)

Standards – the score uses universally recognised syntax, symbols, layout.

Consistency – the score consistently maintains symbols and conventions throughout, such as order of articulations and fingerings.



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