The Art of Music Copying

The "Art" of Music Copying

Excerpt from the "Lizard's Guide to Music Copying" 

by Lee Monroe

I have read many accounts from copyists at different stages of the profession who love to talk about the "Art" of music copying.  I am often amused because I have always approached copying, particularly as a hand copyist, from a strictly utilitarian point of view.  I was drawing dots and at the pace I had to work, there wasn't much time for anything else.  I didn't have time to try too many fancy things or try to get something to look "artistic", it had to be fast and it had to be correct.


Looking back now though, I'm a little more philosophical.  Whenever I talk to a former hand copyist that has been in the grind and had to produce under harrowing circumstances, I have a greater appreciation for what it took (and takes) to be a music copyist.  


There are things that are hard to quantify and the rules don't always apply.  Occasionally I hear it from one of my copyist, "but you said...", and my response is usually something like "that's when this happens" or "this situation is different" or the always effective "Do you want to get paid for this gig or not?"  Often something will come up that breaks the rules and you have to use your imagination to make things work.


I am convinced that Finale copyists that were hand copyists originally are much better at this than someone who just learned how to copy on the computer.  I have some excellent copyists who were not hand copyists, they know Finale up and down and often discover little things that I did not know about.  Yet every once in a while I will be looking at their work and see how they laid a part out.  It is then that I realize that there are things that they still don't get.


As a hand copyist, when I received a score I went through the entire score and mapped out the basic layout for each of the parts.  The primary thing that I would have to consider were page turns.  Many of the sessions or performances that we did were sight read or nearly so. Performers didn't have time to learn the arrangement front and back, they would just read it down.  Page turns would take precedence over practically all other considerations.  We could not be concerned with page counts or such, it was vital that the music be as plain and readable as possible for the performers.  


After going through the scores for the basic layout, I would then blue pencil everything and plan out unisons along with deciding what instruments shared similar layouts.  For example, if the brass were all playing at similar places I would do a generic layout with no clefs.  I would put in as many bar lines, bar numbers, multi-measure rests, Tempo markings, etc... as I could to minimize duplication of effort.  I would then copy (Sepia) these parts into another generation. For the trumpets, I would add a treble clef, key signatures, and unisons, or anything else that would save me scratching out something again - for the lower brass I would do the same.  Often I could even go another generation breaking the parts down to Trumpets 1 & 2, Trumpets 3 & 4, Trombones 1 & 2, Trombone 3 & Tuba, etc.  As a hand copyist that would stay up for days on end to finish a project, I lived for these short cuts.


What you would start to develop through this exercise is an "eye" for immediately recognizing layouts and could scan scores in a heartbeat to see where you could save some time.  I don't know about other copyists, but I didn't spend a lot of time analyzing scores from a musical point of view - I was all about appearance.  In today's world of computer copyists, there are those who think that they can program in layout concepts and all they have to do is extract, well I say that's nonsense.  While occasionally you will have a chart that will fall into place with a minimal amount of tweaking, those are the exceptions and this is where I usually can determine if you were originally a hand copyist.  No offense, it's just the way it is.


On the other hand, the advent of computer notation has brought a dimension to copying that wasn't there before - "Ear Proofing."  Before, unless an arranger's mistake was notation in nature, I could care less what it sounded like.  As long as the evidence was on the score that what I wrote was there, I wasn't concerned.  I was getting paid to copy, not to analyze.  Ear proofing not only allows me to check my own work, but helps to identify problems with the orchestrators work as well.  My company did a project last year involving several very talented LA orchestrators, it was a crunch project to be recorded in London, full orchestra and it was one big chart.  Three different orchestrators were working on this one chart.  We got the material piecemeal and there were many revisions.  We were able to identify over 100 mistakes in this score because of either ear proofing the work or comparing the notation of each of the orchestrators (all of the copyists would paste their work into the master score at the end of each day).   


The computer is a powerful tool and brings many advantages to music copying but you should still try and learn the eye that most hand copyists have developed for layouts.  I was fortunate to learn most of what I know from a copyist named Sonny Annis, he had a great eye and never seemed to be as much concerned about the "rules" as we was the layout or the look.


Just because the computer will allow you to put six bars a line of eight note runs doesn't mean you should.  As an exercise, you might try and go through a score ahead of time and do a little mapping, then compare to how the computer laid it out, it might prove enlightening.  Strive to find the right balance between economy and function, usually they are very closely related.


Take care! Lee Monroe

Lee Monroe is the owner of Express Music Services.  He has been a fulltime copyist for 19 years and was strictly a hand copyist for the first 15.  You can check out his hand music font by following this link - LeeMusic.

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