Advice for Composers

Special Sounds: Describe rather than Prescribe

I tend to get caught up in issues of notation, so it’s time for me to step back. Keep it simple.

If you are a composer looking for a special kind of sound, but aren’t sure how to notate it, your solution may be as easy as adding a bit of text describing what you want.

This seems like a no-brainer, but many composers feel compelled to add prescriptions rather than descriptions. A prescriptive direction tells the player how to execute the effect and does not describe the intended result. Unless you are a player of the instrument in question, avoid prescriptive indications like the plague. Here is an example: a prescriptive indication might say “use lots of air”, or “tight embouchure”.

A more useful, descriptive indication for “use lots of air” might be “match the sound of the string harmonics” or “imitate a bamboo flute”. Matching string sounds and producing bamboo sounds are two very different techniques, but both using an airy type of sound, so it is helpful to have a descriptive indication to know which of these types of airy sound the composer might have in mind.

The prescription “tight embouchure” might be “thin, reedy sound” or “like a buzz saw”. Again, very different means of production, so a description is helpful.

I hope this has made your composing day a bit easier 🙂

Advice for Composers

Style Guide for Composers

If you are a composer looking for general-purpose layout advice, or a performer/group looking for a single page reference guide to give to the people who write for you, here is a document my colleagues and I at Musikfabrik have come up with. It is by no means exhaustive. One could read the 704-page Behind Bars by Elaine Gould, but we have tried to distill everything on to one page. Ideally the second page will have links to specific instrumental techniques. I should also apply the disclaimer that these guidelines reflect our own ensemble culture at the present time.

Here is the link in case the embedding does not work below:

Advice for Composers extended techniques

Extended Techniques for Flute – Notation Cheat-Sheet

So here is my attempt to get a lot of information to you quickly and succinctly via Google spreadsheets. The photo quality is not so good, but this way I can make quick changes, and you are always viewing the latest version. This is not an exhaustive overview of all notation practices – it is a quick-fix if you are looking for a standard, acceptable notation.

You can go to this document directly and download it as a PDF or view it here: