Music engraving

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Sample of hand-copied music manuscript, in ink, of a piece composed for piano. About this sound Play 

Music engraving is the art of drawing music notation at high quality for the purpose of mechanical reproduction. The term music copying is almost equivalent, though music engraving implies a higher degree of skill and quality, usually for publication. Plate engraving, the process the term originally referred to, became obsolete around 1990. The term engraving is now used to refer to any high-quality method of drawing music notation, particularly on a computer ("computer engraving" or "computer setting") or by hand ("hand engraving").

Traditional engraving techniques[edit]

  • Plate engraving: music was reproduced directly onto a zinc or pewter plate in mirror image. Staff lines were created by dragging a 5-pronged "scoring tool" across the plate, thus the designation, "score" for printed music. Fixed symbols, such as note heads and clefs, were punched into the metal with dies, and variable symbols, such as beams or slurs, were engraved by hand.
  • Hand copying with pen and ruler, which if done by an expert music copyist can produce high-quality results (see below)
  • Moveable type with music symbols – a centuries-old method, often used for hymn books, but which produced low-quality results
  • Music typewriters – like moveable type, this produced low-quality results and was never widely used[1]
  • Notaset - dry transfer symbols similar to Letraset
  • Brushing ink through stencils, a high-quality technique used by Amersham-based company Halstan & Co.

Hand copying[edit]

In the distant past, a musician was required to draw his own staff lines (staves) onto blank paper. Eventually, staff paper was manufactured pre-printed with staves as a labor-saving technique. The musician could then write music directly onto the lines in pencil or ink.

In the 20th century, music staff paper was sometimes printed onto vellum or onionskin: a durable, semi-transparent paper which made it easier for the musician to correct mistakes and revise his work, and also enabled copies of the manuscript to be reproduced through the ozalid process. Also at this time, a music copyist was often employed to hand-copy individual parts (for each performer) from a composer's full score. Neatness, speed, and accuracy were desirable traits of a skilled copyist.

Computer music engraving[edit]

Main article: Scorewriter

With the advent of the personal computer since the 1980s, traditional music engraving has been in decline, as it can now be accomplished by computer software designed for this purpose. There are various such programs, known as scorewriters, designed for writing, editing, printing and playing back music, though only a few produce results of a quality comparable to high-quality traditional engraving. Scorewriters have many advanced features, such as the ability to extract individual parts from an orchestral/band score, to transcribe music played on a MIDI keyboard, and conversely to play back notation via MIDI. Virtually all modern composers are expected to understand and be able to use this method to engrave their music.

WYSIWYG software such as Sibelius, MuseScore or Finale, first implemented in the late 1980s, allows the entry of complex music notation on a computer screen, showing it just as it will look when eventually sent for printing. Such software stores the music in files of proprietary or standardized formats usually not intended to be read directly by humans.

Other software, such as GNU LilyPond, reads input from ordinary text files whose contents resemble a computer macro programming language describing the bare musical content with little or no layout specification. The software translates the usually handwritten description into fully engraved graphical pages to be viewed or sent for printing, taking care of all the appearance decisions from high level layout down to glyph drawing. The music entry process is iterative and is similar to the edit/compile/execute cycle used in the debugging of computer programs.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Machine Types Simplified Music." Popular Science, August 1948, p. 143.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ted Ross. Teach Yourself The Art of Music Engraving & Processing Hansen Books, Florida.
  • Clinton Roemer. The Art of Music Copying: The Preparation of Music for Performance. Roerick Music Co., Sherman Oaks, California.

External links[edit]