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Piano Notation, MuseScore, and You #1: Cross-Staff Beaming

15 January 2017 17:24 EST under
MuseScore, Music, Notation

When I write, I do it at the piano with a black Pilot G2 fine-point pen and manuscript paper. It's the easiest and fastest way to take notes out of my head and put them into some physical medium. When I'm finished with whatever I'm working on, I use MuseScore to make it pretty. I haven't used Finale or Sibelius since I was but a wee lad, so I have no idea of what kind of crazy-powerful features they're packing these days, but when it comes to creating solo piano scores, I have yet to find a thing MuseScore can't do, and my scores can get fairly complex, notationally.

MuseScore is free and open-source software, available for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, so I expect that a lot of more casual music-notators (that's a word now) will reach for it over the more professional options on the market as well as the more daunting ones (e.g., LilyPond, whose output is amazing but whose learning curve is so precipitous that it's not worth bothering to use except for bizarre, avant-garde notational elements).

Especially when streaming, I come across a lot of horrid scores. Just as how a person may read a lot of books but have difficulty putting a valid sentence together, a pianist might play from a lot of sheet music but never think about how the notes are actually laid out on the page. I did some pretty idiotic stuff when I first started writing things down by hand. Like anything else, you get better at it the more you do it.

That said, I thought it'd be a nice idea to share some notational tricks I use a lot in my piano writing, as well as how to replicate those tricks in MuseScore. First up: cross-staff beaming.

Wanna go straight to the MuseScore tutorial section? Click here.

What is cross-staff beaming, and when would I use it?

Cross-staff beaming is, well, exactly what it says on the tin: when the notes in one staff meander up or down to another staff. Technically, this should be called "cross-staff voicing," because the notes being connected via a beam isn't a necessity, but that's frequently what it looks like on paper. Take a look at these two measures from an arrangement of the Vermillion City music from Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow that I finished earlier this week:

Whoops, no clefs showing. Bottom staff = bass clef; top staff = treble clef. Shocking, I know.

This demonstrates two of the three reasons you'd want to use cross-staff beaming. When I was writing out the first measure, I noticed that I always used my right thumb to pick up the B at the fourth sixteenth note/semiquaver of the first beat (probably because my right thumb was right there anyway from playing the chord), so I cross-beamed it up to the top staff to indicate: "hey, this note is technically part of that collection of left-hand notes down there, but I suggest you use your right hand to play it."

It's a very small thing, but I like it more than either of the obvious alternatives:

The alternative on the left isn't wrong in any respect as far as valid notation goes, but it does indicate a different kind of idea entirely: namely, that the B in question is part of the voice/line that starts with the right hand's chord at the beginning of the measure, and is not really associated with the left-hand notes with respect to voicing. The alternative on the right is the closest possible alternative; the broken beam with the stem flipped is usually a pretty good indicator that a line is changing hands (and some scores would even go so far as to mark the note with an "r.h.," though I usually only do that if it's not immediately clear what's going on). At that point, it's just a matter of preference. I generally prefer a cross-staff beam, but will break beams up and flip the stems to indicate a hand switch if a.) both hands are already on the same staff anyway, or, b.) the "destination" staff of a cross-staff beam is already cluttered with multiple voices. Turns out music notation is a really fluid thing, based both on context and the preferences of the one doing the notating.

The second measure in the first image demonstrates cross-staff beaming as a way of saying "hey, all of these notes are part of the same idea, but they move back and forth between both hands." In fact, that entire measure is actually notated solely from the top staff, while the bottom staff had zero notes entered into it (you can see a whole/semibreve rest in the middle of the bottom staff, actually -- it's grey because I've marked it "invisible" so that it doesn't appear in a PDF export of the score).

That kind of notation helps us to avoid this dreadful display:

Gross. While technically completely valid, it's just...gross. It's outside of the scope of this post, but the version in the first image also illustrates the clarity achieved via two notational techniques: not showing rests where they can easily be implied, and grouping notes by how they fall under fingers rather than sticking strictly to how notes are normally grouped in a certain time signature. The latter case would look like this:

It's not bad, honestly, but it looks more confusing to play than it actually is. MuseScore has the third beam slanted upwards, confusingly; I'd probably manually slant it down (more on this below) for uniformity, if I'd used this notation. In either case, the syncopation will come through by virtue of the established pulse, so it's a pretty moot issue. Again, not really within the scope of this article. I'll probably do a future post on note-grouping (and how to achieve the groups you want in MuseScore, of course), because some of the most egregious shit I see in people's scores is nonsensical, unintelligible grouping.

All right, back to the topic: the final reason I use cross-staff beaming is to avoid switching a staff's clef when I don't need to. That's another subjective thing, of course, but my basic rules of thumb for switching clefs over cross-staffing it are:

  1. I want an 8va/8vb on only one staff;
  2. I can't move the notes into another staff because whatever's on that staff is too busy or has multiple voices already (very rarely I will put three voices on one staff, and then usually just for like a note or two);
  3. I can't move the notes into another staff because whatever's on that staff is too high/low, and the stems will look poopy, extending out into the void;
  4. One staff will just be completely empty space despite both hands getting used.

Consider this measure from the same arrangement:

There's also one measure each in 14/16, 20/16, 26/16, and 29/16. I might have a problem.

I know, the time signature is fucking bonkers. There are a bunch of micro-cadenzas in the arrangement like this; 17/16 just means "this little cadenza happens to have 17 sixteenth notes'/semiquavers' worth of notes in it"; it's not actually meaningful, temporally. Anyway, note that both staves use cross-staffing to avoid clef changes, and meet all of the criteria I listed above. In particular, note that at the very beginning and the very end, when both hands are on the same staff at the same time, the left-hand notes are always stemmed down, while the right-hand notes are always stemmed up. This is a good practice to get into.

It looks okay with clef-switching, just ever so slightly more annoying to notate and to read:

And that's that! In summary, cross-staff beaming (and/or voicing) is a nice notational tool for several reasons:

  1. It allows you to keep a line of music continuous while suggesting to the performer that some of the notes in that line should be played with the other hand.
  2. When a single idea spans multiple staves and uses both hands, it can reduce clutter in the form of unnecessary rests and cut down on lots of ugly, detached beaming.
  3. You get to avoid unnecessary clef changes.

How do I do this in MuseScore?

Shockingly easily, actually. Ctrl + Shift + Up moves the selected note(s) up one staff; Ctrl + Shift + Down moves the selected note(s) down one staff. A couple caveats: first, if you happen to be using staff-splitting to create a piano score for three or more staves, it's worth noting that you can only move one staff away from your "home" staff: e.g., if you've got a three-staff situation, you can move a middle-staff note to either the top or bottom, but you can't move a bottom-staff note all the way to the top (or vice versa). Second, you can't move only a subset of notes in a chord to another staff using this technique: the entire chord will move*.

Let's create two examples. First up, a measure consisting of these simple arpeggiated figures:

Sorry for the random change in note size. I switched computers in the
middle of writing this and I guess I'm zoomed out further here.

In this case, it doesn't really matter whether you put the notes on the top or bottom staff, because there's nothing else to get in the way. Since the notes start in the bottom staff, let's arbitrarily pick that one. As soon as you enter a note in entry mode, it's selected, so you can press Ctrl + Shift + Up/Down to move it immediately, but, for the sake of the example, I'll just add all the notes without cross-staffing any of them:

Bonus tip: in case you didn't know, Ctrl + Up and Ctrl + Down will move the
selected note(s) up or down an octave. Useful when inputting wide figures like this.

Now, select the third note and press Ctrl + Shift + Up. What you'll end up with is, well, something pretty ugly:

This happens because the fourth note, despite being a minor sixth higher than the third note, still resides on the bottom staff. So select that note, too, and press Ctrl + Shift + Up again. That should look much better. By Ctrl + Clicking on individual noteheads, you can select any arbitrary combination of notes. Select the third and fourth sixteenths/semiquavers in each group and move them up.

We're not quite done yet, though: you can still see a bit of the whole/semibreve rest poking out on the top staff, but that's easily rectified. Select it, and press V to make it invisible. When you unselect it, it'll be a light-grey color. Invisibility can be used to achieve so many things in MuseScore: it's also worthy of it's own post on the subject. You can mark pretty much anything invisible, and it won't show up when you export the file. If you'd like to fully hide invisible things right in MuseScore, just go uncheck the box at View -> Show Invisible. I usually keep invisible objects shown so that it's easy to make them visible again if I need to (just press V again).

One final quick example: if you're using cross-staff beaming and you're crossing into a staff that has other notes on it, you may end up with a scenario like this:

That's a bit hideous. The two-second fix? Just flip the stems on the top staff. Select any note in a beamed group and press X to flip the stems up or down. Now it's beautifully legible:

And that's how you do cross-staff beaming in MuseScore! Remember that you can edit just about anything in MuseScore, so if you're doing cross-staff work and it looks weird, you can probably fix it. I frequently adjust cross-staff beam angle and placement (just double-click the beam and use the two square areas on the left and right to change the vertical position and slant of the beam, respectively). Hell, sometimes I don't like where the "3" over my cross-staff triplets show up. Just click and drag it to where you want it to be (or use the Inspector to precisely set the vertical offset). Some things take a bit of elbow grease, but it's a wonderfully powerful application.

Happy notating!


*If you want to create a single chord that spans multiple staves, look up cross-staff stemming: it's a technique I almost never use because I find that any clarity it provides in the form of cutting down on ledger lines is undone by the lack of clarity created by putting notes much farther apart spatially than they normally would be.