home /music /blog


Piano Notation, MuseScore, and You

#2: Creating Space

posted 02 February 2017 in MuseScore

A bit more MuseScore-specific than its predecessor, this installment will focus on some crucial techniques for creating space to give your notes some breathing room.

I'm not a fancy man. When I write by scores by hand, I just use boring old Carta Manuscript Paper No. 9. It's a 96-sheet, spiral-bound notebook for six bucks. I buy four or five at a time. I also keep a pad of Carta Manuscript Paper No. 1 for quick transcribing of whatever I'm going to arrange, or to jot down little sketches/ideas on the side.

Vertical Spacing

One thing I like about this Plain Jane manuscript paper is that there's fairly ample space between each staff for when shit gets busy. Check out this horrible photograph of some paper:

Shit lighting brought to you by the same person who does the lighting for my stream (i.e., me).
Click for big version.

This is from my arrangement "The Crystal Sisters, Oerba Dia Vanille and Oerba Yun Fang," from Final Fantasy XIII. There are a couple things worthy of pointing out here. First, note that I leave a blank staff in-between systems. I always do this, because if I don't, it takes me a maximum of, well, two systems to produce a nightmarish cluster of I-no-longer-have-any-idea-which-system-these-notes-belong-to notes. With twelve staves per page on the paper I use, that gives me four systems per page when using the typical two staves per system; three, when using three staves (one day I'll write about dynamic staff-splitting in MuseScore).

Second, if you look at the last three measures (starting where I've written "Faster"), look how much room I have for very dense activities! How does MuseScore do with those crowded-ass measures? Well, by default, pretty poorly:

Yes, that's 18/16 masquerading as (7+11)/16. I said I had a problem last time, didn't I? (I swear it sounds badass.)
Click for big version.

Professionally engraved piano music tends to do two things differently from MuseScore: it uses much smaller noteheads/beams, and it puts extra space between the top and bottom clefs.

Here's a measure from Sergei Rachmaninoff's Prelude Op. 23 No. 9, vertically stretched such that the staff lines are spaced the same as MuseScore's, then aligned along the top staff.. Not that much extra space, but much smaller noteheads overall:

Here's a measure from Mily Balakirev's "Islamey: An Oriental Fantasy" (a real treasure trove of beautiful notation) that shows off a bit more extra space but with bizarrely massive noteheads.

I'm sure if I did some digging I could find some more exaggerated examples, but do you know how much sheet music is out there? At least 100 sheet musics. Ain't nobody got time for that.

Now, before I go on to showing how simple this kind of clutter is to rectify in MuseScore, it's worth noting that I could easily do away with most of the problem simply by dropping the two 8vas and just notating those bits an octave higher. But what if I don't want to do that? No, they're not unreasonably high, but the more ledger lines you add to those chords, especially in the last measure, where they're nice and thick and juicy, the more annoying they become to read.

So let's make MuseScore accommodate us, rather than the other way around. Step one: go to Style -> General, and in the window that pops up, choose Page from the left-hand menu. We're going to adjust two options here: Grand staff distance and Min. system distance:

Note: if you aren't writing for piano, instead of "Grand staff distance," adjust Staff distance instead.

Most distances in MuseScore are specified in "spatia" (singular: spatium). One spatium is the distance between two adjacent staff lines (so a staff is four or so spatia tall, depending on whether or not you factor in the width of the staff lines themselves). By default, the distance between staves is 6.5 spatia. If you look up to the second comparison image above, we can estimate that the staff distance in Balakirev's "Islamey" is roughly 8.5 spatia. Personally, I like to increase staff distance in MuseScore to 9.0sp.

Min. system distance does exactly what you'd expect: changing it toggles between MuseScore displaying multiple systems on a page and one unbroken system on a single super-wide page. (It doesn't do that at all.) I like to set system distance to 10.5sp. It just gives you a touch extra breathing room between systems to decrease the likelihood of high notes in one clashing with low notes in another.

Obviously, my preferred values aren't the be-all and end-all. You should do what works for you, in the end. But let's see what a staff distance of 9.0sp does for me:

Oh, man, so close! Nothing a few manual tweaks can't fix. When I look at it now, I see three things I want to fixed:

  • Measure two: adjust the beams in the first two beats so they aren't colliding.
  • Measure three: slant the first beam in the top staff up a little bit to reflect the overall direction in which the notes are moving.
  • Measure four: create just a hair of space in the first two beats.

Past setting your general staff/system spacing, probably the number one way you're going to be creating vertical space in your scores is by adjusting beams. MuseScore makes it crazy easy: just double-click the beam you want to adjust:

Note the two squares that appear on the left and right ends of the beam. They each serve their own purpose: the left square, when clicked and dragged (you can also use the up and down keys instead of dragging), will move the entire beam up and down without changing the beam's angle; the right square will move only the right end of the beam up and down, thus changing the angle.

So, after a few super-quick adjustments, I've got myself some nice, clean measures:

Click for big version.

Horizontal Spacing

Horizontal spacing's less of an issue than vertical spacing, typically, and the options that MuseScore gives you to adjust horizontal spacing are pretty limited. On paper, there's a ton you can do, because you can invent whatever notation symbols you want. For example, these are the standard symbols for "repeat the last measure" and "repeat the last two measures":

I use these all the time. Sometimes in both hands, sometimes just in one. But sometimes I want the last three or four measures, but just in one hand. Maybe I want the first three of the last eight measures, but without an unnecessary first/second ending situation. Or maybe I just want to reuse measures 22 to 31 without writing them all out again. I have my own personal notations for all of these:

  • Repeat the last five measures: •/////•
  • Repeat the first three of the last eight measures: •///•/////
  • Reuse measures 18 to 43: •/--- mm. 18-43 ---/•

(In case it's not obvious, my "repeat the first x of the last y measures" notation is •[x slashes]•[(y - x) slashes]. I use it a lot, but one of the most common uses is for "repeat the measure two measures back," or •/•/.)

If I'm repeating a cluster of notes several times within one measure, I'll just use a single slash to represent each cluster after the first instead of writing them out three or four times. If I have a chord that's repeated over and over, I'll just use a stem with a slash instead of notes. The slash gets a lot of value in my handwritten scores.

In general, I try to save paper where I can, but if something's complicated enough that I know that seeing "•///•/////" will leave me scratching my head when I go back to practice it, I'll write it out. All this to say: on paper, the world is your oyster with respect to horizontal-space-saving techniques.

You can't really do any of this crap in MuseScore, which is fine: you wouldn't want most of this in a published score anyway. The one complaint I have about MuseScore is that there's no easy way to make a measure extend onto another system, and sometimes you're just stuck with the number of measures on a system that MuseScore decides it can fit, even though you'd really like to squeeze another one (or even half of one!) on. You can emulate it, by faking your time signature and marking bar lines invisible (for example, using 6/8 instead of 12/8 but changing the text of your 6/8 to say 12/8 and then making every odd-numbered bar line invisible), but it's a hassle, can make beaming a nightmare, and isn't worth the effort at all if your time signature is asymmetric*.

So what can we do to save horizontal space in MuseScore? Well, there's really only one technique I use, and that's adjusting measures' stretch. To adjust stretch, select a measure (just click in any empty space in one of the measure's staves), which will look like this:

Then either go use the Layout -> Increase/Decrease Stretch options, or, to preserve your sanity, just use { to compress a measure or } to expand a measure (that's Shift + [ and Shift + ], in case you don't often use curly braces).

Sometimes you'll encounter the situation in which you've done some compressing to get another measure to fit on a system, and one measure ends up looking kind of squished in comparison to the other measures:

The first measure looks a bit awkward and cramped. Fortunately, there are two easy ways to fix this. My preferred method is to compress every measure in the system equally until the measure I'm trying to get to pop up finally does. For example, if I've got three measures in a system and want a fourth in there, I'll select the first measure, compress it three or four times, select the second measure, compress it three or four times, etc. It generally prevents the problem from occurring in the first place. Sometimes when you're compressing a measure, it'll look like other measures on the system that you've already compressed are being decompressed -- it does look like that, but their "stretch" values are retained, so don't be tricked into thinking that by switching between measures while compressing you're undoing anything you just did.

The other method is just the same in reverse: get yourself into a situation in which one measure looks really cramped, and then increase/decrease the stretch of the rest of the measures in the system until everything looks evened out.

Okay. This is getting long, but I have one more technique to talk about. Sometimes you'll encounter the frustrating situation in which you reaaaaaally would like to have an extra measure on a system, but no amount of compressing the measures on that system will make that happen. Consider this modification to the previous example:

It's totally reasonable to want all three of those measures on the top system, but MuseScore won't let you do it with the typical gentle nudging that is decreasing stretch. That's okay, though, because we can do some slightly more forceful nudging by decreasing note trailing space. For this, make sure you have the Inspector open, which you can do by either going to View -> Inspector or simply pressing F8:

If yours shows up as a floating window, you can press the icon that isn't the close icon in the upper-right corner to dock it to the right side of the application. I keep my Inspector docked 100% of the time.

Once the inspector's open, we can fix the above situation in three steps. First, we need to select all of the measures on the top system as well as the measure we want to add to that system. So I'll select the first measure (top staff), hold Shift, and click an empty space in the bottom staff of the last measure:

Second, in the Inspector, click the "Notes" button that will appear under the "Select" area (all the way at the bottom). This will select every notehead in the selected measures, and the options shown in the Inspector will change.

Third, check out the Inspector option called "Trailing space" under the "Segment" section:

By reducing this number (it's default is 0.00sp, but you can make it negative), you can compress notes further than the "Decrease Stretch" option allows. Make small adjustments when you do this, because it's easy to over-adjust and make your noteheads collide in a giant mess. I like to set it to -0.10sp, then retrying compressing my measures the regular way. That's generally enough to get me what I want, but sometimes I have to go to -0.20sp and try again. I find that if you need to go past -0.20sp to get another measure onto your system, you should just call it quits and keep the system the way MuseScore wants it to be.

In this example, though, -0.10sp was all I needed:


This has been a lengthy post, but effective usage of space can help every score, even very simple ones. I just have one last reminder...

Just About Everything Can Be Moved in MuseScore

Seriously. If you can't just click and drag it, you can probably adjust it via the Inspector. You can move noteheads, stems, beams, flags, dots (individually or all together), 8vas, the little squiggly lines that mean you should roll chords, barlines, time signatures, key signatures, accidentals, etc. If it's selectable, it's movable, pretty much.

Experiment and use the Inspector to create the space you want for your scores. MuseScore may not always make it obvious, but it almost always provides a way.

*You can try your luck with the Edit -> Measure -> Split Measure Before Selected Note option, but I find it to be more trouble than it's worth: if your measure happens not to divide up nicely in terms of note durations and beaming and such, it can get messy. Not worth going into in this article.

<< I Am Setsuna: Dave Played a Game
Piano Notation, MuseScore, and You: #1: Cross-Staff Beaming >>
BROWSE BY TAG: Dave Played a Game Development Games Lengthy Reads Life MuseScore Site