Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation, by Elaine Gould

October 1, 2011

behind bars-1Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation, by Elaine Gould. London: Faber Music Ltd 2011, xviii + 676 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0571514564

Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation by Elaine Gould is for the composer, music theorist, or music editor who demands the highest quality in music notation. Gould explains that Behind Bars "is a practical guide to present-day users who need to communicate their music accurately and effectively."1 The theme—how to best communicate music—runs throughout the book. Rather than stating rules as absolutes, Gould often gives multiple ways of notating to accommodate multiple scenarios.

The book contains more information than other books of its type, making it a fine addition to the notation aficionado's library. It is well organized into twenty chapters, and each chapter begins with a clear outline. The chapters are grouped into three sections: (I) General Conventions, (II) Idiomatic Notation, and (III) Layout and Presentation. "General Conventions" presents the essentials of music notation. "Idiomatic Notation" delves into topics for specific families of instruments. "Layout and Presentation" shows how to prepare complete scores and parts, while synthesizing the information in the previous sections. The book is cross-referenced, which is demonstrated in the very first paragraph. There, Gould gives the definition of "the stave," and under its accompanying example states, "For Stave sizes, see p. 482; for choosing an appropriate stave size, see Performance conditions, p. 557."2

Behind Bars contains more detail than nearly any other music notation book. For example, compare a topic discussed in a standard notational reference and in Behind Bars. Kurt Stone's Music Notation in the Twentieth Century includes a section on octave symbols. Stone's book contains three guidelines: what they should look like (page 25), that their placement should be outside slurs (page 44), and that they should be avoided in woodwind parts if space permits (page 195).3 By contrast, pages 28–34 in Gould's book contain roughly 28 points of information about octave signs: height of the "8" in stave spaces; placement of optional "va"; how to indicate 2- and 3-octave transpositions; avoidance of 16 as used in French editions; horizontal placement of the 8 in relation to notes and accidentals; exceptions on horizontal placement when space is limited; where to place extension lines in relation to other symbols; when and how extension lines can deviate from the horizontal; when tuplet brackets and phrases go inside or outside extension lines; what other notation symbols go outside extension lines; placement of octave signs over whole systems; where to place octave signs across system breaks; how to indicate optional parentheses around octave symbols across system breaks; how to write "corners" at the end of extension lines; where to terminate extension lines in relation to augmentation dots, resonance slurs, tremolos, trills, repeated bars, and independent repetitions; when and how to write extension lines over rests; how to write octave signs over single notes; when and how to use a vertical line for clarity; when and how to use coll' ottava; when to change clefs for clef-changing instruments; how many ledger lines to use for different families of instruments; when not to transfer octave symbols from scores to parts; how to begin and terminate octave symbols in the middle of a beat; and when to indicate loco. Then immediately following these guidelines, octave signs are cross-referenced to page 79 when they affect accidentals and to page 324 for their use in keyboard notation.4 The net result contains everything anyone would ever want to know about octave signs and covers every foreseeable circumstance of their usage.

Despite its breadth of topics, Behind Bars is noticeably lacking in aspects of computer-assisted notation. In the introduction, Gould writes, "I hope that a thorough understanding of the principles set out in this book will complement—indeed complete—the armoury of skills, shortcuts and techniques that the modern musician sitting at a computer has to hand."5 From this point forward, Gould makes no further mention of computer notation tools, which appropriately deserve more attention in the present age. Guidelines to affectively deal with the advantages and limitations of notation software would better meet the book's stated objective, "a practical guide to present-day users."6

Although Behind Bars is not intended to be a computer notation manual, the book's objective would be better met if it at least slightly addressed computer notation tools. For instance, compare Finale 2011's capability with Gould's discussion about tuplets in the section entitled "Groups with no literal ratio equivalents." The guidelines in the book read, "For equal divisions of more unusual durations, indicate note-values on the right-hand side of the ratio to define the tuplet duration," and the accompanying illustration is shown as follows.7



Although the notes in the tuplet are easily managed in Finale 2011, it is quite difficult to indicate the tuplet label "lombardi4hs" and bracket. In this circumstance, Finale's tuplet tool can show lombardi4, lombardi49lombardi49s, or lombardi4q9s, but not lombardi4hs. The tuplet label can be made with the smart line tool, but Finale is unable to break the middle of the bracket with this tool. With much labor, the tuplet label and bracket can be constructed with Finale's shape expression designer, but it is easier to just use an external program and import a graphic. This example is one of the many limitations basic to computer notation tools. Behind Bars would benefit from, at the very least, a short discussion of how computer software can limit notation.

Gould writes most of her own examples for Behind Bars, rather than drawing on musical examples from the repertoire. Her illustrations adhere to the standards in the book and clearly illuminate her topics. The quality of the examples sets Behind Bars apart from other books that do not adhere to notational standards. In general, music scholarship does not maintain high-quality notation. Some top-selling theory textbooks by major publishers contain few score excerpts that are completely consistent with such things as fonts, slur placement, and spacing. Furthermore, questionable notation quality is demonstrated by the podcast My Ears Are Open, which gives performers of contemporary music a place to share their experiences with composers.8 Almost every performer on this podcast comments on having performed poorly notated music by living composers. On the other hand, examples of the highest quality notation are often found in music by sheet-music publishers that rely on the expertise of editors familiar with notation books such as Behind Bars.

Gould's approach is subjective, and she acknowledges her subjectivity: "Many fellow musicians have (willingly or inadvertently) helped me to form the opinions expressed in this book."9 Although she gives expert opinions with her experience and credentials, much of the information is not validated with references. The book has a brief bibliography and about another half-dozen more citations in the body. The citations in the body direct the reader toward further information when topics extend beyond the scope of the book, especially for techniques specific to individual instruments. Gould writes, "I have been highly selective in the choice of extended instrumental and vocal techniques included in this book, but it is intended that this should give the reader the facility to create notation for other techniques not in common use."10 The amount of information included in these topics is appropriate for the scope of the book. In some instances, however, there are no citations for further reading where further reading would be beneficial, such as in the section on microtones.11

Behind Bars fails to acknowledge some of the most important sources on notation, especially the authoritative books by Gardner Read. Read's Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice is a common university textbook and still the best notation book in the last half century.12 Among Read's several other books, Modern Rhythmic Notation13 and 20th-Century Microtonal Notation14 are valuable resources for the music notator and researcher alike. Read's Source Book of Proposed Music Notation Reforms is a comprehensive primary source for research on notation.15 Behind Bars cites a mere few books on instrumental techniques, but Andrew Stiller's Handbook of Instrumentation is noticeably missing.16

Gould's approach with respect to the literature is expressed as follows:

Erhard Karkoschka's Notation in New Music (English edition, Universal Edition (London), 1972) catalogued many of these strands, which brought to light the lack of a common language. Kurt Stone's Music Notation in the Twentieth Century: A Practical Guidebook (W.W. Norton, 1980) sought to standardize the new notation symbols and procedures then in currency. Some of Stone's proposals have been adopted widely while others have not been found so useful. Behind Bars revisits notation in the light of scores written in the intervening years.17

As it claims, Behind Bars does indeed cover notation that became common since 1980, especially in the final two chapters: Electronic Music (chapter 19) and Freedom and Choice (chapter 20). Chapter 20 has notation topics that the notator of new music will find especially valuable, such as indeterminate events, time-space notation, independent repetition, independent meters, and independent tempos.

Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation is a thorough manual on music notation. Every composer, music theorist, and music editor would benefit from a cover-to-cover reading of it. Elaine Gould has provided an extremely detailed notation book in which she writes, "It is my hope that the principles set out in Behind Bars will serve music into the twenty-first century and that musicians can be safe in the knowledge that they will understand each other for many years to come."18


1Gould, Behind Bars, xiv.
2Ibid., 5.
3Stone, Music Notation in the Twentieth Century.
4Gould, Behind Bars, 28–34.
5Ibid., xi.
6Ibid., xiv.
7Ibid., 208.
8My Ears Are Open.
9Gould, Behind Bars, xvii.
10Ibid., xiii.
11Ibid., 94–98.
12Read, Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice.
13Read, Modern Rhythmic Notation.
14Read,. 20th-Century Microtonal Notation.
15Read, Source Book of Proposed Music Notation Reforms.
16Stiller, Handbook of Instrumentation.
17Gould, Behind Bars, xiii.


Gould, Elaine. Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation. London: Faber Music Ltd., 2011.
My Ears Are Open, Dedicated to Contemporary Composers and Performers (accessed July 8, 2012).
Read, Gardner. 20th-Century Microtonal Notation. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
______. Modern Rhythmic Notation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
______. Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice, 2nd Ed. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1979.
______. Source Book of Proposed Music Notation Reforms. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Stiller, Andrew. Handbook of Instrumentation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.
Stone, Kurt. Music Notation in the Twentieth Century. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1980.

7518 Last modified on March 6, 2019