Score layout: instrumental parts

There’s a vast store of information on every subject readily available out there on the WWW. Added to this, colleges and universities have risen to the challenge of preparing the next generation for the bitterly fought battles of contemporary life. These blogs are drawn from years of (sometimes painful) experience and are intended to supplement what we already (probably) know by approaching matters from a different viewpoint, where everyday practical problems sometimes refuse to move out of our way.


Conductors regularly have to sight-read unfamiliar pieces, in addition to keeping their eyes and ears on the musicians, so that a standardized layout helps them to find the various parts at a glance.

In the big band, saxophones are normally written at the top of the score. This is possibly due to tradition, since woodwind parts appear at the top of orchestral scores. Below them are the trumpets, followed by the trombones and the rhythm section, piano guitar bass and drums, in that order.

A vocal line, together with the lyrics, will appear last of all. Incidentally, cuing in the lyrics is often useful on instrumental parts, especially those involving frequent tempo changes, rubato, etc.

It’s more in keeping with the function of the saxophone section, especially in ensembles, to place the brass above the saxes and in short score sketches and scores for a composer’s personal use it’s worth considering this layout. I always use it because it looks right.

Tradition is a very powerful force in music.

Years ago, before the ‘common man’ received the benefit of a good education, those ‘in the know’ were keen to maintain their elite status, often for reasons of financial gain, so that the ‘do-it-this-way-because-I-say-so’ argument prevailed. Some (not all!) teachers are resentful of young talent because it reminds them of the relentless passage of time, another reason that those with fresh ideas will find themselves being repressed.

I’m still kicking against authority. Why, for example, do English style brass bands regard the tenor trombone as a transposing instrument? Why do they call the alto horn a tenor horn? Why do they call the baritone horn a baritone? It’s a tenor instrument. Why do they call tubas ‘basses’? The name fits. It’s just a horrible word.

Anyway, back to the subject…

With the full orchestra, the basic format, from the top down, will often appear as follows:




English Horn (Alto Oboe)


Bass clarinet








First violins

Second violins





The problem is that straight composers very often called for a specific intrumentation, often involving very large orchestras, so that it’s difficult to generalize where instrumental layout is concerned.

With the concerto grosso format, which features an instrumental group as opposed to a single instrument, the ‘band-within-a-band’ could be grouped together, possibly bracketed and with wider spaces between the first and last staves of the group compared with the rest of the orchestra. Anything which improves clarity will be helpful.

Cellos and basses are sometimes found on the same stave in old scores. This is only possible when the cellos are in bass clef. Cellos also use the treble clef and (less often in my experience) tenor clef to accommodate the wide orchestral range of written parts.

It’s sometimes possible to write percussion parts for all players with all percussion instruments written on one sheet, where the level of musical activity permits this. All instruments can be written on one stave, with verbal identification above each entrance and clef changes as necessary. This is useful when bands struggle to maintain a full section, which is almost always the case. For example, the tuned percussionist could stroll over to the drum kit and play a cymbal roll on one of the top cymbals. I once saw a player hit the big bass drum with the side of her foot while playing the chimes with her hands. (‘Multi-tasking’ is an idea that’s taking the female population by storm, of course.) Parts appearing together on one sheet also act as cues, giving an overview of the whole piece.

All this is less than ideal, of course, but one of the purposes of these blogs is to present an ‘everyday’ view of our musical lives.


Although the full ‘symphony’ model goes down to c (sounding as the b flat below the second ledger line under the bass clef, equivalent to the ‘pedal’ b flat on trombones), many jazz and dance band players will have the model without the lower extension, with a range an octave lower than the standard Bb clarinet.

Players have been known to downgrade to the shorter instrument, making enough money to buy a flute or clarinet.

The bass clarinet is much more controllable at softer dynamic levels than the baritone sax and consequently makes a more practical bass instrument to the woodwinds.

One problem with all this doubling is that many orchestra pits in theatres and small club bandstands don’t allow much space and some instruments are too ferociously expensive to be kicked around by guys rushing to the bar at interval time. Sounds mundane, I know, but we can’t ignore the problem.

I recently wrote a bass clarinet part for a show and the excellent young girl player arrived, her face glowing with the enthusiasm of youth. She had arms full of instruments, all of which she could play well, and I noticed her brand new full symphony bass clarinet begin to topple off its stand below stage. I made a mad rugby tackle across the floor and just caught it.

‘Can you transpose the part on baritone’ I asked, removing a splinter from my hand. ‘Sure I can’ she replied. So this was the solution, at least until her nerves settled down. Instrumental amplification is not always sorted out properly in some of these shows and the baritone cut through the commotion on stage better, anyway. It isn’t always possible to move the mike down in relation to the bass clarinet, with a couple of bars rest available. It may still be positioned for a recent flute solo. In any case, all dynamics in the pit tend to be moved up a notch and there’s little need for pianissimo unless the sound balance is really good.

Again, this is all less than ideal, it’s just the way things sometimes turn out.


I played a gig recently with a useful big band where the baritone sax part was very nicely played by an elderly lady who can no longer grapple with the big sax. She uses the Yamaha wind synthesiser, which can produce a variety of sounds. This instrument and its predecessors have been around for a number of years now, of course.

As so often happens with all but the most expensive gear, the brass sounds are not too good and the alto sax sound is so-so but the baritone sound blends in well with the section. I have to admit that I didn’t notice at first until I glanced over to the saxes, but then I was sight reading my own parts.

Purists will hate the idea but for anyone who, for reasons of age or health (or budget), can’t play the baritone itself, this curious instrument does solve the problem amazingly well (for a fraction of the cost).

It will also descend right down into the bass sax register so that sudden drops down to the baritone’s bottom ‘a’ (c concert) work every time, regardless of tired reeds or player fatigue. It was this capability that caught my ears attention in the first place.

The compact cabinet speaker it uses is surprisingly resonant and hides away nicely on stage.


4 thoughts on “Score layout: instrumental parts

  1. I’m doing a little transcribing for a folky bluegrassy tune with a vocal, violin, banjo, guitar, bass, and drum set. I put the instruments in that order from top to bottom (more or less thinking highest to lowest range while putting the rhythm section on the bottom (guitar, bass, drums). I suppose that the only exception for range would be the violin is higher than the vocal. Do you have any thoughts or advice on my ordering? I’m a jazz major (drum set) and I’m feeling my way around composing and arranging for gradually larger ensembles.


    1. Keith, with a small ensemble such as this I really don’t feel it matters too much how you place instruments. The layout you suggest seems sensible to me. The only modification I would make is to put the vocal at the bottom of the page. That way it will be easy to keep the lyrics out of the way, especially if you do two score pages per paper page. Bear in mind that tradition is a powerful force in music but there are good reasons an orchestral layout TENDS to be standard (strictly speaking there is no standardization) and that is, obviously, because it helps a conductor to find things quickly. Another factor is national differences. For example (just changing the subject slightly) different nationalities use clefs differently. Hope this helps, JM.


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