Marking Your Music

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Marking Up Your Music

Swing Style

A list of standard tempos

Before You Start

Before you make any marks on any sheet music you get, make sure it is yours to mark!

And if you didn't read the first sentence: Make sure you are allowed to mark, fold, staple, and otherwise mutilate the music on your stand. Printed music is expensive and many bands only have one copy which is expected to last for many, many years and many players long after you've gone your merry way. So, if you are not absolutely positive that the sheet you have is yours to mark, ask.

If the sheet music you have is just a “loaner” you may be able to copy it. Again, ask. Some band organizations do not permit photocopying. Others turn a blind eye, or even actively encourage the practice. Again: ask.

Why to Mark

There is only one reason to put any marks on your sheet music: to make it easier for you to play without getting lost or making mistakes. Assuming you have read the first section in this essay, the reasons for marking bits of a score may include:

  • Repeats and other “road map” information is easily lost on a black and white score. When you're speeding along and come to a “repeat end” and you can't find the “repeat start”, you're in big trouble.

  • Key signature and time signature changes are sometimes easy to overlook.

  • Dynamic information is very easy to ignore.

  • Accidentals which are in force for a measure and ones from unaccustomed keys are easy to skip.

Don't put phone numbers, addresses of friends, reminders to get bread and milk on your music. Don't create doodles of cute puppies. Don't use your music to pass along comments about the conductor to your friend(s).

How to Mark

If the music you have is not yours, but you have permission to make erasable corrections on it (perhaps your band is skipping a section, you need to play a harmony note or, heavens forbid, there is a mistake on the score) do so in pencil which can easily erased. Again, get permission first!

And if you do mark in pencil and need to erase, don't use the awful eraser on the end of a pencil. These just tend to make a smudge. Use a proper, soft, art eraser. Please.

Now, if the music is yours and you have permission to make marks. Well, you can just go crazy. Oh, no! That won't do you any good at all. You only want to highlight or mark the things which are truly a problem. Anything more will, ultimately, just make life harder for you. Trust me.

I really like transparent markers. You know, the ones you can get at the dollar store (I get packs of four in different colors. A buck for all four. Great deal.) And, yes, there are erasable markers available. Don't rely on always being able to erase them, but there is nothing wrong in using them.

Now, lets think about what needs to be marked and how to do it.


Ordinary repeats probably do not need to be marked. Certainly, the end of the repeat is pretty obvious when reading a chart. But, sometimes the start is very hard to find. So mark it. Lots of folks have a standard color for this and always use the same color for this and other markups. I try to use a green for repeat stuff, but it's up to you.

Second (and third, etc.) endings can be hard to find. Especially when the preceding ending spans more than a few measures. If it's not obvious, mark it.

Other Road maps

The other traffic signs in music (other than repeat start/end) are items like "D.S.", "D.C.", "To Coda", etc. Again, if you are playing a piece and there is a marking directing you to another place in the music you probably don't need to mark it. However, you may have problems finding the “where to jump to” place. Invariably this will be a “sign” or a “coda”. Publishers try their best to make these easy to find, but when they fail mark them.

The “musical standard” says that you don't repeat sections after a “D.S.” or “D.C.”. Check with the conductor and if the answer is different from the “standard”, mark it!

Key Signatures

In most cases you don't need to mark these. The key is plainly marked at the start of a song and at the start of each line. You have lots of time to review this before you start. Get in the habit of always checking the initial key!

When a key changes in the middle of a piece a good score will have a double bar line before the change and a good amount of white space around the new key. Again, probably not worth marking.

However, if you are playing in unfamiliar keys or have a lot of changes, you might need to mark them. Again, mark only the ones which give difficulty while playing, not every blasted change!


Players, even experienced ones, can have trouble with certain accidentals. Fact of life.

So, if you find that you are missing a flat, sharp or natural which is assumed from the key signature you might want to mark it. Don't forget, the proper solution is to practice your part and learn the accidental.

Please, don't ever go though a piece and put a flat sign beside every blasted “b” in a piece that is in the key of F, etc. It not only makes you look dumb, it also makes it hard for anyone who knows how to read music to play the piece.

Time Signatures, Tempos

The same comments and rationals apply to time signatures as mentioned above in the key signature section. Only mark them when it is really necessary!

If you are playing in a band or orchestra the conductor sets the tempo. The conductor signals when to speed up or slow down. That's one of his or her functions and they tend to get very upset when you don't follow their direction.

So, don't mark tempos and tempo changes on your music. Instead, learn to watch the conductor and follow him or her. You'll all be much happier musicians!

It's quite appropriate to mark difficult timings or articulations. Writing the counts (ie. 1, 2, 3, &, 4, &.) is a common thing to do. Articulations in music are usually already notated (slur lines, dots, etc.) so you shouldn't need to re-emphasize.


Getting louder and softer are a very important part of playing. In many cases, you should be able to feel when you need to change. But, again, in a band or orchestra you have this conductor person whose job it is to tell you when to change dynamics. Please follow the conductors lead!

There are times when you will need to adjust outside of the conductor's directions or that of the music. If you have a lead part, you might need to play it louder (especially if you have an unbalanced group and a lot of players are on the harmony). In pencil simply write a reminder like melody or louder. Why pencil? Most likely because next month there will be more or fewer of you playing the part and you'll need to change the direction.


Mark as little as you can.

Mark only on music you have permission to mark.

Don't use marks as an alternate to actually practicing and learning your parts. It doesn't work.

And let me know if this article helps.

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