The short score- help or hindrance?

The short score- help or hindrance?

Apologies for the brief interlude in blogging – I’ve been moving house, acquiring kittens, alongside a hectic teaching schedule!

There have been quite a few articles flying around that I want to comment on here, which I will do in the coming days. However, long before we started moving, I started writing an article about the composer’s friend and foe: the short score.

Firstly: Why write a post about the short score? I have a deep interest in compositional practice – an area of music research that has attracted considerably less interest than that of performance practice. Nevertheless, the predominant focus of any research I do seems to come back round to this area, be it research into auralisation and how composers use it, or an analysis of which keys we tend to use, as composers, and trying to fathom out why. A short score is a compositional tool, and therefore forms a part of compositional practice.

Grove’s definition of the tool in question:

“A ‘short score’ is either an ensemble score in which the whole is condensed or reduced on to a small number of staves (as distinct from a full score, and also called a ‘condensed score’), or a composer’s score of an ensemble work, showing his or her intentions on a few staves, with annotations, to be elaborated and fully written out later. “

The short score, like auralisation, is one of a myriad of tools available to composers nowadays. Many a composer hasn’t heard of the concept at all – possibly as a result of the technological age in which we live, and the ability to type/play notes into any instrumentation instantly. My musical theatre and orchestral roots introduced me to the concept of a short score. As an MD who’s playing in the pit band, or as a rehearsal pianist, it’s much more effective to read from a grand stave (or a couple) with all the notation on than sight read from a full score.

My most effective use of a short score so far (that has resulted in a complete, finished piece!) was one I employed during my Masters degree, in orchestration classes. The goal of the class was to produce a work for full symphony orchestra, which would then be rehearsed and recorded – and is where Surakartan Haze was produced and recorded. In order to work on the orchestration of the piece, we were encouraged to produce the whole score on a grand stave initially, and then orchestrate it out into the final score. I used three staves in my short score – two treble, one bass.


The short score wasn’t particularly tidy  – note rests from multiple voices that were deleted, engraving across the staves – but the point was practicality, not presentation (not destined to be seen by performers or conductors!).

The Requiem I am currently working on (see last post) is the first extended work I have written. I have written works that ‘go together’ before, but not any that are necessarily intended to be performed in one go. As such, I thought it would be wise to have a way of overviewing the score, as a whole, before having worked in detail orchestrating every area. Cue the short score!


The first stage, when it comes to implementation of a short score, is deciding upon format.

I have wound up with two different short score formats for the work; one for manuscript, and one for the computer. I only really use it for sketches and mental notes to myself, which I can then translate into Sibelius at a later date. I find myself working on manuscript on trains (when I haven’t got my laptop, or don’t want to use it), or in breaks when teaching.

I initially experimented with two staves for the choir – SA and TB sharing, as is traditional in Bach chorales. However, I find working with multiple voices on one stave harder to edit, and also tricky when handling extended techniques, or completely different lines on the two parts sharing a stave. As a result, my manuscript short scores use two choir staves, but when on notation software, I’ve used four (adding extras for solos, but sticking with four for the occasional divisi).

With regard to the orchestra, I wanted to avoid the confusion I’ve had in previous scores: a grand stave, containing as many voices on each stave as possible, with countless annotations. I therefore decided to use three grand staves, for woodwind, brass and strings, alongside the four main choir staves.


A particular shortcoming of short scoring is when additional detail is required – as is often the case with extended techniques – or when particularly complex voicings are required. Adding extensive articulation can be tricky (when working on the computer, due to the potential for multiple voicings). I am particularly lucky in that most of my ideas stay in my head and are retained there for some time, meaning the true articulation can be added during the orchestration phase. However, it could be  easy to neglect them.

Another slight shortcoming comes with regard to playback. Some people rely heavily on the playback from notation software as a method of reviewing their compositions; although short scoring would give the essence of the final score, the lack of specific instrumentation means it wouldn’t sound quite right! Personally, I don’t rely heavily on playback, using it instead as a method for checking a work. The method of short score structure I am using in the Requiem remedies this somewhat, as audio playback for the brass could be set to a brass VST, etc. This isn’t something I’ve played with, as I’m personally not too fussed about the playback, but I am aware that the playback possibilities are one of the benefits of notation software that composers make extensive use of.


I intend to draw up my conclusions to how effective the short score is when mapping out an extended piece of music when I have completed this phase, which should be in a month’s time. However, already the benefits are apparent. For example, it’s easier to compare the proportions of an overall piece when shuffling scores of a significantly smaller size, because of the processing power required to maintain them if nothing else! They can be printed and annotated more economically than a full orchestral score, and allow me to thoroughly assess the full scale of the work (even when not completely finished) – including use of instrumental families – before completing the full orchestration.

In the past, however, short scoring has proved effective when it has come to orchestrating, and with regard to the quality of the final work. Having already set up fundamentals such as harmony, melody, metre, rhythmic concepts, and ideas of texture and timbre, the orchestration could then concentrate on the precise use of instrumentation and the voicing within that use.

Of course, there are times when the use of only a few staves frustrates me, and I yearn for the full score to play with. For that reason, all my short scores have a full orchestral score ‘hidden’ within them, so when a certain instrument calls out at me, I can write it in and re-hide it, so it’s there when orchestration time approaches! Yes, this contradicts the whole idea – leaving the orchestration until later- but when a bassoon plays a melody in my mind, I will never be satisfied until it has been firmly installed in my score.

I’d be interested to know if many other fellow composers use the short scoring technique, to some extent or other – and whether they find it beneficial, annoying (like I do sometimes!), or if it’s something they find irrelevant in these advanced technological times.

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