Score Marking

I thought I might wade in and try to slightly de-mystify the question of score marking by conductors. Orchestral players and audiences alike can often be quite overwhelmed by, and even suspicious of, the complex systems of red and blue, circles, highlights and so on that appear in many conductors scores.

Score marking has grown out of a simple fact- a page of a score for full orchestra is an incredibly dense and complicated set of symbols, and very, very few human beings can actually take all of that in simply from looking at it once.

That said, not everyone does mark their scores. Leonard Slatkin told me that he used to as a young conductor, but that he now prefers to work from clean scores. Erich Leinsdorf was completely against marking of any kind- he felt that anything put into the text of the score by the conductor was a defilement of what had already been put there by the composer. My own teacher, Gerhard Samuel had conflicting feelings about marking. On seeing some of my heavily marked scores, he told me (rather emphatically) that I shouldn’t need all those marks if I actually learned the music well enough, but I later discovered he himself often marked his scores almost as thoroughly. On the other hand, I’ve known conductors who wouldn’t know how to study if you took their red and blue pencils away from them- for them, marking is studying.

There are a few reasons why one puts a marking in a score.

One, and certainly the rarest, is to make a non-performable approach to notation performable. Gerhard did many of the earliest performances of Penderecki’s pre-1970 orchestral works in the US, and later told he that he often went through score and parts adding bar lines, rehearsal numbers and so on. This used to make Penderecki quite annoyed- he always felt that his music could and should be performed as he’d written it. However, back in the late 60s/early 70s, when Penderecki was finally starting his own conducting career I understand he sent an SOS to Gerhard requesting that he send copies of all his edited and annotated Penderecki scores, and the composer ended up using all of those “spurious” bar lines to facilitate his own rehearsals and recordings. Once he was working as a conductor, Penderecki radically changed his whole approach to notation, becoming much more “mainstream.” He learned from his own experience what musicians had been trying to tell him for years. There are quite a few mid-20th century works that need a bit of help along these lines, but this otherwise is a rare situation.

A second reason for marking a score is somewhat similar: this is to create a performing edition which captures as vividly as possible a given conductor’s approach to a piece. This is not just a matter of score marking- this process also extends to detailed editing and marking of the parts. The Mahler “versions” of the Schumann and Beethoven symphonies are famous examples of this approach- these were not made for publication but for his own performance. Beecham was famous for not needing rehearsal- this is largely because (according to myth) his long-suffering wife had put all of his performance instructions carefully into each part. Certain composers almost beg for this approach, especially Beethoven, and to a lesser extent Haydn and Mozart. I’d say many busy conductors have their own sets of parts and matching score to some or all of the Beethoven symphonies. Most of what goes into the parts is detailed marking of what would have been assumed practice of the day- brass releases on long notes and so on, but some conductors go much farther. David Zinman got a lot of great press for being one of the first conductors to record the Beethovens with the new Del Mar critical edition, but he told our conductor’s class at Aspen that his parts looked like “a fucking Mahler symphony.” Chances are, if you’re hearing tons and tons of very specific detail in a performance, especially in terms of articulations and dynamics, you can guess that the players are working from the conductor’s parts, which are quite marked up. Schumann is another composer that many conductors feel they need to have their own parts for. Szell and Toscanini (both known for their fidelity to the score!) used to use their own parts full of small textural tweaks. Some conductors go way too far with this, really crossing the line into re-orchestrating works of the masters (and really, Stokowski was not that bad- a few of today’s big names are bolder), but the vast majority of conductors use this resource not to change but to clarify, and to save time. Why explain this, this and this, when you can write it in the music?

The third reason for marking a score is really the most common, and that is to facilitate the conductor’s study, mastery and performance of a score. There have been some very famous conducting teachers who insisted on a very rigorous and inflexible marking method (you can tell their students from a mile away by looking at their scores for a second “hey, purple highlighter for the secondary thematic material! How did you like studying with Bob?”), but most conductors, over time, develop their own personal marking technique. One early teacher of mine insisted that you could use any system you liked, but that you should never, ever change it once you develop it, but that is advice I continue to ignore.

My own approach has changed a lot over the years, although perhaps not in ways that would be obvious to others, and I often do conduct without any markings at all. Leonard Slatkin suggested that a young conductor might learn all the standard works with lots of markings as a young man, then later return to clean scores when he or she has more experience, and this makes lots of sense. On the other hand, in recent years, I’ve tried the opposite, which is to learn, rehearse and perform a piece without any marking at all, but then to take a couple of days after the performance to mark in everything I’ve learned and discovered about the piece.

In any case, there are two kinds of marks you might make. One is analytical- things you mark to clarify your understanding of what is going on. The other is practical- things you mark to remind yourself of what you need to be showing when in front of the band. Analytical marks might include harmonic analysis. Symbols showing the actual sonority (G7) or the function (V7 in C Major) of a chord in the score are useful, as are markings of overall key areas (A minor- relative minor), pedal points and so on. You might also mark certain key notes that have long term formal importance.

Motivic analysis is also useful to mark. I’ll often bracket motives and their constituent parts in a very systematic way, and then I can trace their development by showing when a new idea is actually and inversion or a mirror or an extension of an earlier motive. In large structures, I’ll often make notes to myself showing where an idea has come from (Last movement theme e-d-f is mirror of first movement theme f-d-e).

I find it very helpful to mark the lengths of each phrase or sub-phrase. So much music falls into four-bar units it is helpful to know exactly where those patterns are, as well as where they change. I’ll also then extend that analysis up in levels, so that I can easily see the phrase structure of an entire section of a work in a glance. We often do mark entrances (I use capital letters for thematic entrances and lower case for non thematic ones), which we can then use in connection with the motivic marks. This means you can quickly see that the bassoon is entering with the cellos on the third beat of the bar on an e half-diminished chord, playing the second half of the second theme in augmentation over a b pedal.

Also important to some, especially in 20th century music, is marking how you are beating things- is this 5/8 2+3 or 3+2? You don’t want to run the risk of doing it differently each time. Some conductors highlight every meter change- I was taught to do this, but rarely do it at all anymore unless I find the score hard to read because of small or shoddy print. However, if there is a choice between putting in a big, ugly, yellow highlighter mark or fucking up a concert, I find that is an easy choice.

One well-known teacher, who’s not known as a subjective guy, suggested conductors should try actually writing in descriptive words. One might cringe at the thought of what is written in his score of Tristan, but it is a powerful tool, as long as you keep it to yourself- these are not things you shout at the players (“Transcendent, people!”)(never say “people!” when addressing people), but things you might think of when conceptualizing your gestures. I rarely do this, which gives it quite a power when I turn the page and see a particularly vivid word there waiting for me.

Some conductors, including Furtwangler, also do a lot of analysis off of the score using charts and reductions. Furtwangler was a keen student of Schenkerian analysis, and made extensive charts of everything he conducted. His perceived spontaneity, and subjectivity was rooted in deep and careful study, as was that of Celibache.

I think a conductor is wise to put his or her ego aside when deciding how to mark or whether to mark a score- you’re there to facilitate performance, not to show everyone how smart you are. If Solti and Bernstein needed to mark the crap out of their music, I think anyone can get away with it.

At the end of the day, when you’re preparing a piece you are so involved in it, it is easy to manage without much marking if you put the hours in, but it is so helpful to have a written record of your ideas and discoveries when you come back to the work many years later. Sometimes it is a life-saver, for instance when you get called to do something last minute, those markings can save the day. Sometimes, it is a matter of recording your whole experience with a piece: I’ve also got years of notes from observations of other conductor’s rehearsals and concerts (Ivan Fischer in two here, James Conlon in four, Gunter Wand uses alternate version from 1905 for this movement, Jesus Lopez-Cobos all down-bows).

Likewise, we can learn a lot from the way other conductors mark their music. At the Cincinnati Symphony, I often had the chance to look at the markings of the music director or of other guest conductors and study their markings. Richard Hickox told me that when he was getting started, Colin Davis used to loan him his scores to major pieces so that Richard could study his markings, and Richard has done the same for me. Gerhard’s collection is full of scores of Milhaud, Copland and Stravinsky with ACTUAL COMMENTS FROM THE COMPOSERS! How cool. These things need to be preserved.

If I have some time next month, I’ll post a follow up with some pdfs of different kinds of markings from me and some other conductors.

UPDATE- Click here for a nice response from Steve Hicken at Listen.

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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8 comments on “Score Marking”

  1. Steve Hicken

    You’re welcome, Ken.

    The concert is next week, and I’ll post somewhere about how it went. I won’t be able to be there, but I hope to get a report quickly.

  2. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Dvorak- Symphony no. 8

  3. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Archivio » Kindertotenleider 1- snapshots of a first rehearsal

  4. Christine Andrews

    Hey do you know anything about markings of conductors say from the nineteenth-century…about red and blue pencils then? How was it different from today- Looking at some conducting scores of Costa.

  5. chitra

    Dear sir,

    If you see a score marking (Publisher’s) of a lower case a and a 2 like this (a2), what does that indicate? I have a conductor’s score with the a2 written above both the flute and the tuba parts. It isn’t in reference to the A2 pitch on the piano as a Flute and Tuba can’t both be directed to play that note. I have searched the net and score-reading books for the answer and found no leads.

    Thanks, and Best Regards,


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