Reflections on Professional Music Engraving in the Twenty-First Century: A Declining Art in an Advanced Era

In this blog post, Peter Keenan reflects on his fascinating experiences as a music engraver. He discusses both the joys and challenges of music engraving, but also the financial consequences to a profession in decline. Peter is coming to the end of his Masters at the University of Glasgow where he is investigating Mozart’s temporal strategies in the Da Ponte operas. He looks forward to commencing his PhD at the University of Sheffield in due course, exploring the intersections of religion, culture and secularism in Mozart’s life and works.  pic








When the prospect of writing a post about my experiences as a music engraver was first suggested to me, I wondered what on earth I could say that would be either useful or interesting (or indeed both!) to the general reader. Music engraving is one of those crafts most people know little or nothing about, but it has a significant effect on a wide musical community, whether as a budding composer or in professional publications of classics. This post will focus on two aspects: firstly, my experience of working professionally and, secondly, a few music engraving issues which may be useful to think about.

First off, I should probably explain the job title. People still appear confused when I tell them I work as a music engraver. Sure enough, it conjures up images of someone laboriously hammering, chiseling and delicately incising metal slabs, and that is exactly where the term comes from; the long lasting tradition of using metal plates to produce a high quality print. This process was still in use by publishers such as G. Henle Verlag until as recently as the early 2000s. In the days of plate engraved publishing, an engraver would undergo a nine-year apprenticeship before becoming a full professional. This was not a quick career path, however, it ensured a high level of professionalism and skill in the production work force.

My experiences working as an engraver

My route into this profession was relatively unusual. My late father was a composer and many of his works were only available as handwritten scores. When I was around 16 I decided to produce scores and parts for his works in order to make his music more accessible to interested performers. Yet this music is complex. So much so that I realised very early on that Sibelius just did not make the cut. This led me to purchase the music typography software SCORE.

Bluntly put, SCORE is a beast. It is an old MS-DOS program from the nineties created by Leland Smith. Allegedly, Smith was the very first person to digitally engrave a note; SCORE was the result of research and development he had been carrying out for decades. Note values, note-head sizes, stem length, beam angles, slur curvature; absolutely everything is controlled by parameters of numerical values. There is no click-and-drag. In short, SCORE requires some pretty serious dedication in order to learn it, let alone use it professionally. It is a very powerful program, which – with some lateral and creative thinking – is capable of pretty much anything. The processes involved with SCORE are similar to those used by plate engravers. Each page is a separate file, and matters of casting off (establishing how many bars will fit on a system and systems in a page) have to be decided before beginning a page. The parameter-based structure allows one to write scripts and third-party programs to execute conditional editing on numerous pages at a time, allowing for good levels of consistency. The finished results are second-to-none, which is why it remains the program of choice for most international publishing houses (even today).

I use SCORE in conjunction with six third-party programs by Tom Brodhead (in addition to a number of my own scripts). His LJ (‘Line-up and Justify’) program is indispensable to my work with complex rhythmical notation. This program allows one to exercise every aspect of control over issues of horizontal spacing. Using SCORE and these programs I have control over every minor detail. I then collate all the individual page EPS files into InDesign.

In the early days of the digital music engraving ‘boom’, publishers invested heavily in their engravers. Not long ago, I know many of my American colleagues would be earning over $100,000 per annum for their work. But as programs such as Sibelius increased in popularity, the attitude to employing high-quality engravers began to decline. Ultimately, employing a specialist became a luxury because now anybody could computerise music. Budgets for music engraving are practically non-existent now unless it is a very special edition.

This was the environment I entered into (unknowingly, of course). Realising that, through engraving some of my father’s works and doing some small jobs, I had become a fairly good engraver (which was a relatively rare thing nowadays), I made myself known to a number of publishers. This led to my involvement in some very enjoyable projects, but equally to some very unpleasant experiences.

Freelance work for publishers is typically done at a rate by the page and would be agreed based on a few factors (the complexity of the notation, the size of the ensemble, the length of the piece, were there parts involved, etc.). Typically, I worked somewhere between £25–35 per page, sometimes more, very seldom less. Most of my engraving work was creating piano reduction vocal scores for operas. Each publisher has their own editorial process, which the better clients would always make clear from the outset. This would usually decide the finer details (margins, stave spacing, house-style fonts, for example).

For the most part, I felt well looked after and supported by the editorial teams I worked with. Queries were dealt with quickly, corrections were immaculately presented, fees were reasonable and invoices were paid on time. There was one publisher who I worked with for a year who was very unpleasant. I took on a substantial project with a very clear deadline, but halfway through (months before my deadline) I received a stream of emails from the editor saying they had been waiting for completion for a month now. I politely forwarded them the email with my initial timescale, but apparently this had been wrong and they threatened not to pay for the work I had done if I did not deliver within three weeks. In order to get the project finished I had to outsource half of it to someone else, sacrificing over half of my anticipated annual income. Furthermore, the editorial requirements were continuously changing: the demands now being placed on me differed substantially from the beginning. The consequence of this was that my agreed rate per page was now extremely low considering the work involved. When attempting to outsource the second half, all of my freelancing colleagues commented on the unreasonable rate. One person told me I was working ‘at a starvation wage’. So, what was meant to be a large amount of my year’s work (and therefore income) turned out to be a tragically small pay cheque. To make matters worse, the publisher was very late making the payment.

This was a very unpleasant experience for sure, but I learnt from my mistakes. This particular publisher is not based in Britain, and I think they are the only client I have worked with who I have not met with in person. Realising this, I made that a rule: always meet the editor and other members of the project before taking on work. I’ve never once been offered a contract for my engraving work, so it is essential one looks after one’s interests. Since this episode I was involved with a large project for a small, respected independent publisher. It was possibly the most organised and pleasant experience I’ve had as a freelance engraver. In short, it was a very professional operation.

In summary, working as a freelance music engraver has many positive aspects, but it can be very pressured and lonely work.

How you might improve your engraving

As the majority of people reading this blog post will be fellow research students, I thought I might include a few things which may be of use (particularly to composers preparing their portfolios). This will by no means be extensive: even a book such as Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars (2011) is just a starter! I’ll focus on a few things which I notice recurring frequently in non-professional engraving.

The key to good quality engraving is on having a fine eye for detail and being consistent. Consistency is perhaps the most important thing across a publication: not just making sure the house-style is followed, but considering tiny matters too. For example, one must ensure the height and size of articulation markings are constant throughout or the start and end points of hairpins in relation to their notes.

One of the main things I notice in non-professional engraving is a ‘small stave, large paper size’ syndrome. There seems to be a subconscious attitude which makes us think this will produce a better, smarter looking score. It actually results in a lot of empty space, which could be used with a little effort. No publisher I have worked for would accept that because it effectively wastes money. Next time you go to typeset a piece, think about this in your set-up process: it will make a difference! One just has to look at a Mahler symphony or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; it is perfectly possible to accommodate huge orchestral forces on smaller paper sizes with beautiful results; it just requires some work.

Minor details will vastly improve the appearance of a score. Next time you typeset some music, make sure the centre of a slur or tie, the thickest point, is located between stave lines (as opposed to on them) – this can substantially improve the visual feeling of a page. Often Sibelius defaults are way off, so things like this need constant readjustment. Similarly, it is always advisable to avoid collisions of slurs through stems or accidentals. This one sounds obvious, but it is often the first thing I see in non-professionally engraved music.

Lists of things to think about could easily go on. In essence, I believe music engraving is an art worthy of a bit of time because it is a form of communication and representation. I know a well-regarded London conservatoire composition professor who, when asked to adjudicate a composition competition, immediately ruled out entries from composers who had not laid out their first page correctly (with dedications and titles coming in the wrong order). This is certainly extreme (and not something I am justifying!), but it goes to show that there is value in time spent on these things.

If you are interested in learning a bit more about engraving Ted Ross’ The Art of Music Engraving (1970) is a useful read. Gould’s Behind Bars (2011) is helpful too. A non-musical handbook which I constantly refer to is Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style (1992), which is a very helpful guide on issues of page layout and proportion. Perhaps the best resource is the SCORE forum, which is an open discussion board (involving many of the world’s finest music engravers) for anything typographic (not exclusively for SCORE users). It’s free too!


If you or someone you know would like to write a post for the RMA Student Blog then we’d be happy to hear from you! Please get in touch with one of your student representatives.

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