Music engraving is an interest of mine.  I’ve always been amazed at how the quality of engraving affects the readability of a piece of music.  I recently discovered a piece that I like very much, but which I feel is poorly engraved.

The piece is “Shifty-Eyed Blues” by Phillip Keveren.  It’s a great early-intermediate jazz piece that works well in recital.  It’s reasonably easy to learn and provides a number of opportunities for reinforcing certain concepts.  The change in register of the melody helps with arm mobility; the slight change in rhythm of the bass line from “on the beat” to “off the beat” can really help students learn the difference in the two rhythms, and the sound and feel of the piece is very natural.

Before we go any further, have a look at the piece in its original form:

Sample Page from Sheetmusicplus.com

I have two issues with the engraving.  First, the distance between the treble and bass staves is too large.  There’s just too much white space in between.  Normally when an engraver does this, it’s because there are a lot of ledger lines or other markings that need to be placed between the staves.  Not so in this case (trust me, there’s nothing later in the piece that requires it, and even if it did, that’s not a reason to keep all that space in the first page.)

My other issue is that each system has three measures.  Obviously, the piece is in 4-measure phrases.  This means it would be far easier to read the piece in four measure groups instead of three measure groups.  Later on, this creates a problem where a phrase is divided over a page-turn, requiring the student to stop mid-phrase to turn the page.  Yikes!  This creates a problem in reading – we want to teach our students to see groups of things and look ahead.  The engraving of this particular piece does not help that pedagogical goal.

Here’s how I would engrave the first 8 measures:


(click for full-size)

Personally, I think this is far easier to read.  It doesn’t look cluttered or busy at all, but the added benefit of having the staves closer together and the system breaks matching the phrasing is very helpful.  (Nearly all modern methods format their music like this – as music becomes more advanced, 4-measure systems become impractical, but in earlier levels, it’s extremely helpful.)

An added bonus of engraving like this – it makes the music seem less “Big-Note Easy”, making it more palatable to older students.  One of the major markets for music like this is the 10-14 year-old age group – students who are still at a late-elementary or early-intermediate level technically, but who have more sophisticated interests and ears.  “Shifty-Eyed Blues” is exactly the kind of piece that appeals to them, but if it looks like “beginner music,” it may turn students off.  Furthermore, I don’t think it’s more difficult for younger students.  I’ve had 8 year-olds learn music that’s engraved a bit tighter, and they have no trouble at all.  (An example of good engraving at that level are much of William Gillock’s and Robert Vandall’s collections.  Their engraving always perfectly matches the pedagogical and age level of the target student.

Why do publishers do this?  I don’t really know, but I suspect it has something to do with printing.  I’ve heard that books are cheaper to print when the number of pages they contain is a multiple of 16.  (This is why most books you get have 16 pages.)  Basically, most music today is printed in signatures, which is a large sheet of paper that contains multiple pages.  The large sheet is then folded and cut to create the book.  Any blank space not used is wasted.  Here’s a quick explanation of what I’m talking about:


Composers are often asked to provide enough material to make a 16-page book.  If it ends up being less or more, then pieces are edited down or the engraving is changed to make the pieces fit, much in the same way college students set their word processors to 1.5 line spacing and 14 point Bookman font to stretch that 8 page paper into the required 10.

But while I’m sensitive to the need for publishers to be financially responsible, the pedagogue in me hates seeing a great piece like “Shifty-Eyed Blues” stretched so thin, especially when a possible solution would’ve been to add another excellent piece to the collection!

All things considered, it’s still a nice collection and worth owning.  Buy it:

Purchase Shifty-Eyed Blues at Sheetmusicplus.com

But if any editors or engravers are out there listening – you’ve done Mr. Keveren a disservice.  The music, and our students, deserve better!

2 comments to Engraving

  • Mindy W

    I agree with you. And what I find is that the flow of reading is interrupted with larger print. For younger students they need a bit more space, but older students, as this piece is geared for, need to take it in faster.
    Also, I really like this collection. I hate that music publishing is based on the bottom line instead of the student. This collection could have used the 16 page spread better by asking Mr. Keveren to put in another piece or two to round out the collection.

  • First of all, may I just say… your blog is off the hook! I love it! Back to topic, I have this book in my teaching library as well. The pieces are clever and fun, but I agree with you the “big-note” engraving style tends to backfire. Just like websites that use large fonts, it looks a bit nerdy (can I say that?). I believe the target audience for this book would appreciate the sophisticated appearance that results from more compact spacing and slightly smaller notes. This is just a theory, but it seems to me that reading fluency is hindered with “big-note” reading. It encourages students to read one note at a time rather than processing musical shapes and patterns.