Writing musical scores—is there a standard type of pen used?

I’ve seen all manner of examples of sheet music, from that written quickly with a ballpoint pen to the usual engraved sheets one usually thinks of when someone mentioned “sheet music”.

Does there exist a special pen, perhaps made more-or-less standard, that is used when one wishes to closely approximate by hand the precise flourishes and widths of lines present in professionally-engraved music?

“Professionally-engraved music” nowadays usually means using a computer program, such as Finale (the industry standard) or Sibelius. I mean I guess you could buy a calligraphy pen or something, but that raises the question: Why?

Oh, I know that. I might’ve been more precise and said “engraved-style”.

I’m talking about if, for whatever reason that may possibly exist (lack of or an aversion to computers being one, perhaps :slight_smile: ), whether there’s a special pen. Calligraphy sounds on the right track, but the nibs I’m acquainted with are much too wide. Are these used?

Are any copyists here, even, that have a favorite pen for times when Finale and its ilk aren’t feasible?

Ex-professional copyist checking in. I worked in Hollywood in the 1970’s & 80’s, before computers took over. In fact, I helped develop one of the earliest computer music graphics programs (on an IMSAI 8080!)

Many copyists used a italic-type fountain pen. Specifically, if memory serves, an Esterbrook 2312 (or 9312) tip was the favorite. You have to hold it a little differently than “normal” writing, more parallel to the staff lines, to get the maximum difference between vertical & horizontal strokes. This pen tip served for most music notation. I held it between the 2nd & third finger of my right hand instead of the first & 2nd as you normally would.

But for lyrics or other text, I switched to a more standard, rounded, small point, where the italic shading would not occur.

Many professional copyists used the small point – usually the cheapest fountain pen they could find with a fine to medium designation – as their sole pen. This meant they had to stroke beams twice to make them thick enough to look like engraving, and their copying didn’t have the shading the italic point provided.

Note that engraving, that is, real engraving on copper plates with a scriber and punches, was at one time the way to prepare printed music masters. The pens only simulated that appearance. Later computer programs attempted to emulate the same thing (some very badly, as few programmers are also copyists or engravers and vice-versa).

I never have prepared scores by hand - Finale all the way (what situations do you mean when software “isn’t feasible”? Do you mean that they are unable to do what you want, or that you don’t have access to them?) Some people will recommend a whole armoury of nibs & stuff. Others go for a single draughtsmans-style pencil, dark enough to photocopy well… I’ve seen excellent scores done with both extremes, and hideous scores. But I suppose more of the good scores seem to come from the single-pencil route, because it forces the scribe to pay attention to what they’re actually doing, and not falling into the trap of trusting and relying on the tools to do the work.

More thoughts on the subject. If you are interested in trying hand calligraphy music with a fountain pen, you might run across a pen once marketed as a “music point.” Instead of the standard split point fountain tip, where the ink travels in the channel between the 2 split halves, it had three parts to the tip, and was quite flexible. If you pressed harder, the two outside parts spread out and made a wider stroke.

Don’t waste your time on this gadget. Use a standard italic point instead, and practice holding it.

We used to modify commercial points by grinding them to a desired shape with very fine sandpaper and other polishing agents, but the italic shape was the starting point.

As for inks, standard fountain pen black is too thin for a good, reproducable image, and india ink too thick to flow well in a fountain pen. We used to roll our own secret formulas, but I believe there now are “technical pen” inks that bridge the gap between too thick and too thin. Experiment.

Some copyists used rapidograph-style points, but those require holding the pen exactly vertical and don’t provide any natural shading. Whatever.

You may find examples of these pen styles in some music in the jazz field; low-volume printings often were just reproductions of hand work, and when the big publishing outfits started using computers, they emulated the hand style by making a font of some Hollywood copyists’ music characters. There are jazz fake books and other printed examples of this sold in music stores; if it looks like hand work, but the characters are much too regular, they are probably done this way.

And for those of you who think Finale is the only way to go, fine, if time is not an issue. For speed, I can hand-copy any music in less than half the time of a Finale copyist. The Finale user can make edits and prepare a final work that doesn’t look edited, however, not to mention such tricks as transposing and cut & pasting, where a computer excels.

Wow, thanks so much for such detailed information. It’s inspiring in itself!

I ask, since I find myself frustrated with the limitations of Finale Notepad (actual Finale is way out of the question, unfortuately, for the little idea-jots I do occasionally), and I’ve long noticed the apparent distinctive quality of hand-copied music, which has that clarity despite not being computer-generated or engraved.

Thanks, too, for the explanation as to what engraving entails—I never was quite clear on that.

Of course, an element of personal preference comes into this - but be careful not to lump all computer engraving together. 90% of it is terrible, but when done well it is superior to almost any hand copies.

I’ve recently discovered Lilypond, which I think (and the creators think) makes much prettier scores than Finale, and everything tends to turn up in the right place, whereas in Finale I’m always moving stuff around only to find that it went somewhere completely different. It doesn’t have a graphical interface, but I’m getting used to that.

I’m still going to compose in Finale because I need to be able to see what I’m doing, but I’m thinking of putting my finished scores into Lilypond so people can actually read them.

I did calligraphy for years, and I also copied music from time to time.

For italic calligraphy, I’d use one of the Speedball C series pen nibs (which nib I used depended on the size of the work), a pen holder, and a pot of ink in which I’d dip the pen. These might work well for copying music; but again, be careful of the nib size in relation to the staves on the manuscript. The ink I used in the nib was Osmiroid black–not waterproof, but it worked very well in a dip pen and reproduced nicely when photocopied.

For copying music though, I used a simple black Pilot Fineliner. With a careful hand and a little patience, it was clear enough that everybody who had to read it could.

Just as an aside, I’m sure that a computer program could do a faster and/or neater job. But I rather enjoyed doing calligraphy and copying music by hand–in a strange way, I found it to be relaxing. Nothing against using a computer, but on the off chance I need to copy some music in the future, I think I’ll still reach for my trusty black Pilot Fineliner. But that’s just me; your mileage may, of course, vary.

I had somebody enthuse about Lilypond some time recently, basically telling me that it was ‘the future’. It took me about five minutes to discover that it most certainly wasn’t, because of this:


Incredible. A whole century dismissed in a single paragraph. And certainly eliminating a big chunk of Finale and Sibelius users from their potential market.

Has anyone tried the abc freeware system? I understand it’s limited to one stave tunes, which may not be of help to some, but I’m just wondering how easy it is to use / play back?

I like NoteWorthy Composer. It’s done everything I need it to do, and it has a free trial version.

Here’s the link you meant to include:


Yeah, something like that.

Interesting - I’ve never used it, but it looks to be conciously modelled on Finale’s interface. I’m not sure that’s a good thing :wink:

Again I don’t know the system, but on a cursory examination it looks like a poor man’s version of Lilypond. The desire for an interchangable and text-based file format is a worthy cause, but MusicXML is by far the more promising system at the moment.