Differences in writing music by hand: Beginner and Experienced Musicians

Music handwriting: expert verses novice musician


Experienced musicians are more likely to write chords from bottom to top, starting with note heads first, then stems and beams, and finally adding musical expression markings.

Handwriting Music

Hand writing is related to motor skills and also to musical education and training. It perceptually relates to how music structures are represented and understood. No study between music handwriting and perception of musical structures.

Handwriting of music is usually studied under optical recognition tasks which includes the study of note recognition, score comparisons and comparison of music handwritten by different musicians.

Music structure is understood in studies of music perception. These include studies of reading, perceiving, and remembering music. I have reported on one such study earlier which is Sloboda’s (1984) seminal study of eye movement and hand movements while sight-reading. Trained musicians were found to read more further forward and then back again through the score than novice musicians. 

Other studies (Lehmann & McArthur, 2002) found that experienced musicians were more efficient sight readers and could infer incorrect notes, missing notes and errors in a score whilst sight-reading over than of novice musicians.

Unknown to us is how music training effects music handwriting. The obvious would be that trained musicians will have a greater understanding of notation and ability to write complex music notation over than of a novice musician but that type of conclusion is superficial. 

Earlier research surrounding this area (Deutch, 1982) has suggested that experienced musicians will have a greater understanding of the underlying structures in music and are able to apply this knowledge to their music handwriting. Janzen et al (2014) found that experienced musician will have similar thought processes about the underlying structure and process through additional bodily movements and even humming and singing. So there is some understanding of how musicians cognitively interpret music. Unknown is how music translates to the written form.

Music notation in the digital age

In the digital age, few musicians will probably write music by hand. Does this mean the thought processes underlying handwritten music will disappear? What through processes happen when writing music digitally? There is less need to rely on traditional notation skills and understanding and technology can ameliorate these issues. 

In handwritten music, the order in which the parts of notated may affect position, spacing, orientation and shape. These can be important factors which inform subsequent design of music notation and composition tools in the digital domain. Therefore, understanding how musicians write music by hand can inform understanding future music technology applications and devices. Despite recent technological advances, applications designed to write music often lack the flexibility of notation by hand.

The Research 

A recent study by Bertiaux et al (2020) investigated handwriting in music. The study focussed on the sequence symbols were written, hand movements, shape of the symbols, choice of orientation, and positioning of symbols. Associations of music training and handwritten music were operationalised as the sequence. Sequence refers to bar lines, note heads, stems, accidentals, beams, expressive markings, and dynamic marking. Time taken to complete the writing task was also noted.

24 musicians undertook the research activity. 8 were beginners and 13 were experienced musicians. Novice musicians regarded as less than 3 years music training. Experienced musician regarded as having more than 8 years musical training.

Passages of music were to be copied by hand and each participant was video recorded during this process. The musical passages consisted of short examples of simple to more complex melodies in the treble clef and chords in the treble clef. These melodies were well-known folk tunes and chord progression.

The videos were then watched by the researchers and coded for the musical symbols and the order of entry for each of these symbols. The speed of notation and completion of task were also recorded.

The Results

The results found there was no significant association between the direction in which the participants wrote stems. Stems were either written up or down and no significant difference between novice and experienced musicians. 

There was a significant association for experienced musicians and for this group, notes heads were written first before beams were added. Beginners tended add beams to note heads as they go or randomly, whereas experienced musicians would write the note heads first, even into their underlying groupings before adding the beams and stems. (eg groups of 4 quavers).

Examples of sequences in which groups of notes of four quavers were written (Bertiaux et al, 2020, p10)

Expressive and dynamic markings also had significant results with experienced musicians preferring to add these all at once after notes had been written (eg: 4 staccato quavers) whereas beginners would tend to add them to each note as they go. The general tendency for experienced musicians was to complete the note writing first before adding any expression markings. Novice musicians were more ad-hoc and tended to add them in as they progressed through the score and not in any particular sequence.


Experienced musicians tended to write chords form the bottom note up, note heads, then stems (if required), beat by beat and measure by measure.


Scores contain several layers of information. A single line melody can contain layers of rhythm, tonal, pitch, and expressive information. Novice or non-musicians typically have little understanding of what they are writing and the underlying rules of notation. The research showed non-musicians and novices will write music similar to rules for handwriting — left to right/top to bottom.

Experienced musicians have a much greater understanding of the underlying musical content and structures and will tend to handwrite their music as a succession of layer of information. Scores contain several layers of information. A single line melody can contain layers of rhythm, tonal, pitch, and expressive information. 

In the examples of experienced musicians and chords, the notation of chords from bottom to top may be due to traditional harmonic training and forming chords from the root or bass note. Hence notating chords form lowest to highest note in pitch.

The point of this research is that it can be utilised in some way for digital music writing apps. It can also help inform how musicians think about music, the layering of symbols, and its application to teaching music. For example, when teaching musical notation, the teacher can have regard to which elements are introduced first through to last to ensure notation and structural accuracy.

An Aside

There is a difference between a professional musician and a professional music copyist/engraver. There are a number of texts dedicated to music copying/engraving. Jacob (1947), Romer (1974), Heussenstamm (1987).
I have all three. The Heussenstamm in a digital copy and it is extremely detailed. I have the 2nd edition of the Clinton Romer and it is a goldmine of information. A very hard to find book (I believe out of print for many years). This was one of my best buys on eBay! There are more recent books form Berkeley and they offer the same information as the Romer and Heussenstamm if your cannot find these originals. These books are specifically aimed for the music copyist. 

There are so many rules that possible many musician would not be aware of if handwriting music. There are more recent books form Berkeley and they offer the same information as the Romer and Heussenstamm if your cannot find these originals. These books are specifically aimed for the music copyist. 

There are so many rules that possible many musician would not be aware of if handwriting music. I am very familiar with music notation programs and most of them do a good job and would follow many of the rules outlines in these copying and engraving texts. 

Why do I have all thee and how do I know about all this? I did a masters course which included a musical engraving and copyist subject. Getting into all these details was essential. Something my mind thrives upon. 

©iteachpiano 2021

Deutsch, D. (Ed.). (1982). The psychology of music. Academic Press.

Heussenstamm, G. (1987). The Norton manual of music. W.W. Norton & Company.

Jacob, A. (1947). Musical handwriting or how to put music on paper: A handbook for all musicians, professional and amateur. Oxford University Press.

Janzen, T. B., Thompson, W. F., & Ranvau, R. (2014). A developmental study of the effect of music training on timed movements. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(801). https://doi.org/10.3389/ fnhum.2014.00801

Lehmann, A. C., & McArthur, V. (2002). Sight-Reading. In R. Parncutt & G. McPherson (Eds.), The science and psychology of music performance. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof: oso/9780195138108.003.0009

Sloboda, J. A. (1984). Experimental studies of music reading: A review. Music Perception, 2(2), 222–236. 

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