Writing music in layers: A procedure for music notation

I have been thinking about the previous post of differences in handwriting of musical notation.

My final paragraph suggested ways in which this understanding could be applied to teaching students music notation. It made me reflect on how I teach writing of musical notation, hand-written or using technology. 

I used the word “layers” in the last post to describe the research on how experienced musicians handwrite music. It was summed up as some evidence for the use of layers as a procedure to handwriting music.


This led me to think about my experience and use of layers. I do a lot of work in photoshop. Photoshop uses layers as a basis for creating images. Layers can be used for a multitude of things, primarily layers are used to add additional images, shapes, and text, to a work. I then thought I can apply the idea of layers as a way of thinking about notation. 

Layers in Photoshop

Photoshop always starts with a background layer. This can be an image, a colour, a texture, anything. I am going to take this idea and use it as a scaffold in which to teach basic music writing skills. I would like to think that this could apply to hand-written and music notation programs, as a procedure for ensuring composed, transcribed, copied music activities. In doing so, proving some consistency for students in how to go about notating music.

First, a Background Layer.

A basic layout or background layer is needed. 

Inclusion for the background layer could be: staves and what clefs, time signatures, key signatures, bar lines. All those things which remain fairly static (thoughtcrimes not always) in a music composition. This information on the background layer, in most cases, would be the basic layout to get started.

So the layers and procedure would be:

Background layer: staves, clefs, time and key signatures, bar lines.

Layer 1 – the notes heads (pitch).

Layer 2 – the rhythms – add stems and group notes according to time signature(s).

Layer 3 – articulations.

Layer 4 – dynamics and expressive techniques.

Layer 5 – Additional performance directions (if required).

Obviously there are many ways to achieve the same result. I am thinking of my students and how I can keep things simple to understand and follow.

In photoshop, you can switch layers you are working on at any time. There is not set order of operations. In music it would be similar, although there is the element of working on a linear evolving composition where the content of each layer can change throughout (including the background layer) so there is an added level of complexity to working on a music composition across a number of layers in an evolving work. 

In contrast, an image in photoshop is static so there is an added level of complexity to working on a music composition across a number of layers in an evolving work. 

Something to consider.

© Iteachpiano, 2021

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