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LJS 109: Pro Tips on Proper Music Notation, Formatting and Phrasing (feat. Brett Pontecorvo)

Welcome to episode 109 of the LJS Podcast where today we are talking to professional music notation editor and engraver, Brett Pontecorvo. Brett lays down his best tips and tricks on how to properly notate music, as well as layout great, readable charts. These are valuable skills every musician needs to know how to do. Listen in!

Listen to episode 109

In today’s episode, I have a very special guest on the show, Brett Pontecorvo who talks about his best tips for proper music notation and how to set your music charts up for success.

Brett is a professional music editor and engraver, which means his job is to take peoples music, make sure it’s properly notated, spaced, easy to read, and amazing to look at.

I hire Brett to do all of my projects including my brand new eBook The Jazz Standards Playbook coming out in April of 2018 (already out for those listening in the future!).

When it comes to making sure I come out with the best jazz education products, it’s imperative that I have a professional come in and edit and make sure its a great experience. That’s why I pick Brett’s brain on this important subject and how you can set your compositions, arrangements, lead sheets, or education materials up for success.

Here are some of the things we go over:

1. Best practices for notating off beat and over the barline phrases.

2. How to label chords with extensions and alterations.

3. How to make your notation easy to read.

4. Use 1st and 2nd endings or just write everything out?

5. Best practices for formatting and spacing notes, measures, and lines.

6. Courtesy accidentals. Good or bad?

This was a great show, and I learned a lot getting the opportunity to ask Brett questions. I know you will too!

If you would like any lessons on using Finale, music notation, or need engraver services, be sure to visit

Important Links

Brett’s website

The Jazz Standards Playbook

Finale Notation Software

Sibelius Notation Software

Disclaimer: Some of the links above are affiliate links and with no additional cost to you, Learn Jazz Standards receives a kickback on the purchase of those products.

Read the Transcript

Brent: Alright, welcome to another episode of the LJS Podcast. My name is Brent. I am the jazz musician behind the website, which is a blog and a podcast all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician. I want to thank you so much for listening. Whether this is your first time ever or if you’re a returning listener, I really appreciate it.

On today’s episode, 109, it has been a while since we’ve had a guest on the show ’cause we’ve been doing Jazz Standards Month in the month of March, but now that we’re in April I’m excited to invite onto the show Brett Pontecorvo. He’s a pianist, he is a professional music editor and engraver.

I’m really excited to have him on because he actually did all of the editing and engraving work for my brand new e-book, “The Jazz Standards Playbook”, which is coming out on Sunday, April 8, if you’re listening in real time that’s this upcoming Sunday, which I’m so excited about. It’s a book that goes through 10 in-depth jazz standard studies. These are songs that, if you know these really well, if you go deep into them, you are going to find it so much easier to learn any jazz standard and learn all those important lessons to help you become a better jazz musician. If you want to get notified about that, or maybe if you’re listening in the future, it could already be out. That’s at I hope you check it out.

But Brett, he did all of the work on this book and he’s going to just absolutely unload a ton of value today about music notation, how to do it, the proper tips, the proper tools, the proper way to do all of it. I know having him has been incredibly valuable, working on big projects like “The Jazz Standards Playbook”, and so he’s going to give you all the information, you know, how to set up charts properly, whether it’s for arrangements or just a composition, or exercises. How to music notate and do that correctly.

So, not only is Brett going to give you the ins and outs of this entire skill here, but also, if you do need any special lessons, any private lessons on this stuff, or maybe you need engraving services yourself, you can always go to his website, it’s That’s Brett, B-R-E-T-T, and then his last name, You can check him out there. Without further ado, let’s jump into this interview.

Welcoming on the show is pianist and professional engraver and my good friend, Brett Pontecorvo. Brett, are you ready to lay down some value for the audience today?

Brett: I am. It’s gonna be great.

Brent: Now, we had you on the show before to talk about sight reading, which was an absolutely killer episode and I suggest everybody go check that one out again, but for those of you who haven’t heard of you before, kind of give the little short “Brett Pontecorvo” bio, what you’re all about, what you’re doing.

Brett: Yeah, absolutely. I do a lot of playing. I do a lot musical theater playing and then I also do a lot of audio stuff, and then I spend a lot of time doing music engraving, which is basically like taking … Some people send me oftentimes something they’ve either written by hand, or a Finale file of something that they’ve written and I take it and I make it look beautiful so that people can read it easily.

Brent: You’ve recently done all of the editing, you’ve acted as my engraver on my most recent book that’s coming out next week called “The Jazz Standards Playbook”, which you did a phenomenal job on. We’ve done lots of projects before together and can I just say right away that I’m pretty sure I’ve lost a few years of my life doing these things, but the thing is, you were there for them. You know exactly what’s going on with this.

Brett: Yeah.

Brent: I just want to thank you publicly for putting up with all of my shenanigans and, man, just doing such a great job editing all of the stuff in this book and all my other projects and just laying it down. That’s exactly why I have you on today, because you’re a pro when it comes to editing and music notation and spacing and how things should look on a page so that people can read it properly. You’re really a pro and I kind of mentioned this a little bit up in the intro what it means to be an engraver, but in your words, what is an engraver when it comes to music?

Brett: I think an engraver is just somebody who makes the music look incredibly readable on a page. Your primary job as an engraver is to take sheet music, something that’s physically written down on a page and make it look completely readable, completely understandable and pleasing to the eyes, so that it’s easily converted to actually sounding music.

Brent: Right. As far as, in my particular case, when I’m hiring you, I’m using you for my educational materials, for my e-books, for other things like this, but people hire engravers, or even the concept of doing this is important for someone who wants to bring in a chart for a band, or someone who has an original composition they want to show. Anything like this, this is important stuff to make sure all of this is correct.

I want to ask you, for those who are just starting out, maybe they don’t have a lot of music notation chops, they haven’t done a lot of it. I know, personally, myself, I never took a class where someone trained me. Everything that I’ve learned is very trial-by-error. I remember back in our college days, me and Brett went to college together, oh though stories. There’s too many stories, but I remember when I first got into college, I didn’t really know how to do it very well. It took me a while to understand how to do it by just simple trial-and-error. For those who are listening, who haven’t done a lot about this, is there some basic golden rules of music notation in setting up a chart?

Brett: Yeah. I guess it depends if you’re using software or paper, but I’m going to talk general. Super general.

Brent: Okay.

Brett: I think the first thing is, be super comfortable with standard rhythms. I’m not even talking about anything crazy. Do you know what a quarter note looks like? Do you know what a half note looks like? Do you know what a whole note looks like? I’d say that would be step one.

I would say step two, for just getting your hands around it. If it’s software, start to figure out where your very basic things are. How do I enter in a note? How do I enter in an articulation?

I think the third thing is, start to look at music that you already have written down by somebody who is a professional, from the standpoint of, how do I recreate this? Why does this piece of music look so great and how can I emulate that? Which I think has a lot of crossover with jazz, too, right? We spend a lot of time copying people’s solos and learning, and I think it’s the same deal. Steal from what is great and make it your own.

Brent: Right. One thing that I think that has made you so good at this is that you’ve read a lot of music. You read a ton of music, hence why we had you on a previous episode talking about how to become an expert sight-reader. How would you say that plays a role in just those fundamentals of understanding how to notate?

Brett: Yeah. Everything in music repeats itself. I play a lot of musical theater. And there are certain things that happen all the time, so when I see them I don’t have to think about them very, very much. I think the more music you see, the more music you read, the better you become at engraving. Because you’re just familiar with how it’s done. You’re not guessing about how it’s done.

Brent: Right, absolutely. I feel like if you’re … Let’s just say you’re coming up with an original composition and you want to write down the idea that you composed on your instrument. Having that understanding of what things should look like, so that not only can you feel a rhythm in your body but you can see it on a piece of paper, is really helpful with this stuff.

Brett: Yeah.

Brent: I asked ahead to our Learn Jazz Standards Facebook community group any questions they might have for you and I got some great questions. Let me start out with this one. This is from Phil Conn and he says, “Ask about the layout of rhythms within a bar, especially where notes cross beats. How do you lay out syncopated rhythms so that it’s obvious where the beats are and where the notes lie?” Excellent question.

Brett: That’s a good question. That’s a great question. Rule number one, you have to be able to see beat three.

Brent: What does that mean?

Brett: What does that mean? That’s a great question. If you have a syncopated rhythm that falls … Here’s a great standard one. If your pulse is like, “Do, two, three, four, like …dat do do do do do do do do do da.” None of those notes except for the first one land on the beat.

Brent: Right, they’re jumping over, right?

Brett: They’re jumping over the beat. If you have something that would take up the space of a full quarter note, for example, but it starts on the “and” of two, so the second half of beat two, but it still takes up the length of a quarter note, which would be two eighth notes, you should write two eighth notes and tie them together.

Brent: Gotcha.

Brett: Visually, that’s going to be a lot easier to look at. The second thing, too, I think to think about, is if you’re doing something that has a 16th note syncopation. Something that often happens is, here’s a great example of this, if you have 16th note, eighth note, 16th note, so like, “dat do da” and that pattern repeats, but it’s an eighth note. It ends up, this is something that blew my mind at some point, it ends up being that you have that pattern, it looks like just the same thing, but the two 16th notes are tied together.

I think another thing to think about, too, when you say “How do I line up syncopations on a page so it’s really clear where the beat is?” You have to ask yourself, “Is what I’m writing something that I’ve heard played somewhere else?” Because if so, there’s gonna be a convention that you can check that up against, right?

Certain things, certain players have seen already they’re just gonna nail it the first time. Right?

And you know, something else to think about, too, in this case is how you’re spacing your notes out. Your note spacing is not going to be mathematically exactly accurate. Your 16th note is not going to take up exactly half the space of an eighth note.

Brent: On the page, you mean, visually?

Brett: Visually, on the page.

Brent: Got you. Got you.

Brett: From one side to the other. It’s gonna be close and technically, in computer lingo, it’s scaled to the golden ratio. It’s gonna be close but it’s not going to be exact. If you’re looking at the layout of it, something that feels comfortable to your eyes, which again, this is why reading a lot of sheet music is helpful for engraving. If it feels comfortable to your eyes when you’re looking at it, chances are, the player who’s looking at it, is also going to feel comfortable. That’s gonna help them clearly see where the beats are.

Brent: Gotcha. Of course, how it feels, the conventions and it seems the big takeaway there was, make sure you can see the beginning of beat three, correct?

Brett: Yeah.

Brent: What if the rhythm is, starting on beat three, you have an eighth note and then a quarter note and then an eighth note. Is that okay?

Brett: Totally cool.

Brent: Why is that cool? Why is that easier to read than, for example, tying the eighth notes together on beat four?

Brett: Yeah, there was a point in time where I would have tied those together so I could see beat four. But I was actually playing “The Little Mermaid” and I started to notice that all of their phrases, because they have all of those syncopated “Under the Sea”, whatever, right?

Brent: “Do do do do do do do do do”

Brett: Exactly.

Brent: Love it.

Brett: Exactly. But that rhythm, they would just notate as exactly what you said; eighth, quarter, eighth. And I think what it comes down to is there’s a certain expectation that the person reading it can solidly feel where the downbeat is and where the halfway mark is.

Brent: Gotcha.

Brett: So, those are the two markers and everything that happens in the middle, we can expect that you can either count or you’ve seen it before, perhaps. So you’re gonna play it correctly because it’s not the first time you’ve seen that type of rhythm.

Brent: Great, great. This is kind of a selfish question, this is a personal question, here. One thing, when I was doing a book for Hal Leonard a few years ago, one thing that I noticed is when I sent in some rough drafts of some material to one of their editors, they sent it back, they said, “Oh, if you’re gonna end that phrase … “, I was doing little short licks and phrases, “If you’re gonna end that phrase … ” This particular rhythm was, I forgot exactly how I was notating it, maybe, but they told me they wanted eighth note and then a dotted quarter to end a phrase, when I was doing a one-and rhythm, but ending it on the “and”. You know what I’m saying?

Brett: They wanted an eighth note and a dotted eighth note to end the phrase?

Brent: A dotted quarter note, sorry, an eighth note and a dotted quarter note.

Does that resonate with you at all? Why that would be rather than ending on a half note or …

Brett: Dotted quarter note to end the phrase. Yeah, that’s something that I’ve seen before. Okay, to me, that comes down to more of, so was the eighth note on beat one?

Brent: Eighth note was on beat one.

Brett: Yeah, it’s because eighth note is showing you where beat one is and then your dotted quarter note. If it was tied, like eighth note tied to a quarter note, if you think about it purely from amount of information that your eyes are receiving, you have to, in your head, know not to play the second beat, which is probably second nature to a lot of people but it’s less work for your eyes if you’re just seeing that one note.

Brent: Gotcha. The reason I ask that is that ties exactly right in with how do you line up the rhythms when things go over the beat.

I love your answers here because it sounds like there’s this combination of, a lot of it has to do with what is easiest for people to read. Just, what is easiest for the reader in general, in the convention. So I really appreciate it. This is really valuable information. Thank you.

Let me move on to another question I got from the Facebook community group. This is from Bruce Mishkit. He says, “Why has there been a trend over the last 10 or 15 years to get away from the dominant “seven, sharp nine, flat 13” chord spelling in favor of the seemingly more popular “seven, sharp nine, sharp five” spelling?” Basically, he’s saying, versus “C seven, sharp nine, flat 13” versus “C seven, sharp nine, sharp five”. So I’m not sure if I 100% agree if the “sharp five” is more popular than the “flat 13” but maybe we can just talk about really quickly, why would you name that? The “flat 13” and the “sharp five” is the same note, essentially, right? Let’s talk about chord spelling for a second.

Brett: Great. Yeah. Chord spelling: crash course. The first thing you always see is the root note. Well, yeah. Let’s say that for now.

Brent: That’s true, though.

Brett: Unless you’ve got something where the root is not, like C seven over E.

Brent: Like a slash chord?

Brett: Like a slash chord. First thing you’re gonna see, if it’s not a slash chord, is a root note, right? You’re gonna see your C chord. Now, everything after that has to go in order, numerical order, right? If you see a C chord, you’re assuming that’s a triad. There’s no other information. The next possible thing you’re either gonna see sharp five or a six. Which are gonna be called a sharp five or a six because there’s no higher number. C sharp five, triad, right? C six, maybe a triad, maybe not. Once you get to seven, you can no longer have a sharp five. As soon as you get to seven, you’re a flat 13. And also, as soon as you get to seven, you’re also not gonna use two. You’ll use nine instead of two. You’re gonna build it up in order from bottom to top.

That answer the question?

Brent: I think it does. Let me ask you this question back. When I see flat 13, that means there’s still a five in the chord, you know what I’m saying? It’s the extension on top unless you’re altering that extension. But if I see a sharp five, I’m just thinking, “Well, it could be a seventh chord, but the fifth is just sharped.” Would that be correct?

Brett: Yes. Yes, although, I think, too, depending on what instrument or what context you’re playing, if I see a flat 13, I may or may not be played with the five.

Brent: Right, of course. You don’t have to, right? But theoretically speaking, if you were to stack those in thirds, there’s a fifth, right?

Brett: Correct. Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. That is definitely one way, yes. Correct. And the other thing, too, I think you have to think about when you’re seeing a trend towards certain spellings or something, and you see this a lot in show tunes, you certainly see it in jazz as well, at some point, somebody wrote this sheet music for a person, for a specific player. So if you’re doing engraving for a specific person, you’re gonna start to know what they prefer to see. You may end up writing a sharp five, even if it’s technically incorrect, because in the engraver’s head, you’re writing it for a specific person and then 25 years later, 30 years later, everybody has their hands on sheet music that you wrote for one person. You know what I’m saying?

Brent: Musicians all the time write music specifically for certain musicians, you know? That happens all the time.
Okay, so the consensus is, it sounds to me, almost nine times out of 10, we’re gonna be writing in this particular example that Bruce gave, we’re gonna be writing a “C seven, sharp nine, flat 13”. It’s not gonna be a sharp five, right? It’s unlikely at least.

Brett: It’s unlikely and I think it’s also technically incorrect.

Brent: Okay, okay. Fair enough. Fair enough. And I think also, just to clarify even a little bit more, you have to consider an extension versus and altered chord tone. You have to consider that. There is a difference. There’s a certain difference there, theoretically speaking, in the basic theory of all that.

So, great. Anything else regarding proper spellings of chord symbols and stuff like that?

Brett: No, no. I think that’s right. We go in order, extension versus alteration. I think that’s about it.

Brent: Great. And also, like that particular chord, “C seven, sharp nine, flat 13”, that’s getting pretty close to where you could just call it an “Alt chord”. Technically, “alt” means there could be a flat nine or any of that stuff in there, too. Or sharp 11, but …

Brett: Also, if you’re writing a version of a jazz standard that typically has a chord that’s gonna be altered, it’s even safer to just write “alt”. Because the player is gonna understand or know kind of what would work. Versus if you’re writing an original tune and you really wanna specific alteration.

Brent: Ooh, that’s such a really great point that you brought up there. If I’m reading a jazz standard lead sheet or chart, or actually, quite often in jazz, it can just be fine to write “alt” because you’re giving that freedom. Unless, for example, you write a “C seven, sharp 11”, specifically because the melody note is the sharp 11, right? Then it would be appropriate to be very specific. And you can be specific if you’re going for a very specific sound but you can also just leave that freedom, especially in the case of jazz, because jazz is really up for so much interpretation, right?

Brett: Right, right. And it’s a common interpretation, too, which is gonna make it, it would almost make it more confusing to give too much information, if it’s typically played a certain way.

Brent: Gotcha. Gotcha. Love it.

Here’s one more question from the Facebook community group. This is from Adrian Petrich, he says he knows “in a lot of fake books out there, there’s a lot of first ending, second ending stuff that occurs inside of writing each of the entire sections out. I know some other musicians who do not like the form of that tune was expressed. When I’m composing and writing up the chart, should I not be using repeats in the short sort of way? Also, could you let me know a bit about why some players don’t like this way of doing things?”
So it sounds like he’s asking, you see first and second endings if a section is repeated and there’s just a slightly variation on the last two bars or so, but he’s experiencing that some people like just to see it all written out, completely down on the lead sheet. Can you say anything to that?

Brett: Yeah. That’s great question. I think the answer lies totally in context. Let me deal with that first. I think in a fake book scenario, the truth of the matter is fake books and lead sheets are a tool to learn a song but typically, that’s going to be committed to memory.

Brent: Right. Absolutely. 100%.

Brett: Right. So, you’re writing your first and second ending in a fake book situation is a no-brainer. It saves page space and it allows you to look at a single page and learn it and then commit it to memory and then the sheet music’s out the window and it’s done.
If I’m sight-reading something, let’s say I’m playing for an audition, or somebody comes in with accompaniment and they put something in front of me and there’s a second ending or a first ending or whatever and I have to turn back, that is an absolutely nightmare for me as a sight-reader. If I start on page one and I’ve got to go back to the beginning on page four, now I’m turning four pages without trying to, you know, you don’t want to skip any beats or anything.

It’s a hot mess. If I’m writing show tunes or if I’m arranging for show tunes, I will just rewrite the whole section. Absolutely without a doubt, because chances are, the person playing it is seeing it for the first time and doesn’t want to deal with the page turn.

I think it has everything to do with layout. If the person you’re writing it for is seeing it one time only and only has one shot to get it correct, you just don’t want a repeat. But if somebody is using it as study and is gonna perform it off the page, I think it’s totally fine.
I had one more thought here on this. Second endings, Oh! I think they’re also a lot friendlier if the repeat is on the same page.

Brent: Okay. Yes. Right. That’s exactly what you’re getting to, if it’s not on the same page, it’s a horror story for someone who’s trying to play an arrangement, right?

Brett: Right. Right. Especially if it’s the first time. Here’s a great example of this. There’s a particular theater that I play for where the band shows up for the first time during their final dress run. So, no rehearsal. These guys come in. If there’s a page-turn, I’m potentially making it so the cast doesn’t get to practice that song correctly because the orchestra can’t turn their pages.

Brent: Wow. Yeah. So it’s a big deal. It’s a huge difference.

Brett: Huge deal.

Brent: That’s so funny because when I first saw this question, we talked a little bit before pressing the record button here about this and I just thought to myself, “No brainer. First, second ending.” You’re like, “Nope.” And I was like, “Okay.” So now I know. Then everything you said makes unbelievable sense. Man. Is this podcast just for me? ‘Cause I feel like I’m just learning about a lot of things here. Amazing.

So I think to Adrian’s questions, the bottom line is referring to fake books, first and second endings, that makes complete sense because, for the most part, it’s gonna be one to two pages and you wanna memorize that music anyways. If it’s a musical theater piece, if it’s a big-band arrangement, anything like this, you might want to rethink having first and second endings and just writing out the parts again. It might make a lot more sense, not only logistically, but just so that everything doesn’t completely tank.

Brett: That’s right. That’s right. Absolutely.

Brent: We just really covered a lot of music nota-, the ins and outs of music notation, setting up things the correct way. Let’s talk about the more geeky, nerdy, the unsung heroes, and this is something you did a lot of work on this most recent book, “The Jazz Standards Playbook”, we worked a lot on this and you basically worked things down to a science for formatting this book. So let’s talk a bit about spacing and layout.

This is important stuff. Some people might not think that this is important, but it is important and tell me why it is important.

Brett: I think it comes down to convention and what you’re used to people seeing. Here’s why: the point of music engraving is to get the sound off the page and into the air. You’re battling against what people have always seen. If your notes are spaced incorrectly, the chances of the player playing it incorrectly goes up exponentially. Because they’ve seen it a certain way for years, years, years, if you have a professional player doing it. It has to look the way music looks in order for you to get your point across.

We spent a lot of time trying to create a uniform identity for what the music is gonna look like in your book, which I think is also relevant, as well. If you were writing a piece for a big band, all of your big band pieces within reason, should have a single identity. The solution we came up with was developing a library, which some people will refer to this as a “house style”, and basically what that means is it’s taking all of the relevant information about where things are on the page, for example, our margins, half-inch margins all the way around. So every time I open up my Finale document to work with “Learn Jazz Standards” material, half-inch margin. Every single time. We decided on a font that we liked, we decided on a specific font for the title and a specific font for expressions or other details within it.

Brent: Subtitles, yeah, notes, everything.

Brett: And if you wanna get super into it, or whatever, you’re gonna react differently to different type of text. Certain things are gonna be easier on your eyes. You always choose a more handwritten-looking font, like the Jazz font that you choose, which comes from all of the charts used to be written by hand so people who play a lot of jazz would generally prefer to see something that looks more handwritten than something that looks more computerized.

Brent: That being said, if we were to be reading music that is full-on arrangements, I would think that would be detrimental. You wanna see things very clean, very un-stylized. Would you agree with that?

Brett: Absolutely. The handwritten font, for me, is not my favorite to read at all. I would much rather read something very, very clean. But also, I’ve spent a lot more time reading things that are written that way.

Brent: It’s all about context, right? If we’re talking about, “Here, read this exercise”, that’s one thing versus “Here. Let’s read this 40-page concerto.”

Brett: Right. Exactly. That’s exactly correct. Let’s talk about some of the things that we set up specifically for the book.
One of the most major things we did, was we went into Finale’s documents options and we changed the standard note spacing. We touched on this a little bit, but I think we changed it to 4.1219. I can probably find a more accurate number, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.

Brent: Can I pause for a- I’m sorry to interrupt your thought here. You said “Finale”, so tools of the trade, really fast, just so everybody’s on the same page, you’re using “Finale” as a software.

Brett: Correct. But Sibelius is also very popular. There’s a new software that just got released that is making lots of hype in the music notation world called, “Dorico”, which I have not checked out yet but, from what I’m hearing, it’s a pretty cool piece of software. Also some people use Lilypond. Musescore is a free resource on the internet. If you’re just getting started and you’re like, “I wanna play with some music notation software”, Musescore is a great place because it’s free. Posts your stuff on the internet, but yeah, we used Finale, which, by the way, I don’t even know that I subscribe to one program being better than the other, but pick a tool and learn to use it really well.

Brent: Oh, such, yeah that is golden advice right there. Seriously, the difference between Sibelius and Finale, I mean, there might be people that are really hard-core, they’re gonna argue about it, but seriously, just whatever one you want to use, try to learn that program. There’s no need to switch back and forth. You’re not losing out on either one of them, I don’t think. We’re both Finale users. You know how I especially know that, other than that we’ve worked with each other? Because we share a two percent license of Finale.

Brett: That’s so funny. It’s true. We do. I personally think Finale is great. I love everything about it. Every program is gonna have its quirks. No matter what you decide to use, there’s gonna be a learning curve.

Brent: Absolutely. I totally interrupted your spacing there. Sorry about that. You said “Finale” and I was like, “Ah, maybe not everybody knows what that is.”

Brett: We changed the spacing and the spacing that we changed it to moves all of our notes closer to a golden ratio spacing and essentially, what this means is that it’s scaling the amount of space from left to right that each of your notes gets. That number is very close to what it would have looked like before computer tech, if some dude was sitting down and writing it with ink. In our context, it kind of made the notes squish a little bit closer together, made everything a little bit tighter.

There’s an awesome tool for Finale called, well, there are a million tools, they’re called “JW Tools”, but there’s a tool that I have called, “JW Space” and literally, that takes everything and it moves it so the proportions between notes are correct. Just to be super simple and clear, because I’m talking a lot about spacing and people are probably like, “Ah, not enough detail.” If you have a measure of music that has all 16th notes and 32nd notes in it, it’s probably going to have to be a larger measure than if you had a measure with a half note and two quarter notes. Right? Because if they all took up the same amount of space, you would run out of space on your page.
Then, when you’re comparing, if you’re reading one measure of music and let’s say that is your situation, one measure has all 16th, 32nd notes and the next measure has a half note and two quarter notes in it, your quarter notes are gonna take up slightly less space than your half note. Not by much. Just slightly. Now, imagine if they were spaced poorly and your half note and your quarter note bumped right into each other, they were right next to each other and your last quarter note bumped up against the next bar line. It would be awful to read, even though, technically the note values are still correct.

The second thing that we did was we talked about distance from the top bar line for expression sizes. And “expressions” is a Finale-

Brent: Terminology.

Brett: I’m trying to think what we ever wrote up there. What’d we write up there? Exercise names?

Brent: Well, we used a bunch of different things, right? We used exercise names, we used, on the Roman numeral analysis stuff, we would write the explanations of, like, “It’s a two five of four,” the secondary dominance stuff, we would write all that stuff.

Brett: That’s a really great example because, as I said earlier, we wanted to really create something that looked uniform between all of our songs. When you look at “Learn Jazz Standards” music, this is what you’re gonna see. Specifically this. One way that you can do that is by creating default presets. Every time I entered in my secondary dominant thing, I didn’t have to worry about if it was spaced correctly from the bottom of the staff because I had already preset that. Every time I loaded that in, it was a specific distance below the staff. That creates a really uniform look.

Here’s something else to take note of; stem length is very helpful. Most of the time, if you’re using a piece of software, the stem length is gonna be pretty close. The length of it should be about an octave, which is gonna be two and a half spaces. Think about your staff, the distance between your lines. It should be about a full octave and believe it or not, that’s really helping your eyes to follow the curve of a line. Right? This is gonna be particularly helpful if you have a line of eighth notes or a line of sixteenth notes. Then you’ll have a bar across the top of it and that bar should follow the general direction that your lines make. Right?

Now if you have a chord, it’s still gonna be an octave in length but it’s gonna be an octave in length from the note closest to the outside of the staff. If your note’s pointing down and your bottom note’s an E, that bottom line’s gotta be going down still a full octave.

Brent: This is a good question. At what point do you notate notes, maybe just a single note, at what point do you switch the stem from going up or switch the stem from going down?

Brett: Well, see, the middle line is definitely the deciding factor, there.

Brent: So, B natural

Brett: Correct, you’re in treble clef.

Brent: Yeah, in treble clef. I’m thinking in treble clef.

Brett: If you are writing, let’s say you’re writing an E major scale, the note D on the treble clef is still going to be pointed down because all the notes before it are pointed down. But then once you get to… uh, I’m doing that backwards.

Brent: Yeah, they’re gonna be pointed up. It’s gonna be pointed up because of the notes before were pointed up. Their stems are.

Brett: Right. So, it sort of has to honor the direction that you’re moving

Brent: Gotcha. Great. I love those little rules like that ’cause it really helps you, especially if you’re hand-notating this stuff, ’cause I know not everybody uses software, that’s really helpful to know. Because a lot of times software will do it for you.

Brett: Correct. Yeah. And you know, for hand-notation people, if you’re just getting started, a great thing to purchase is a clear ruler. You’ll use that for writing your lines. What that’s gonna allow you to do is see the other things. I will occasionally write by hand and I was using a wooden ruler and I was having such a hard time, ’cause I’m like, “I can’t see the other notes”, right? If you get a clear ruler, you’re able to see everything in full context and you’re also then able to use it to measure. If you know your staff line is two millimeters, then you’re able to measure how long your stems should be, right?

Brent: Super pro tip right there. Yeah, this is, wow. There’s a reason why I hire a professional engraver like Brett. If you think about all the stuff we just talked about, this is very detailed stuff, but some of the stuff we’re talking about, there’s so much science behind this stuff. The reason there are settings for all this and industry standards is because a lot of thought, and years of this has gone into study and there’s a reason why you do it this way and it really does help. It makes a huge difference. Whether it’s for a real professional reason like me, I’m using it for my products, for my e-books, for my education resources. Or whether you’re writing a chart to get together with your band and play a tune, all this stuff makes a huge, huge difference.

Now, is there anything else you want to say about spacing to close that thought?

Brett: Yeah, one more thought. Don’t get super caught up in trying to figure out how much you can cram into one line of music. Make it look nice on the page. So, if nine staves look beautiful on your page, leave it at nine staves. I know sometimes there’s a tendency, especially with people who are just getting into it, to be like, “Oh, I’m gonna fit 10 measure of music on one line.” It’s not necessary. Really make it look good. I actually start with four measures of music per line. Then, depending upon, and this is actually another thing, you can also decide how much should go on line based off your phrase. If it makes more sense to have five or seven or an odd number of measures and one line because of a phrase of music, leave it that way. Don’t get super caught up in saying it has to be the same each measure, every measure has to have the same. You could be in the middle of some sort of a run or a line and jumping down to the next measure is tough on your eyes.

Also, something else to be aware of is you don’t want all of your measure lines to vertically line up. Let’s say, for whatever reason, you do have four measures per stave, if all of your vertical bar lines are in line, that’s tricky on your eyes. It’s more likely that you’re going to make a reading mistake. So they should-

Brent: -Interesting. Wow. I had no idea about that. That is super interesting.

Brett: Yep. Which, if you’re spacing your music correctly, it will sort of naturally happen. It’s times where you have patterns that are very repetitive that you bump into this issue. Because the spacing, then, would end up being the same. But you do, you wanna kinda offset them however slightly to just be gentle on the eyes when people are reading.

Brent: Gotcha. Wow. That is amazing. I had no idea about that. Okay.

So, yeah, I’m gonna be a little vulnerable here with the audience, right? I want you to tell me what the most common mistake that you saw me make when you were editing the materials for the “Jazz Standards Playbook.”

Brett: Alright. Can I pick two? There are two that pop up-

Brent: -Oh, my gosh. Yeah, okay. There’s two. My worst nightmares have been confirmed. I didn’t sleep last night.

Brett: Just waiting for this moment. Okay, thing number one, I think, was overcompensating with courtesy accidentals.

Brent: Okay. Okay.

Brett: Now, sometimes, they’re super helpful, right? Especially if you have a lot of on-and-off accidentals in a measure. You have to give the player a certain amount of assumption that they know what key we’re in. I know we spent a decent amount of time trying to decide what was helpful and what was extra information in the bar. We don’t want to give people too much to look at in one measure. We want them to be able to just read it. That was thing number one.

I think thing number two was, we talked about it earlier, the question about how do you clearly see the beats when there’s a syncopated line. I think there was, in some cases, overcompensation for that where there were tight eighth notes where it wasn’t really a necessary-

Brent: Right. I don’t know if you noticed, but I totally asked that question earlier about the eighth note on beat three, the quarter note after that. That was a selfish question, too. I love doing this podcast and having guests because I get to learn and that’s the fun thing.
Now, really quickly, going back to my first mistake, I guess you could call it “mistake”, overcompensating on the courtesy accidentals. Just for everybody, what is a courtesy accidental and in what case would you want to use courtesy accidentals?

Brett: It’s a very relative question. A courtesy accidental is just when you see a sharp or a flat in parenthesis.

Brent: And you’re doing that because?

Brett: Because, in “All the Things You Are”, we technically wrote that song out in A flat. Technically, every time you see an A flat, it’s still gonna be an A flat, right? But if there was an example where we had some sort of a-

Brent: -Where there’s lots of key changes in a song-

Brett: -Right, there are lots of key changes so we end up with G sharps, which you would need to still write that, but I think it comes into play a lot more if you were, let’s say we were doing a passing tone down to, well, that’s a bad one, too.

Brent: For example, maybe like the bar before, it turned into an A natural but it’s switching back the next bar to an A flat because once you’ve done a bar, you ignore what happened before it if there was a change from what the key signature says. Did anything I just said make sense?

Brett: That was absolutely correct. If you’re doing A naturals in one bar and you move to the next bar, you’re back to A flat. So technically, that shouldn’t need a courtesy accidental. However, just like we’ve been talking this whole time, context makes sense. If we’re writing this for somebody who is maybe not used to reading it that way, or we’re writing it for somebody who is more maybe of a beginning to reading or whatever it is, that could be super helpful.

Now, I do get pushback on that when I look on line, even in the music notation communities, because players will be like, “No. You’re training musicians to expect it and not use their brain and know that that’s supposed to be an A flat.” But again, context. Who are you writing for, who’s reading it, why are you writing it?

Brent: Great. Yeah, I sense a lot of disdain in your voice for me right now when it comes to those, I can tell, there’s a lot of anger built up inside. (laughs)

Brett: You know, we had to have, particularly with that piece, some real discussions about “is this piece playable?” ‘Cause this was for a maybe a contrafact or solo that you wrote for it. We had to have a real conversation and be like, “What is going to be the most readable?” Which sometimes, not always, but sometimes defies what is the most correct.

Brent: Gotcha. Wow. That was great. Let’s talk about other things in life we could apply that to. Just kidding.

That’s awesome. Alright, Brett, I wanna thank you so much for being on the show. I feel like I learned a ton and I’m super excited we had this episode because it’s not something we’ve covered before. Oh, man. So many questions I wish were answered years and years ago were answered today. So thank you so much for just dropping a mass of value-bombs on my audience. Super appreciate it.
Now, I’ve gotten so much value out of having you work with me on my projects. How can people collaborate with you?

Brett: If you are looking to collaborate or even looking for lessons, or that type of thing, in Finale or looking for an engraver, you can get in touch with me on my website, which is and there’s a tab that says “engraving”. If you click on there, you can see all of my details and you can reach out to me. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions or if you’re looking to hire an engraver, you know, that’s what I do.

Brent: Awesome, and we gotta do the due diligence on spelling that out. So it’s: B-R-E-T-T-P-O-N-T-E-C-O-R-V-O.

Brett: .com

Brent: I have a terrible last name, too. Makes everything so hard. It’s like, “why isn’t my last name, like, I don’t know, ‘Smith’?”

Brett: You’re the one where you’re old and you still can’t spell your last name?

Brent: Yeah, I sometimes actually make spelling mistakes, actually. It’s really embarrassing when that happens. Like, wow. I can’t spell my own name.

Brett: It auto corrects my last name every time I type it in.

Brent: Listen, everybody, if you need any lessons with any of this stuff, if you need Finale lessons, music notation lessons or if you need an engraver, I 100% want to encourage you to go to, click his engraver tab and, man, there’s just no one better to go to.

Brett, I want to thank you again so much for being on the show and I have this feeling that we’re gonna have you back on again in the future sometime.

Brett: I’d love to be back. Dude, thank you so much for having me.

Brent: Alright, that’s all for today’s show. I want to thank you so much for listening. Thanks for tuning into another big special. Thanks to our guest today, Brett Pontecorvo. Remember if you want any music notation lessons or if you want to use his services, go to and hit him up there.

And remember “The Jazz Standards Playbook”. I’m really excited. It’s coming out this Sunday, April 8th, of if you’re listening from the future, it is probably already out. You’ll find that at

One last call to action for ya. If you got value out of this show today, make sure you leave a rating or review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show and shows people this is a show worth listening to, so be sure to do that.

Now I’m really excited, you know, we’re not gonna stop with the guests here. We’re gonna keep this thing rolling. I want to bring some people on to give you more value to help serve you better, so next week, I’m having on Nick Mainella from the Ten Minute Jazz podcast and he’s gonna be talking to us about the blues. You’re not gonna wanna miss this episode, so I’ll see ya next week, episode 110.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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