Book review: Behind Bars by Elaine Gould

When preparing a score, I constantly come up with queries about conventions and layout. Where should ties and slurs start and end when there are lots of accidentals in the way? What’s the neatest way to notate pedal markings? Registration changes? …Extended technique? I use Sibelius and it does a lot to arrange the score for you but it doesn’t do everything and you will not have a professional looking score without good knowledge of the conventions of notation.

Whenever I got stuck in the past, I would spend a long time on Google, usually without luck. I have a music copyists’ guide book but it really only covers the basics. But I have finally found my bible.

“Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation” by Elaine Gould is exactly that. Published by Faber Music (2011) this book is my new best friend and has so far answered every question I’ve had. It has 6 pages on word division – possibly my most frequent query. Gould explains: “The general principle is to divide words so as to assist the singer in word recognition: both to understand what the text says, and to pronounce the correct sounds at the correct time. It is essential to divide the words according to an accepted convention” (p441). She then follows on with many examples and explanations. For example, when setting the word “flower”, do I write flow-er or flo-wer? The answer is the former, because “when consonants modify preceding vowels in exceptional ways, they should not be separated from them (laugh-ter, plough-ing). This group includes w and y when they represent the second part of a diphthong” (p443).

There is a wealth of information that 21st century composers should not be without: a chapter on electroacoustic music and another entitled “Freedom and Choice” which covers rhythmic independence, time-space notation, approximate pitch notation and choice in performance.

Not only is it an incredibly useful (essential) book for composers, I also find it beautiful as a book lover. Hard-back blue cover with 676 high-quality cream pages, logically laid out chapter by chapter, clearly engraved examples and with a foreword by Sir Simon Rattle. I would highly recommend this book!

Behind Bars by Elaine Gould

Find out more at

One response to “Book review: Behind Bars by Elaine Gould

  1. Exactly what I’m looking for! Thanks Anna!

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s