Some years ago, when I was preparing for one of my performance diplomas, I received some mentoring from a concert pianist acquaintance. On placing my copy of Liszt’s Sonnetto del Petrarca no. 123 on the music desk of the piano, he commented that there was “an awful lot of writing on it” and that it might be better if I worked from a clean score. I replied that I found the notes, annotations and personal doodles helpful; he then told me an anecdote about A Very Famous Pianist who would work from a photocopy or second copy of the score and put the original away in a drawer. It was only when I was working towards my Fellowship diploma, for which Schubert’s Sonata D959 was the main work in the programme, that I recalled this anecdote and I invested in several copies of the Henle edition of the sonata – one was my “working score”, the other a clean score (I also had a Barenreiter edition of the score because I found the introductory notes useful). As you can see from the photo, the working score of the Schubert is really quite messy – and I suspect my concert pianist acquaintance would be appalled by the number of annotations scrawled upon it.

I recently revisited the Liszt Sonetto and was genuinely horrified by the mess I’d made of the score – so many annotations, directions to myself (such as “Head up!” to remind me not to dip my head into the keyboard to give the impression of profound emotion!) and sundry other scribblings, many of which I now found illegible or incomprehensible. I wanted to play the piece but the annotations were simply too distracting. And because it’s an inexpensive score, to rub out all the markings would make a mess of the paper….  A clean score would mark a clean start.

At the most practical level, annotations can help us find our way around the music. Fingerings in particular need to be marked up and are invaluable when returning to a previously-learnt piece, enabling one to (re-)negotiate tricky passages. But a clean score of a previously-learnt work can be very liberating – as I found when I returned to the Schubert sonata with a view to reviving it. With a brand-new score, I noticed new details in the music, so much so that at times I felt I was learning a different piece – and then the anecdote about the concert pianist who put his clean scores in a drawer really made sense to me. If you have spent weeks and months – years even – with the same score, the same familiar pages, now dog-eared and friable from so much use, you stop seeing all the notes and personal markings. A clean score is a useful wake-up and a chance to refresh the music.

Students may be reluctant to write on their scores, perhaps seeing the text as something inviolable. As a teacher, I encourage students to mark up their scores: the act of writing a note is an important part of the learning process, and besides, notes made in pencil can be rubbed out when no longer needed. Also, some editorial markings in scores, especially in exam pieces, can be confusing – fingerings may need to be changed or a bar or section might require some additional clarification. Because teaching is about respect (or at least it should be), I never write on a student’s score without their permission (though I have witnessed other less respectful teachers scrawling bossy notes across a student’s score without asking first).

Annotations and the other writings on our scores are also incredibly personal and significant and represent our own special relationship with the text, and a specific time in our musical development. Our notes and markings may be intimate and private, and, almost diary-like, chronicle an evolving relationship with the music.

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(Header image: part of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg variations score)


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As musicians our musical scores are very personal to us, and the markings and annotations we make on our scores can be deeply associated with memories – of significant teachers, special concerts and venues, colleagues and friends, and may even correspond to certain periods in our lives. Looking at another musician’s annotated score can feel like an act of voyeurism: a score liberally marked with someone else’s fingering and comments might reveal someone’s deepest insecurities and frustrations, their unspoken hopes and most secret desires. Our markings also reveal our personal working processes and practise patterns, our attempts to dig away at the surface of the music to look beyond the notes to find a deeper meaning.

Clifford Curzon’s heavily annotated score of a Schubert moment musical
On a most basic level, markings on the score relate to fingering schemes, dynamics, pedaling and so forth. Learning music is a complex mental and physical process, and anything that assists in that process is useful. Often it is simply not possible to remember all the details in the music and annotations provide a useful aide memoir and an immediate mnemonic for the practice of practising. The permanence of the graphite pencil mark is such that, until we choose to erase that mark, it remains there on the page in front of our eyes.

The marks we make in our music are our personal “hieroglyphs”, our own secret code, if you will. While working on Schubert’s Piano Sonata No 20 in A, D959, with a colleague recently, she asked me if, as my page turner, she needed to worry about the word “NO!” scrawled in thick pencil at the top of one page, or the exclamation marks above a phrase further on in the music. I assured her that these were directions purely for myself (directions to add more emphasis to a particular group of notes, in fact). I also use a pair of spectacles doodle (or what I suppose might be called an “emoji” these days!) which means “watch out” – a note to self to be wary or to take extra care in a certain passage – while a series of dots is a pre-emptive ritardando direction.

Returning to a score after a break from it and reacquainting oneself with its annotations can be an interesting experience in itself. In a way, the annotations become a snapshot of a time and place. I’ve still got my old Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music editions of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues and Two- and Three- Part Inventions and Chopin’s Nocturnes, which contain annotations from the piano teacher I studied with as a teenager. Just seeing her handwriting and her diagram of the structure of a fugue, elicits a kind of Proustian rush, which takes me back to her living room, her big black Steinway, and her spaniel who used to lie across my feet as I played.

As I’ve become more experienced and mature as a musician, I write far less on the score than I used to, and lately when I return to a score I’ve previously worked on, I find myself erasing old annotations to clean up the score and make way for new, but fewer, markings. Some people like to keep one score completely free of markings and will work from a photocopy or duplicate copy of the score, so that they have a clean score for performance. Others like to cover their scores with so much annotation that the music is almost obscured, and some of us regard our scores and their individual markings as a kind of “comfort blanket”. My Henle edition score of Schubert’s sonata D959, now missing its smart blue cover, with dog-eared corners from turning the pages and many pages secured with tape, is a prized possession and one which I would hate to lose. It was, and still is, my working score and represents 20 months of hard graft, note-learning, study and thought. I can’t bear the thought of replacing this score!

Modern technology now allows us to annotate scores directly on a tablet device, and while this offers a tidy, portable means to do so (particularly useful when one is travelling), I suspect most musicians would be reluctant to completely relinquish pencil and paper score.

Annotated score on an iPad app





Clifford Curzon’s score of Schubert’s F minor movements from the Moments Musicaux


Yehudi Menuhin’s annotated score of Bach’s solo Violin Sonata No. 2 (source The Strad magazine/website)