skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map


A score is the written or printed music that shows all the instrumental and/or vocal parts that make up a composition. It includes notes, tempo markings, dynamics, special instructions, and, in the case of a vocal work, text. "All the parts" may be as few as two, or as many as are heard simultaneously in an opera or symphony.

How is a score laid out? Very logically, but it can look quite complicated. Music is notated on staves (the plural of staff), with each staff being a set of five parallel horizontal lines. For musical compositions with more than one part, each part is written on one staff. (Harp parts and parts for keyboard instruments require two staves, one for each hand.) In a score, the staves for the different parts are "stacked" one above the other; each page, therefore, contains a set of parallel staves, and there are as many staves on a page as there are different parts at any one time. For pieces with large and diverse forces, such as big orchestral works, works for chorus and orchestra, or operas, each page of score can get very crowded, with sometimes as many as twenty or thirty parallel staves to a page. (To be clear: there is not a staff for each player, but for each part. Thus, there is just one staff for the first violin part, even though there may be as many as eighteen or twenty violinists playing it, and only one staff for the soprano part, no matter how many sopranos are in the chorus.) The music is read left to right, and the score continues for as many pages as necessary.

To make sure that all the parts "line up" with one another in time and are visually coordinated on the page, each page of score is also divided by vertical lines, bar lines, that run the length of the page straight down through all the staves and divide the music into measures. This marking of bar lines through the staves is in fact where the use of the word score in music comes from: to score means to notch, or to make a cut or mark. (To "score," in sports, or to "keep score," comes from the same meaning.)

There are certain other conventions about how scores are arranged, one of which is that higher-pitched instruments or voices are usually placed higher on the page than lower-pitched parts. In orchestral scores, the groupings are by instrumental "family": woodwinds on top of the page, and below them, in descending order, brass, percussion, harp and keyboards, soloists (instrumental or vocal), voices, and strings. Within each family, the arrangement is still from top to bottom by pitch, so that in the strings, for example, the violins are at the top and the double basses at the bottom.

Conductors conduct "from the score," and they spend many hours studying scores in order to learn works in detail and formulate their interpretative ideas. The individual performers in a multipart piece, on the other hand, whether instrumentalists or singers, rarely use scores to perform. The "full score" for a piece is usually either too big and unwieldy, or inconvenient to read because of the small print size necessary to fit all the parts on the page. More often, performers perform from music that contains just their individual part, using the score only for study or reference purposes. Opera singers, especially, often use what is called a "piano score," or "piano-vocal score," which contains the vocal part plus a version of the orchestral score reduced to two staves, playable on the piano. (An exception: in chamber music pieces with piano, the pianist always plays from a full score, but the piano part itself is printed in regular size in the score, while the other parts, which are printed above the piano part, are much reduced.)

The word score can also refer to the music itself, as in, "Erich Korngold wrote the score for the film Captain Blood," or "Did you hear that piece? What a beautiful score!"

Return to The NPR® Classical Music Companion Home Page

Purchase this Book at the Online Gift Shop

[NPR Logo] The NPR® Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z by Miles Hoffman, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 1997 by Miles Hoffman and National Public Radio. All rights reserved.