Toward More Effective (and Efficient) Cuing

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The enlightened practice of cuing at key points in instrumental parts, seemingly a trivial matter, can be another level of investment in a good, possibly spotless, read-through. Imagine a road trip guided by a map which only showed the towns which were calculated to have the gas stations you actually needed. One misstep and you’re out of gas in the middle of nowhere. In music prep, by blindly letting our notation software do our formatting for us, that is frequently the kind of musical road map we produce.

Although we’ve lightly touched on this topic in the past, it bears closer scrutiny, inasmuch as shrinking budgets are blurring the lines separating music prep for recording and subsequent publishing. Film and TV scores often have an afterlife as publications or live performances, and often that same music is initially recorded by “non-studio” classical musicians who still read and react better to the traditional rules of notational practice.

Given the technical tools now available for music prep, it behooves us to produce parts which give maximum visual aid to the performers (whoever and wherever they may be,) eliminate incorrect entrances due to missing or misunderstood notational messages, and yet are publishable with the least additional effort.

Initially, let’s look at the basic cuing tradition, understood by classical musicians worldwide (see Example 1.)

The rules are simple, but they result in a look and feel which is visually impossible to misunderstand. Notes and instrument names are reduced to about 70-75% of normal size, and are offset with full-sized rest(s) to account for the time cued. Stem direction and word placement are the opposite of the traditional practice, and are rigidly consistent throughout any one measure (but changing, due to changes in the average pitch, with each subsequent measure.) Slur/phrase marks are retained, but there are no dynamics or articulations, and pitches are transposed by clef, octave(s), and traditional practice to make them intuitively readable by that player. If he has a break of more than nine or ten measures (or, in the case of low brass, ahem, hundreds!) you should consider cuing a measure or so of something aurally distinctive as a form of “heads-up.”

This convention holds for proven, published scores, and are customary world-wide. But for untested scores, such as in most recording work, what if you might want the option of a complete phrase or section to be available to another instrument, just in case? It’s a great time-saver for the composer to be able to tell the trombones to double the horn line without the necessity for the librarian to quickly scribble out the needed info. Hollywood developed the practice of copying the complete section in every detail, full-sized and at pitch (transposed and “cleffed” for the new player,) with a full-sized instrument name and a dashed bracket over the whole. Interrupt the bracket with a “hook” at the end of the cue, and put in a notation to “play” when the legitimate part resumed (see example 2.) The complete bracket is crucial, as rehearsing or punching in after the start of a very long phrase without such a visual aid may leave the player unsure as to whether to play.

Currently, in this period of global outsourcing, with the additional possibility of publishing or subsequent live performance, perhaps the best compromise is to expand the traditional convention a bit, on the assumption that it is far easier (if necessary at all) to remove something than to put it in and reformat it later. Simply add the applicable dynamics, reduced in size and following the contrary stem-direction nature of cues. The secondary rests eliminate the need for the bracket (see example 3.)

If you intend for a secondary instrument to be able to perform alongside or in place of another, then all necessary performance data must be provided in the cue, and at the proper reading octave and clef.

Of course, it always pays to ascertain where your notational product is going to be recorded before you start work as, in most cases, more classical musicians and publishers will be confused or disturbed by the commercial shortcuts than commercial players will be by the traditional approaches to cuing. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” If there is the least bit of doubt, however, remember that your real job is to work to avoid missed entrances, “premature articulations,” or time-wasting questions aimed at preventing either.


  • May 11, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

    Thank you for this excellent post. Cues do save a lot of rehearsal time. When orchestrating, I usually enter cues for transposing instruments in their transposed keys especially if they may have to cover that part. I wonder if you ever have had anyone comment that they would prefer NOT having the cue transposed for them. When I play English horn parts and see the oboe cues, I sometimes wish they were in the original untransposed state because even though I don’t have perfect pitch, I have color pitch for the oboe. So, when I see an E in the oboe cue but I hear the oboist play an A, it’s a little distracting because I have to transpose in my head what I’m seeing in the cue. I wonder if other instruments run into this too.

  • May 12, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    […] Toward More Effective (and Efficient) Cuing :: Film Music Magazine Another great article from Ron Hess on the mechanics of producing music for recording. Here he's talking about the art of cueing. Happily you can achieve more or less all of his recommendations automatically using Sibelius's Paste as Cue feature! (tags: music copying cues sibelius) […]

  • May 12, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

    Janet, I’m with you; when I’m playing EH and see an oboe cue I expect it to be in the C, even while I’m not playing a C instrument. I wonder, though, if maybe we need cues to show *both* the oboe notes *and* transposed notes in case we are asked to play. Would that be too messy?

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