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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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Next UK ABRSM Paper-based Theory Exams Grades 6-8:
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Next UK Trinity Paper-based Theory Exams Grades 1-8:
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Navigating a Score


Navigating a Score

At Grade 7, it is expected that you can find your way around any kind of musical score – which means that you know which instruments are playing, which families and sections they belong to, and how many players are required.


Order of Instruments

The order of instruments in a score from top to bottom is normally the same. Knowing where each instrument “lives” within the score will help you to find your way around much quicker.

In the woodwind family, the flute section comprises the flute and sometimes piccolo, the clarinet section comprises clarinet and sometimes bass clarinet, and so on. The standard orchestral instruments are marked in bold.

The order of families and sections is this:


1. Piccolo

2. Flute

3. Oboe

4. Cor Anglais

5. Clarinet

6. Bass clarinet

7. Bassoon

8. Contrabassoon



1. French horn

2. Trumpet

3. Trombone

4. Tuba







1. Violin

2. Viola

3. Cello

4. Double bass


Instrument Names in Other Languages

You need to be able to identify all the names of the standard orchestral instruments in English, Italian, French and German. For the most part, they tend to be quite similar, for example in German you can find a “Klarinette”, or in Italian a “clarinetto”.

Some of the more confusing translations are:

  • “Tromba” = trumpet (Italian)
  • “Trombe” = trumpets (Italian)
  • “Alto” = viola (French)


Some of the less common translations which do occasionally get tested in the Grade 7 exam are:

  • “Piatti”  = cymbals (Italian)
  • “Gran cassa” = bass drum (Italian)
  • “Faggotto” = bassoon (Italian)
  • “Pauken”= timpani/kettle drums (German)


Required Number of Players: Wind and Brass

In the left margin of the page, the score will tell you exactly how many players are required for each woodwind and brass section.

In the example score here, three flutes are required. The top stave accommodates flutes 1 and 2, and a second stave is needed for flute 3. Flute 1 plays the higher notes, and flute 2 the lower notes. The flute section is joined with a thin bracket.

number of flutes

The cor Anglais is a single player, so no number is written.

The woodwind family is outlined with a thicker bracket.

Four horns are required, two parts are written on each stave. No other brass instruments are required in this particular score, so a thick bracket outlines the horns AND brass section.


Required Number of Players: Strings

In the string family, a large number of violins, violas and cellos are used in a standard symphony orchestra. Numbers will vary, but you could expect around 20 violins, 10 violas and 10 cellos. Doubles basses are usually fewer – perhaps 5 or 6.

Because so many violins are used, they are normally divided into two sections, named “violin 1” and “violin 2”. Unlike with the wind and brass instruments, this number does NOT refer to the exact number of individual players, but to half of the entire section (i.e. around ten violins). Violins 1 and 2 are normally written on separate staves.

Each “half” section is often then divided again, so that two parts may appear on one stave, dividing the section into four separate parts (for example).

The violas normally reside on one stave and may be split into two or even three parts. The same goes for the cellos and double basses.

When one string instrument also has an important solo part, such as a violin in a violin concerto, there will be one extra stave set aside for the solo instrument, and the others string staves will be written as normal.

In a string quartet, the four instruments used are two violins (“first” and “second”), viola and cello. There is no double bass part.


Instructions for Splitting/Combining Sections

One stave can hold music for two or more separate parts.

When only one part is written on a stave, the normal stem direction is used (“stems up” for notes below the middle line, and vice versa).

When two parts are written on one stave, they are usually identified by the direction of the stems – one part will be all “stems up” and the other “stems down”:

 two parts one stave

The term “divisi a” means “split into”, and is usually abbreviated to “div.”. Here the violas are instructed to split into 3 groups. One group will play the top note of the chords, the second group will play the middle notes, and the third group will play the low notes.

Notice that the stem directions are not dependent on the parts here.

 div a 3

The terms “a2” (Italian/French) and “zu 2” mean “both players”. This term is used when two players share a stave (for instance, two flutes), but only one part is written on the stave. The instruction shows that both players should play the same part. The term “a 3”, for example would mean “all three players”.

 zu 2 a 2

When the composer only wants one player to play, but two of them share a stave, the term “solo” is used.

The term “unisono”, or “unis.” for short, means “all together”, and shows that all players in the section should play. The term “tutti” means the same.


Measured or Repeated Note Values

In order to save money on ink, and to declutter a score, it is quite common to find repeated short note values such as quavers, semiquavers or demisemiquavers (eighth, sixteenth or thirty-second notes) written in an abbreviated form.

Instead of writing the fast note values in the standard way, a single beam is used, with slashes through the stems of the notes. The repeated note is only written once. The number of slashes will indicate the note value required. In the following example, there are two lines on each note (a beam and a slash), so the required note value is a semiquaver (sixteenth note).

measured semiquavers

Written in full, the same passage would look like this:

measured semiquavers written out

Don’t confuse this symbol with a “tremolando”, which is a string technique and uses the same symbol. The difference is that with measured note values, the term “trem.” Is NOT used. If you are asked to explain this symbol in words, write “repeated, measured [semiquavers]”.


Alternative Passages

The term “ossia” means “or” and is used when an alternative passage is available, which could be easier, or more difficult, to play. The ossia passage may (for example) be an octave lower, or use a less complicated rhythm. Sometimes it is used when the original manuscript may have existed with different versions at different times. The ossia passage is written in smaller sized notes, and often uses dotted bar lines to show where it fits.

This ossia from Spohr’s 4th Clarinet Concerto shows an alternative passage which reaches up to high Bb. Many players can’t actually play this note, so the “normal” score gives a more accessible version!




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