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C1a. Reading an Orchestral Score

Grade Six Music Theory General Knowledge, Lesson 1a.
Reading a Score - Orchestral

The grade six music theory exam paper normally contains two separate, full-page musical scores. The questions you are asked are very varied, and this part of the grade six course will help you to answer any question which might come up. The first step in answering any of these questions though, is being able to read the score itself!

You can expect to find a score for any combination and any number of instruments. Usually, one of the scores will be for a full orchestra, and the other will be for a smaller group of players, for example a piano, cello and voice, or a string quartet.

You will have to bear in mind that some of the musical parts are for transposing instruments, and they will not be written at concert pitch. You’ll have to be able to read the viola’s alto clef, and the tenor clef is likely to crop up too. This means that if you are, for example, asked to describe a chord played by the full orchestra, you will need to simultaneously transpose some notes and read some awkward clefs. With practice though, it’s not as hard as it sounds!

Let’s get started by dissecting an orchestral score.

Orchestral Music

Symphonies and concertos are examples of orchestral music. A full symphony orchestra can have up to 90 or more musicians. The majority of them are string players, with a much smaller number of woodwind, brass and percussion players.

A symphony is a piece written for the whole orchestra with no particular soloist. A concerto is a piece written for one (or sometimes more) solo instrument, and the orchestra provides an accompaniment.

Here is the first page of the full orchestral score of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. These are the first 11 eleven bars. Notice how the score is laid out:



  • Each stave is labelled on the left with the name of the instrument which plays it.
  • Woodwind and brass instruments are preceded by a number (e.g. 2 Fagotti) – this is the number of players who should read and play from one stave. Often there are two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets and two bassoons, for example. But there will only be one flute stave, one oboe stave, one clarinet stave and one bassoon stave. Both players’ parts are written on the same stave. (This saves space!)
  • Instruments are sometimes followed by a number, I, II etc (e.g. Violino I). This is not the number of actual players, but shows that there is a second (or more) stave assigned to that instrument. In the Beethoven score above, there is a part for Violin I and Violin II. In fact, around 12 violinists will play stave I, and another 10 or so violinists will play stave II. 
  • When there is one solo instrument plus orchestra, it is often marked as “principale”.
  • Expect to find the instrument names in Italian, German or French, depending on the nationality of the composer.
  • The instruments are always written in the same order from top to bottom.
  • The woodwind instruments are at the top, followed by the brass, followed by the percussion, followed by the strings.
  • Each family of instruments is grouped together with a square bracket on the left – notice how the first square bracket connects the flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon parts.
  • When two or more staves belong to the same kind of instrument, they are connected with a brace (e.g. the Violino I and II parts above). 
  • Barlines are usually drawn through all the wind and percussion parts, and then through the string parts. You might see variations on this, however.
  • Staves are connected together like this to create a “system”. This system contains 12 separate staves.
  • This is the first page of the score, so all the instruments are included even if they have nothing but rests. In subsequent systems, the names of the instruments may be left off or abbreviated, and staves which contain nothing but rests are not included. This saves paper when a symphony is printed!
  • The name of any transposing instruments usually (but not always) includes the note which sounds at concert pitch when the player reads the note C. (E.g. “Clarinetti in B” here is Italian for “clarinets in B flat”. This means that a written C sounds at concert pitch Bb. For more about why B=Bb, see “Lesson C2b Musical Instruments”. )
  • Brass parts are sometimes written without a key signature, as here. Accidentals are written instead.


The next page of the Beethoven score looks like this:


The instrument names are now abbreviated or omitted completely. Use the brackets to help work out which stave belongs to which instrument.

Click to play the above scores:

Where instruments share a stave, there are three possible scenarios:

  1. There are two different parts on one stave. In the flute part in bar 18, the first flute will play the higher notes, and the second player takes the lower notes. This is sometimes marked in the score as “div.” or “divisi”, meaning “divided”. Sometimes when parts overlap, one note is written with two stems, one pointing up and the other pointing down. In the flute part bar 20, both players should play the C.
  2. There is one part on one stave for all/both players. In the horn part in bar 18, it is marked “zu 2”, which means “both players”. In Italian this is written as “a 2”. In French it is “a deux”. A string part may be marked as “unis.” which stands for “unison”, meaning all the string players should play that single part.
  3. Only one player should play the part. In this case, you will see the word “solo”.


Following an Orchestral Score

It’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed when you look at orchestral scores for the first time. But don’t panic – here are some tips to help you get more familiar with them:

Remember that many instruments are likely to be playing more or less the same notes. In bar 22 of the Beethoven, the orchestra is playing in unison, which means everybody is playing the same notes (although in different octaves!)

Often, the fast moving notes will be the melody, whereas the harmony will be written with slower note values (this is a generalisation though).

You can browse through many orchestral scores for free. Visit and search for symphonies or concertos. This is a legal database of out-of-copyright musical scores in pdf format. Use to find recordings of any scores you find, and try to follow them as the music is playing. Try to follow the stave for one particular instrument. Start with something easy (a slow movement, an instrument you are familiar with) and as you get more confident, try faster pieces or staves with tricky clefs or for transposing instruments.

Saving Space

Some short-cuts are used in scores to save on space and printing costs. In a score, any parts in a system which consist entirely of rests will not be printed. If an instrument seems to have disappeared from your score, it will be taking a rest!

When parts contain several repeated fast notes, these are often written as measured quavers (eighth notes) or measured semiquavers (16th notes) etc. An appropriate number of slashes is drawn through the tail of a longer note, like this:


The two slashes on each note mean that the value of note to play is a semiquaver (16th note), so this bar actually contains sixteen Gs. Don’t confuse this with a tremolo – it’s not the same. A tremolo may be indicated with this symbol, but will also use the word “tremolo” or “trem.” Notes in a tremolo are unmeasured rhythmically.


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