By Esther Criscuola de Laix

A-R is proud to be one of the world’s foremost publishers of critical editions of music. So, what makes an edition critical? That is a big question, and a full answer is probably better saved for another time and another blog post—but in brief, there are two central aspects: transparency and interpretation. Critical editions, on one hand, are completely transparent about the way they translate their source material into modern/readable/typeset form, describing in detail the source material itself and the editorial procedures used—but at the same time are not afraid to make interpretations, changes, or improvements to the source text in case of error, ambiguity, archaism, or any combination of those things. To both these ends, A-R’s critical editions always include a critical report in which source material is described, editorial procedures are laid out, and critical notes are listed.

All right, then, what are critical notes? Well, many of our editions say that “critical notes describe rejected source readings” or “differences between the source and the edition” that are not otherwise covered by the editorial methods. It sounds straightforward enough. Yet many volume editors find this to be one of the most fiddly and confusing parts of the editing process. So, here are some dos and don’ts to help dispel the confusion.

Just as if this were a real Recent Researches critical notes section, I will begin by stating that pitch identification in the examples below follows the system in which c′ indicates middle C, and by defining some abbreviations: A = Alto, B = Bass, B.c. = Basso continuo, Bn. = Bassoon, S = Soprano, T = Tenor, Va. = Viola, Vc. = Violoncello, Vn. = Violin. All the examples that follow are based on critical notes I have encountered in manuscripts, proposals, and even proofs while working at A-R, with a few adaptations to protect the innocent.

I’ll start with the dos, in the interest of keeping things positive:

1. DO go in the right order.

There’s a hierarchy to Recent Researches critical notes: they are organized first (1) by piece or movement, then (2) by measure number within the piece or movement, (3) by part (going in score order), and (4) by location within the measure, which can be expressed by counting notes, rests, or beats, as applicable. In general, all critical notes for a given piece should be organized by measure number, rather than by part, and should be presented in paragraph form rather than tabular form.

Protip: When compiling your critical notes the first time, work in list form, placing each critical note in its own line/paragraph to keep them in the proper order and ensure consistency in formatting. Then, when you are finished, you can move the notes from the long list into a paragraph.

2. DO keep it short and simple.

Use as few words and as little space as possible to describe the changed reading. Rather than

M. 5, Vn., note 4 is a g′ eighth note.

please use

M. 5, Vn., note 4 is g′ 8th.

Note that the article a/an is unnecessary (indeed, please exclude it from your critical notes altogether, as it can be too easily confused with the pitch A), and it is superfluous to repeat the word “note” after the rhythmic value.

3. DO consolidate when you can.

This is of course related to no. 2 above. It’s easy to consolidate notes that describe the same measure, the same part, the same changed reading, or any combination of those things.

If more than one part within the same measure has had a change made: 

M. 45, S1, notes 1–2 are a′–g′; S2, notes 1 and 2 are tied; B.c., note 1 has figure 6.

If the same change has been made in multiple parts in the same measure:

M. 19, Vn. 1, Vn. 2, note 3 lacks augmentation dot.

If the same change has been made in multiple measures: 

Mm. 2, 6, 10, 14, Va., notes 1–4 have single slur.

4. DO describe only what has changed.

Let’s say, in a given measure of your piece, the violoncello part in the source has 

but you decide that the edition should give that measure as 

to match the rhythm of the other parts. It’s tempting in this case to write a note that describes the whole measure, like this:

M. 97, Vc. is A quarter–B dotted quarter–c 8th–A quarter.

But wait! The edition still uses the source’s rhythmic values for the first and fourth notes, right? Only the middle two notes have been changed, so they’re the only ones that need to be reported. That gives us:

M. 97, Vc., notes 2–3 are B dotted quarter–c 8th.

But wait! Aren’t those two middle notes still B and c in the edition? It’s only their rhythm that’s different, right? Well, yes. Thus all you need for this case is:

M. 97, Vc., notes 2–3 are dotted quarter–8th.

Any reading that is not changed for the edition does not need to be reported in a critical note, simply because it isn’t a rejected reading. Simple as that.

5. DO count beats instead of notes if it helps.

Let’s say your source has 

which you want to change in the edition to 

so that the monosyllabic “sir” is confined to a single note. When writing the critical note for this measure, it seems logical to begin with note 2 of the measure, as that is where the changed reading begins:

M. 22, T, note 2 is f′ half, note 3 is f′ quarter.

But wait! The edition does not have a note 3, because it gives only two notes in the measure in question. A reference to a nonexistent “note 3” in the critical note thus might confuse readers—perhaps even leading them to think that you or A-R made a mistake (gasp!). So, what to do?

Fortunately, you are not restricted to counting notes in critical notes—you may also count beats. In this case, the second half of this measure—which we can call “beats 4–6” (our typical practice is to count the smaller subdivisions as “beats” in compound meters like the 6/4 of this example)—is being given a different rhythm in the edition from what it has in the source. Thus our critical note can be revised to read:

M. 22, T, beats 4–6 are half–quarter.

(Note, again, that there is no need to report pitch in this critical note, as that does not change.)

Counting beats is also helpful when the part of the measure being changed includes both notes and rests.

For example, if the source has 

and, once again, you need to revise it in the edition to

your critical note would then be

M. 22, T, beats 4–6 are half–quarter rest.

Simple as that.

6. DO make up your mind.

Editorial decisions aren’t always a matter or black and white, of course. There can be good reasons to keep what is in the source and equally good reasons to change it, and it isn’t always easy to choose one way or the other. Accordingly, some volume editors waffle in their critical notes, expressing uncertainty about which reading to use:

M. 19, voice, unclear whether accent on note 3, extending to note 4, is an accent or a decrescendo.

Some might provide a reason one way or the other (more on that later):

M. 6, B, note 3 is E♭ [which it also is in the music of the edition], but E♮ is more congruent with the motive as stated in the other voices.

Please, no critical notes like this. Yes, it can be hard to choose—but you, as the editor of the volume, should choose. It is the editor’s job to make interpretations about what the source does and doesn’t (or should and shouldn’t) say—that is what makes the edition critical. In both the cases described here, the volume editor needs to make a choice and stick with it—though of course we house editors are always more than glad to advise!

In the first example, the author might choose between an accent and a decrescendo based on musical context, or on the appearance and positioning of other, similar markings within the same source or in related sources (e.g., prints by the same printer, manuscripts in the same hand, etc.). In the second example, the author’s observation that the E♮ is “more congruent with the motive as stated in the other voices” seems like a good reason to adopt that in the edition and then simply write a regular, non-waffling critical note to report the E♭ of the source.

And now, on to some don’ts . . .

1. DON’T explain the reason for making a change.

Some editors, when deciding to change the alto’s note 4 from a′ to g′ to avoid parallel fifths with the soprano, feel they have to say as much in the critical notes:

M. 15, A, note 4 is a′ (changed to avoid parallel fifths with S).

But all one really needs to say is:

M. 15, A, note 4 is a′.

Our house style discourages volume editors from stating the reasons for changes reported in the critical notes—mainly to save space, but also because our readers are intelligent and musically literate individuals who will generally be able to determine the reason for the change by studying the score.

2. DON’T repeat the reading of the edition in the critical note.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve seen “changed to WHATEVER in the edition” in critical notes, I would be a millionaire. Seriously, please don’t. It is unnecessary because the change is presented right there in the edition anyway.

3. DON’T use critical notes merely to describe unusual but legitimate readings.

Occasionally a volume editor will try to draw the reader’s attention to a wrong-looking note with a critical note like this:

M. 31, T, note 13, ♮ on b is original to source.

or, for a case where ornamentation in one part causes an overfilled measure (while all other parts have a measure of the regular length), provide a note like this:

M. 68, S, here no attempt has been made at regularizing the rhythmic values.

We on the A-R editorial team like to call these “stet notes.” In a way, they’re useful to our copyediting process—they can alert us to unusual features that might otherwise perplex us and signal that the volume editor and/or composer “meant to do that”—but they shouldn’t end up in the final edition. Once again, any reading that is left unchanged from the source—for whatever reason—is not a rejected reading and thus does not need a critical note, period. (Unusual features or notational elements are best explained in the “Editorial Methods” section of the critical report or the “Notes on Performance” section of the introduction.)

4. DON’T use a critical note in addition to an editorial score marking.

In A-R house style, we have clear ways of graphically distinguishing markings added to the score by the editor: slurs and ties are dashed, dynamic markings are in bold-roman (rather than bold-italic) font, and added accidentals, notes, verbal markings, or lyrics  are placed in brackets. (For more on editorial markings and interventions, see this earlier Underscore protip) Our basic rule of thumb is that these markings and critical notes are mutually exclusive—if you use the former for a certain case, you don’t need to use the latter as well. For example, if note 2 of the bassoon 1 part in measure 37 needs a flat added in order to avoid a harmonic clash, you simply add the flat in brackets—you don’t also need a note saying “M. 37, Bn. 1, note 2, flat added editorially.”

5. DON’T use asterisks or other callouts in the score to mark where critical notes apply.

Some publishers do this, but not A-R. It creates visual clutter and is just plain unnecessary.

And finally…

6. DON’T be afraid to ask for help!

The A-R editorial staff is here to answer any questions you may have about the formatting and wording of critical notes—or about any aspect of the editorial process. We’re here for you—talk to us! And if you have your own critical-notes-related tips, tricks, or wisdom to share, we would love to hear from you in the comments!


Esther Criscuola de Laix is a house editor with A-R Editions.