The complete guide to typing music theory stuff into your paper without it looking ugly

Scale degrees, accidentals, figures—let’s do it all. After obsessing over typographical details in my theory papers for over 10 years, I am distilling my tricks for anyone else who might like a hand making their papers look pretty.
Megan L. Lavengood

After obsessing over typographical details in my theory papers for over 10 years, I am distilling my tricks for anyone else who might like a hand making their papers look pretty. I occasionally reference some Mac-specific things, but I’m certain there are analogous tricks for Windows machines.

Unicode

First of all, you should know that there are several useful music symbols available as Unicode. Unicode for all practical purposes means “you can use this character anytime, anywhere, in any font (that has provided glyphs for the character).” They’re characters just like the letters on your keyboard, but they require special codes to enter. Or, you can just copy-paste them.

Here is a list of music-related Unicode characters that you should know about. You can keep them saved in a document on your desktop, or just google it whenever you need them, and then copy-paste the symbol into whatever you’re writing.

𝄪𝄫

There’s actually a lot more than this, but the more niche you get, the less likely it is that your font will support it. I really recommend using GNU FreeFont because it looks good and accommodates tons of music symbols.

Autocorrect: the lazy writer’s best friend

“Yeah, I know I could use Unicode symbols for sharps and flats,” you say, “but I’m just too lazy to look up the codes or copy paste them every time.”

Me too! Instead, I’ve programmed my sharps, flats, and natural signs to be replaced by Auto-Correct every time I type a certain sequence of keys.

Global autocorrect

If you want to be able to use these symbols quickly in any app, you can make this a global autocorrect setting throughout OSX. Go to System Preferences → Keyboard → Text, and you’ll see a table of custom text replacements. Here are the ones I use for accidentals:

ReplaceWith
!b
!#
!n

Add those replacements, and then all you need to do is type that shortcut and your computer will replace it with nice pretty flat sign, sharp sign, or natural sign. B!b becomes B♭. No more placeholder ‘b’s and ‘#’s!

App-specific autocorrect

Word processing apps like Pages (OSX) and Microsoft Word also have their own autocorrect dictionaries, so you can also add these text replacements there. They will then only work in that app.

Chord symbols and figures

You can also achieve these things by installing custom fonts, an option I’ll discuss further below.

Chord quality symbols can be quickly typed with a combination of alternate characters and superscript.

QualitySymbolKeyboard shortcut
major 7 (jazz)⌥J and add superscript
diminished 7º⌥0—no need for superscript
half-diminished 7ø⌥O and add superscript

A single figure is also easily achieved with superscript, as in V4–3.

But things get trickier when you need multiple rows of figures, for example, to show a cadential 6/4—for that, we need to start using tools for displaying mathematical equations.

LaTeX (Web interfaces, Pages app)

LaTeX is a super flexible tool that I honestly don’t even fully understand, but we don’t need to fully understand it in order to use it to display music theory symbols. I’m going to give you templates to copy-paste into LaTeX to generate Roman numerals with figures and scale-degree carats.

You can use LaTeX in a lot of places. I mostly use it on the web (on this website, for example, and on Open Music Theory), but I recently learned that Pages (OSX) also uses LaTeX for math equations! This is way easier to use that Microsoft Word’s equations tool, so that’s very cool.

Anyway, here’s what you want—templates for typing music stuff.

Scale Degrees

LaTeX coderendered
\hat{x}\hat{x}

Accidentals

LaTeX coderendered
\flat\sharp\natural\flat\sharp\natural

Figures

LaTeX coderendered
^x_y —this is easy to remember and works for simple figures.^x_y
^{x1-x2}_{y1-y2} Add curly braces if you need more than one character in your figures.^{x1-x2}_{y1-y2}
\begin{smallmatrix}8-8-7\\6-5-5\\4-4-3\end{smallmatrix} When figures start getting complex, use small matrix.\begin{smallmatrix}8-8-7\\6-5-5\\4-4-3\end{smallmatrix}

To insert these equations in Pages (OSX), go to Insert > Equation. There, you can enter the latex formulas above.

Sometimes I’ll write prompts on tests/quizzes in LaTeX, which just requires a little bit more effort, but pays off in beauty! (The \mathrm{} part makes the text regular instead of italic, and the rest is basically self-explanatory.)

LaTeX coderendered
\mathrm{C\sharp\ minor:\ V^4_3}\mathrm{C\sharp\ minor:\ V^4_3}

Another great thing about LaTeX is that it’s widely used in the sciences, which means there are a ton of people around who are very fluent in making things happen with LaTeX. Posting and asking for help on a forum or other social media is likely to get you a quick response.

Equations in MS Word

You can use equations to enter figures in Microsoft Word, too, it’s just…less good. It’s essentially the same process—using a matrix to map out the figures. I’d illustrate or go into more detail, but I have stopped using Word in favor of Pages, and so I actually haven’t bothered reinstalling Word on my computer yet! Maybe in a future update.

Fonts

The above solutions are cool because they should work across platforms, but sometimes a special font is just the trick to get the job done.

I recommend the free fonts provided by Matthew Hindson on his website. I’ve been using them for years, especially the Staff Clef Pitches Easy and the Rhythms font, both of which I find extremely useful for making quizzes and tests. He also provides key maps for all his fonts, so it’s easy to learn how to use them.

More questions?

If you have other music theory problems you need to solve in your word processing adventures, leave a comment—I might have another trick to share. I’ll keep updating this post as I think of new tricks.

6 thoughts on “The complete guide to typing music theory stuff into your paper without it looking ugly

  1. This is fantastic! I am aware of LaTeX, but I had no idea it could be used like this! If you’re interested, I’ve been working on a font that does some of these things using ligatures. It’s based on the SIL open font Academico (which is basically Century Schoolbook) and has some great support for music symbols, as it was developed to ship with Steinberg’s Dorico. My font, Analytico, is a work-in-progress, and I’d welcome any feedback from anyone who wants to try it out. Font files and documentation: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/lfxxvrh4448p4gb/AAAbcDHJKc36o4qiKxi8KVYCa?dl=0

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