In grammar and style guides, a tremendous amount of ink has been devoted to the topic of when to use words and when to use numerals. Many book publishers, including Berklee Press, use the Chicago Manual of Style as their guide for such things. Although CMS makes a valiant attempt at clarifying this topic, the needs of music writing are very specific, and other resources have been necessary in our quest towards clarity and consistency with this.

I found that the most helpful resources are ones devoted to the most technical forms of scientific writing. Fun reading, let me tell you. In this post, I will share some of the insights I’ve gained about when to use numerals and when to use words.

A guiding principle, though, is this: Numerals are different than words, and they are an interruption to the reader’s general flow. They can be a great help in clarifying comparisons and names, but they should be used thoughtfully because there is the danger that they can become annoying.

As with all matters of writing, clarity is key.

The CMS general rule is to write out all whole numbers from –100 to 100. A-hah, you say! You should have written “minus one hundred to one hundred.” Well, I wish I could have, but when quantities are set in close proximity, as in a range, it’s clearer to use numerals.

See the game?

Here’s a sentence that took a ton of research to construct, the process of which was extremely helpful to me in understanding how to render numerals.

1. “A 12-bar blues has three 4-bar phrases.”

[applause, please...]

Here, we have two types of quantities: types of musical constructions (12-bar, 4-bar) and a quantity of objects of these types (three). It’s clearer to have a distinction in how these differing logical organizations are rendered. Compare that above sentence to the alternatives:

2. “A twelve-bar blues has three four-bar phrases.”

3. “A 12-bar blues has 3 4-bar phrases.”

The eye has to puzzle out examples (2) and (3) in a way that it doesn’t have to puzzle out (1). Example (3) is particularly difficult, figuring out the 3 and 4. It’s an example of a numeral being annoying and disruptive rather than clarifying.

By the way, I set parentheses around example numerals because I don’t want to confuse the other numerals with my example numerals. So, each type of number gets a unique treatment, and reading comprehension is served, hopefully.

This gets hairy, hairy, hairy. One of the most difficult types of writing to do is writing about music theory for guitar, as in Jon Damian’s recent book, The Chord Factory. Why? Because there are a great many types of numbers involved. You’ve got:

String numbers
Fret numbers
Finger numbers
Interval numbers
Chord extension numbers
Scale tone numbers

With your first finger on the 1st fret of the 6th string and your third finger on the 3rd fret of the 4th string, play a fifth from the root, and then imagine the C9 accompaniment….

[more applause, please….]

It’s quite murderous, tracking these over hundreds of pages (not to mention, hundreds of books).

Beyond just specifying rule after rule, there are a couple principles that I find helpful to keep in mind.

1. If something is identified or categorized by its number, then use the numeral (or “ordinal” form of the numeral, e.g., 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.). 16-track unit, 1st fret, fret 1, page 6. Cmin7(9)

2. If there are two different types of numbers that are likely to be discussed in close proximity to each other, see if there is a logical way to make them different, even if it forces you to violate some “rules.” “Put your first finger on the 1st fret.” Or, rework: Put your 1st finger on fret 1.”

3. If you are comparing more than two quantities, use numerals. I have 2, you have 6, and she has all 9.” That’s an example of numerals being clarifying.

It is a great challenge to make sure that these are stylistically consistent at the book and catalog level, and this is where lists of rules can be helpful. Again, though, you sometimes need to violate the rules to achieve clarity.

Here are the “rules” listed in the Berklee Press Style Guide, which have a specific slant towards music writing and are thus supplementary to CMS. Unfortunately, this list seems to be ever expanding. I think it was originally compiled by Susan Gedutis Lindsay.


Words

Whole numbers (zero to one hundred, including negative numbers)

Numbers that begin a sentence (Three thousand fifty-five people…)

Intervals (Play both notes of the minor third in measure 3.)

Also note: In labels in musical examples, intervals are abbreviated using the numeral and its quality. M (major), m (minor), and P (perfect), as in M7, m3, P5.

Note values up to sixteenths (whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, sixteenth note, but 32nd note, 64th note, etc.)

Beat quantities (A half note lasts for two beats.)

Measure quantities (Vamp for sixteen bars.)

Inversions (first inversion)

Finger number (Third finger)

Numerals

Numbers with decimals and fractions (1.56, 2 1/2)

Measure numbers (measures 3–11)

Item names where numbers are important (16-track recorder, 12-bar blues)

Model numbers (DX-7, Hammond B3 organ)

Money ($25)

Note values larger than a sixteenth note (32nd note)

Beat numbers (beats 2 and 4)

Scale degrees (Degree 4 of C major is F.)

Chord degrees (A major triad has a major 3rd.)

Chord numbers (Substitute VI for II at the coda.)

Metronome markings (Set the quarter note to 88 bpm.)

String number (First finger on the 3rd string.)

Fret or position (7th fret or fret 7)

Time signatures (4/4)

Forms (12-bar blues)

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