How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style

How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style (Second Edition), James R. Cowdery, ed. Répertoire Internationale de Littérature Musicale (RILM). New York City, 2005, 2006

A few months ago I was sent some publicity materials translated into English to proof. Not unusually, documents that consisted of pieces submitted from multiple sources – participants’ biographies, for example – varied widely in stylistic choices. Ninth Symphony, “Fifth symphony”, “Der Rosenkavalier”, Der Rosenkavalier, Bach’s Mass in B-minor and Mass in B minor, Verdi’s Requiem, piano concerto in X key, Sonata no. y and The “Moonlight” Sonata are some of the variations I noticed, and these are only the titles. In many cases I relied on the general editorial rules you learn by having your stuff edited from the days of university on, and a lot of North American editors use the Chicago Manual of Style. But although you’ll quickly italicize the titles of the operas, what to do with sonatas, concertos and the nine Beethoven symphonies which are so well-known, everybody is certain they deserve their own capitalization and italics? What about the spacing between the initials? CPE Bach or C. P. E. Bach or C.P.E. Bach?

Additional complication is that there more than one general English style manual that people consider sacrosanct. If you open the Cambridge Music Guide, which I did as I was finishing that edit, you’ll discover all the rules reverted. Opera titles put within quotation marks and in roman lettering, and many other decisions I thought idiosyncratic. I’m sure they will swear by their favourite style manual, if asked.

Besides, every publication or publishing house will have its own “house manual” which may differ in some details from the one you’re usually working with.

But the important thing is to be consistent. This is where the RILM Manual comes in handy.

It was created specifically for music writers, from scholarly to journalistic to bloggersome and everyone in between. The manual immediately grabs you with the chapter on Punctuation which will surprise, irk and delight. I spent a lot of time with the hyphen, the en-dash and the em-dash (I had no idea there were two dashes, each with its specific reasons for employment).

Hyphen: 19th-century music

En-dash: post–19th-century music

Em-dash (which I use with abandon): He was—though it bothered him little—universally hated.

Not only do I use them with abandon, but with the spaces too, which is a no-no, according to the Manual. So – although I really don’t want to – I may reconsider my spacing habits.

The chapter on Abbreviations follows, in which I learn that there are no spacings after periods in acronyms.

Not U. N., but U.N.

C.P.E. Bach, E.U., U.S., no space after b. and d. (b.1300, d.1367). However much I want to, I shouldn’t pluralize mezzos as mezzi, librettos as libretti, altos as alti, concertos as concerti — or at least be aware that I am playing with the spelling.

The Numbers chapter (should be act 1, scene 2, and chapter 1, page 2, rather than anything else), Italics vs. roman chapter and the Capitalization chapter (southern or Southern, baroque or Baroque, classic vs. Classic) follow. The chapter Names is particularly interesting because the RILM follows the International Office of Standardization (ISO) transliteration, not the U.S. equivalent (or any other country’s). Therefore: Čajkovskij, not Tchaikovsky. Also,  they insist, Händel. There’s also an extensive discussion on the transliteration of Mandarin and the non-Han languages of China.

Some interesting things from the Titles chapter:

The larger unit italicized, the smaller unit within it should be in quotation marks. E.g.: “Der Leiermann” from Die Winterreise. “Son nata a lagrimar” from Giulio Cesare.

Generic titles should not be treated as names and therefore not capitalized, but some Western religious music forms are capitalized:




symphony no. 4

sonata no. 32, op. 111


Goldberg variations

Beethoven’s third symphony (“Eroica”) [because a nickname, not a title]

There are exceptions, as always! Some sacred Renaissance cycles always get italics, but also some later works like Schumann’s Requiem für Mignon and Stravinsky’s Symphony in C.

Equally fascinating, the chapter on how to mark the pitch. Three prevailing systems currently: the Helmholtz (which marks the middle C as c`), the organists’ system (c ) and the Acoustical Society of America standard (C4). RILM recommends the latter, although I’ve only ever seen the Helmholtz used in the blogosphere and journalism. I’ll keep an eye on this, I wonder how widely people use C1, C2, C3 etc.

There’s lots more: best ways to cite references, credit illustrations, make a good abstract, even how to do your own Indexing.

Truly, a fantastic little volume.

(If you’ve made it this far, you are a confirmed word nerd.)


16 thoughts on “How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style

  1. I was going to say “You mean Jim Cowdery, the guy who used to play bouzouki in the Irish band How to Change a Flat Tire who recorded on the label I used to work for?” Thinking no, probably not, but [google search], yes, that Jim Cowdery. Such a small world, and folkies lurking in every corner.

  2. Brilliant, if slightly overwhelming! I didn’t make it to the end without searching library catalogs to find it (thank you, NYPL.) Then I did make it to the end and thought, “…oh. That’s right. Not everyone finds this fascinating.” Oh well, their loss! Thanks for the post!

    1. Ach, actually not. Since I usually write history papers according to CMS formatting, the capitalization of symphonies still sometimes leaves me anxiously gnawing my lip. A well-placed semicolon is always a joy; I was gratified to see it. 🙂

  3. Word Nerds rejoice! I wish I knew about this guide as I stumbled through my Masters work. The Chicago Manual is my school’s go-to, but I find their guide offers little in the way of music-writing guidance.

  4. Jim Cowdery here, writing on RILM’s login. Many thanks for this post, which we just learned about! You might enjoy our own blog, Click on the “Opera” tag–or anything else that appeals to you–and I think you’ll find some interesting goodies. I’ll put you on our blogroll!

  5. FYI This manual was a collective effort by almost the entire staff at RILM Abstracts though Mr. Cowdery did oversee the editing. It is available worldwide by going to our website and then to “publications.” Click on “individual, bookstore, or agency” for the correct pricing. It can be paid for on-line and I will ship it to you from the office immediately. Thanks for this great review!

  6. Question: I have a degree in music from college, and when I’m writing about music in English I always write “C#” when talking about the pitch of that name. My friend who took a music theory class in college once insists that it should be “#C” because that is the order it appears on the page of music. I’m looking to see if there is a definitive way of writing this – I suspect it is “C-sharp/c-sharp” when referring to a key, but what about the note?


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