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Spiral bindings involve perforating the spine of the item, usually a large thin score, with small round holes and winding through these a spiral of metal, usually covered in plastic.

Comb bindings involve perforating the text block with fewer but wider rectangular holes, through which a plastic comb is inserted using a relatively small and inexpensive machine, which also cuts the holes.

Comb and spiral bindings are the bane of a music librarian’s existence. Some libraries will refuse to order materials if they know they will arrive comb bound. However, there are options for dealing with them. For an individual’s private use in performance this is not a bad bind. It will lie open very flat, and the pages turn quietly.

The two problems for libraries are the fact that the spiral must be significantly wider than the thickness of the text block, making the bound item hard to shelve, especially if there are many of them together, and the perforation of the pages, which are likely to wear along the spiral and fall out under heavy use. Comb bindings do lie flat, but page turns are noisy, the pages wear even more rapidly than with spiral binds, and the plastic combs degrade and become fragile after 15–20 years. Comb bindings offer very little positive value, but are in common use by self-publishing composers because they are cheap and easy to apply.

Comb bindings offer very little positive value, but are in common use by self-publishing composers because they are cheap and easy to apply.


  • In nearly all cases the best long-term option is to remove the comb or spiral, cut off the holes, and rebind the score, now a collection of unbound pages, by another means. The problem that often arises, however, and the reason for some libraries’ refusal to purchase comb-bound materials, is that if the holes are cut off and the amount of interior margin left may be too small to allow for a more durable bind. This is particularly the case for thicker scores. Although a double fan bind can be applied with as little as ¼” gutter margin and produce a result that could be read like a book (held partially open and moved back and forth to see first one side of the opening and then the other), it will likely not be readable when open “flat” on a music stand and will invite damage by people trying to photocopy pages on a flat platen. In all too many cases, the holes actually cut into the score itself.
  • For scores thin enough to pamphlet bind (up to 20 sheets), one option is to guard the pages together down the center without cutting off the holes by gluing the spine edges, holes and all, to strips of paper or Tyvek. (Note that the glue must be brushed onto the sheets themselves, not the center strips, because of the holes.) Full directions are found in the page on guarding.
  • For thicker scores with inadequate margin, the one remaining option is to photocopy the entire score onto larger paper (or onto the same size paper with the text reduced to 90%) with a gutter large enough to adhesive bind. Note that this does not violate copyright as long as the original is destroyed, since the publisher cannot supply a bindable copy.

Alice Carli, formats
Last updated: March 16, 2008, at 03:24 PM EDT

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