Sep 112011

Writing Music (on paper)

I thought that I’d write a short post about writing music. Not composing or songwriting, but the act of writing it all down on paper using traditional notation. It’s not something that is talked about in the songwriter symposiums or in a songwriter’s circle, but being able to notate music and hand a lead sheet to a fellow musician can be an integral part of creating a good performance.

I’m thinking about this now because I am in the process of recording my CD and I am about to invite other musicians in to play on some songs. Having legible lead sheets that make sense just makes the whole process go so much more smoothly than having nothing or some cryptic doodling.

I’m a trained musician – meaning, I went to a music conservatory and learned music as a trade so I have no issue with transcribing my songs; I’m fluent. But there are so many singer-songwriters that do not read music and have not gone to conservatory which is quite fine. But, I often wonder how they communicate their intentions to other musicians. Do they stand there in the studio writing letters on a piece of paper? Do they orally walk the performers through it? Do they make the musician sit at home and do the transcribing themselves?

Writing a lead sheet is really no big thing. But, the writer needs to understand a few basics of music notation: time signature, chord symbols, repeat signs, slash or rhythmic notation and perhaps a few other things like drawing a treble clef and the occasional drawing of a whole, half, quarter or eighth note. These are things that I teach to my 6-7-8 grade students in my music classes. So an adult songwriter should know about it presuming they had a proper public school music class… right? (That’s another article all together…)

So here I am. I just finished lead sheet #4 of 7 and will dive into #5 later today. It takes me about 20 minutes to do a lead sheet and I lay it out on my computer using a software program called Finale. I am only going to do 6 lead sheets though. Why not 7? Well, on one of the songs, I am playing all of the instruments and I do not need a lead sheet since I know the song.

It sounds like I’m contradicting myself. Darryl, are you saying that you do not always have to transcribe your songs? Nope! If you’re playing solo and you have the lyrics written and just write the chords over the lyrics to help you remember, that’s cool. Or, what most people do these days: record it on their smart phone.

But, if you’re going to hire me or some other professional musician to come in and play for you, I expect a decent lead sheet. I don’t want to have to sit there trying to figure out your song from a description, your chicken scratchings of chords (assuming they are even the correct chords – did you transpose the key because you use a capo?) or the recording on your smart phone.

I guess a lead sheet is just common professional courtesy. Are you a professional?

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