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I have written many songs in a rock band setting and I have notated them in a multitude of ways including lead sheets, standard scores written in Finale, and guitar tabulate. Over the years I have noticed it is not guaranteed that a skilled musician will be familiar with all forms of notation and some are not familiar with any types of musical notation. Because I have worked with many musicians and plan to work with many more I would prefer to write out my songs using one form of notation instead of many. Which type of notation would be best for most members of a rock band?

Just for clarification when I think of a rock band I think of a vocalist, guitarist, bassist, drummer, and keyboardist so the notation I am looking for would have to be useful for all of them.


The reason why I am asking this question is that there is already a standard for different types of musical groups. If you are a member of an ensemble or an orchestra, you would be handed sheet music for new songs. If you are in a wedding band or you are a session musician, you would receive lead sheets for new songs. If you are learning non classical guitar or bass, any exercisers would be notated in tab.

While in many cases you can listen to the new songs or exercisers, the notation is there to guide you when you don't know it. I can't tell you how many times I've been in a band that forgets a good chunk of their own songs and then even have trouble remembering their part if it was recorded. Most of the time in a rock setting unless you are playing out you don't have access to a recoding of your song.

Because of this I would like to give out the notation that is best suited for a rock band so we can at least have a road map of our own song even if everyone is not 100% fluent with the method.

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I think this is gonna be to broad. If you want to cover all aspects included in a song - as you say you want the notation to be used by all of the band members - you could aswell ask "what's the best way to write down music?". And this question just can't be really answered without being primarily opionion based. –  Michael Kunst Dec 19 '13 at 22:36

6 Answers 6

up vote 3 down vote accepted

For keyboard, guitar and bass, the most basic notation would be chord names, preferably along with the lyrics, and/or melody notes to be able to know where the shifts are.

If you want to be more specific for guitar solos etc, you need to provide standard guitar tabulature. Guitarist generally have a hard time reading standard scores (even if they know to read scores from singing or playing another instrument).

For keyboard, it is more common that they would know how to read standard score, but in a rock band setting, it will often be sufficient with just chord names, unless you want to dictate more melodic playing.

For drummers, it would have to be standard drummer scores if anything, but generally drummers in rock bands don't know how to read them, unless they have background from school bands or orchestras where they read score. An alternative could be to generate midi files, which they can listen to, and get the basic idea from that. It is often best that the drummer adjust it to something that feels natural to play.
I play Tuba in a wind orchestra, and our conductor sometimes arranges music for our needs, but even though he writes score for the drum set, and the drummer is capable of reading it, he say it is only a guide, and should just be interpreted as just a general direction, and let the drummer add a personal touch to make it more natural.

For singers, a standard score sheet with lyrics should be provided. If they don't know how to read the score, they are still able to read the lyrics. The melody can be provided as midi files for basic listening to get the idea.

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I don't think that there's just one way to accommodate a wide range of musicians capabilities, but I'd look at it from a top down perspective:

Top level: everyone is going to need to know the overall form of the song, e.g. AABACB, where A=verse, B=chorus, and C=bridge, and have some specification of what each of these sections are, e.g. verse=12 bar blues in G.

The next level down is to specify and write out the content of each of the sections; I usually just do this in terms of the chords that comprise the section, and don't include any of the rhytmic/melodic content. Essentially, a chart of the song that is similar to the content of The Beatles Chord Book, but without the lyrics (The singer(s) may want/need the lyrics along with the chords). Even for musicians that play by ear, having the chords laid out in a minimal lead sheet that clearly specifies the overall structure of the song should be useful. Depending on who you're working with you may want to use normal chord names, "A" or "Bm", or the Nashville numbering.
I find that this level of detail, which can usually be condensed to a single sheet, is the most useful for getting everyone on the same page.

The next level of detail is a full-up lead sheet, which augments the chordal structure with info on the melody and lyrics.

Another level of detail to consider explicitly writing out are are any key elements, rhythm figures, melodic riffs, bass lines etc. that are critical to the integrity of the song, I'd write them out, if only so that you, as band leader, can refer to them when showing these elements to the performers.

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There's only one answer to this: ask them.

If you have an existing personnel, ask them what notation they can work with, and provide that.

If you're fulfilling a band leader role, you have a preferred notation, and you have the luxury of picking and choosing personnel, then ask them when auditioning -- have them play a new piece during the audition using the notation you prefer.

Some styles of music can be achieved with informal notation or no notation -- 12 bar blues songs with improvised solos and repeating rhythm patterns.

Some styles of music can really only be achieved by a band reading a full score (at least during early rehearsals). Orchestral music is the obvious case, but also look at a band like Earth Wind and Fire, where large groups of musicians play complex arrangements.

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I may well be wrong, but I don't feel that any notation would be suitable. I think that most (rock) bands will get their ideas from purely listening to tracks. A vocalist may need a copy of the words, but will probably listen to the track/s to get the ideas. The bassist may use a copy of the chord chart, but maybe , again, just listen to the track. Drummers, similarly, as few rock drummers read, or need to. A guitarist could rely on the tab for a number, but that almost invariably means he will have heard the track many times to feel the timing, even if he needs to know where to play on the guitar. A keyboard player may or may not be able to read dots, so, from that perspective, proper notation could be useful, although a chord chart will often suffice.So, I think there isn't one way, like a score, that will work.

A band that is recording often uses the demo track as a guide, sometimes changing it radically, others leaving it pretty much the same, but nevertheless listening to it to glean the ins and outs.

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I would like to have some kind of written notation though even if it is just a guide or a reference. I feel like it would be better to have something solid if a member drops out and there is no demo for the song. –  Dom Dec 19 '13 at 19:07
The number of bands I've been involved with where I've asked about charts/dots and the answer has been a blank look.It doesn't reflect reality. –  Tim Dec 19 '13 at 21:11

For most rock players, what is known as the "lead sheet" format is probably the most recognizable. It generally has a key signature, the melody written out in standard music notation, chord symbols, sometimes with inversions/neck positions/tabulature blocks for guitarists, maybe any distinctive bass part notated, and lyrics. It's a "road map" format.

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Your best bet may be to organize your music using tools that make it comparably easy to produce different forms of output from the same input. When using, say, LilyPond, the same input used for producing guitar tablature will equally well produce standard staff notation, and expanding lead sheet information to piano chords is also straightforward.

When organizing your material properly, producing different work sheets for people with different notation preferences should be comparatively easy. Just try avoiding tools/formats for entry that are fixed on producing a single output format.

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protected by Dom Aug 7 at 19:37

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