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I've never been in a band, and I'm trying to imagine how the songwriting process goes in a band. Most importantly, I wonder how does a band take notes of their songs and ideas during jams and brainstorming? Do they write things down on paper, using formal notation? Or they just jam, then discuss about the improvisations, then record some draft, without writing anything down?

Writing down lyrics with chords on top of them is very simplistic and doesn't cover much of the genre landscape. Also, sticking to a common musical form may make memorizing on-the-fly easier, but it doesn't help when the songs don't follow popular structures.

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    I guarantee each band has a different approach to this. I know every band I've been in kept track of their own songs differently. – Dom Sep 12 '16 at 16:58
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I've been in lots of bands and it is indeed always different. The band I'm currently in consists of 3 Classically trained musicians and a relatively self taught singer/songwriter. While we have the capability to write everything down, we primarily don't. The one song that does have some parts written out was when our guitar player wrote the song instead of the singer/songwriter and that was basically because it was very riff heavy and made it much easier to learn outside of our practice time. So we rely on memory for all of our songs. I think this is good in a lot of ways, particularly not having to rely on a piece of paper with notes on it to know what to do. I also think that it allows the song to sink into your subconscious a little better and allows you to focus more on playing expressively. However, this does become a more difficult task when you expand your band's catalog. We've been playing for years and have a lot of songs that we don't play much anymore and when we decide to pull them out of the closet, it is sometimes incredibly difficult to remember how the song goes, let alone what exactly I used to play. But that's where extensive practice comes into play. We used to practice those songs and perform them very, very regularly, so half the time I can't think of what it is I'm supposed to do and then I'm suddenly doing it.

Other rock bands seem to conform to this approach, though there are surely exceptions. I tend to see more things written out when it's a Jazz band or if there is a horn section or string section. A lot of the rock tradition comes from people without a formal education, so they typically either don't know how to read music notation, or prefer not to. Every other band I've played in consisted mostly of players that couldn't read music, so we wouldn't have been able to thoroughly notate everything if we wanted to (unless I did all the work and played everyone's parts back to them when they needed a refresher).

So I think the answer is not only going to be specific to individual bands but also the individuals within those bands and often times the genre of the band. The important thing to do when you start playing with others is to come up with a way to make sure everyone is on the same page with their varied experiences. Recording a simple reference track is probably the easiest way to document things but if everyone can read, it's usually easier to have things written down (maybe not note for note but key sections or specific ideas) than to pull up a recording of a song and find the section you're looking for, especially if the songs evolve over time and you would need to record new reference versions repeatedly.

  • I would add that when it comes to writing, there are many different ways it can be done. I've been in bands that write down sheet music, just chord names, fret numbers, and even sort of "custom" notation that we sort of invented. – Todd Wilcox Sep 13 '16 at 3:27
  • Thank you, the answer is spot on. I also had the lingering question of: how do you play a song you haven't played in five years? You answered that one too. – CamilB Sep 13 '16 at 5:38
  • @CamilB - You're welcome. Recalling a song after so long isn't always that automatic but I'll usually recall most of it that way once we start playing. Sometimes I really have to sit and think through the song to get all the specific lines and sometimes they never actually come all the way back, so I usually end up trying to convince myself that I'll write something better than the original if I don't have a reference recording. Todd is also right in that pretty much every band will approach writing differently as well and lots of people come up with their own notation. – Basstickler Sep 13 '16 at 13:17
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how does a band take notes of their songs and ideas during jams and brainstorming?

Hit the record button

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For us it varies dependent on who first created the concept.

Where it was our lead singer/synth player, he records everything into Cubase and sends us the basic tracks so we practice before hitting a jam session. By the time we have all practiced together, he records us back into Cubase and tweaks the rest of the track to match our changes.

For me, I record myself and then write out key riffs and chord changes to augment the recording and to help me remember which inversions I'm using. (I have a whole notebook of single page song summaries, with the lyrics on the facing page)

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