When you play commercially-available sheet music, you probably have noticed that they get it wrong, often. Why are the chords sometimes wrong, or the lyrics sometimes wrong, or the melody sometimes wrong? Who creates sheet music for recording artists who can not read / write music notation? There is a good reason why, even if…
When you play commercially-available sheet music, you probably have noticed that they get it wrong, often.
Why are the chords sometimes wrong, or the lyrics sometimes wrong, or the melody sometimes wrong? Who creates sheet music for recording artists who can not read / write music notation?
There is a good reason why, even if there is no good excuse why.
There are countless hit singers and hit bands who have written Number One hits and yet also do not know a lick about how to write down their song into a written form.
Two good examples are The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. They just write down lyrics and chords. They jam (ie, they rehearse it). And they're done.
Another good set of examples are the singer-songwriters, like Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan. She / He writes down the chords and the lyrics, and calls it a day. They already know their own melody, so they are not going to be bothered writing down what they do not need written down.
The technical term for learning a song without written music is “woodshedding.” It is the old old-fashioned “rote method” – just repeat it, with some tweaks every now and then, or with some error correction every now and then, until you memorize it. When bands do woodshedding, they call it something else – jamming.
When a band does woodshedding, the resulting whole is called a “head arrangement.” A head arrangement is a fixed way of playing in unison and in harmony without the help of a sheet music or a handwritten sketch score of some kind. There may be chords written down, like “E – A – B”, or “I – IV – V”. And the lyrics may be written down. But you will not find a staff line with key signatures and time signatures. No quarter notes or eighth notes. It's all in their heads, memorized – when to solo, when to lay back, when to accent, what kind of ending (abrupt or drawn-out).
And that is the flow, for countless recording artists:
(a.) jam awhile;
(b.) find out what works and what does not;
(c.) woodshed the good parts, like the harms, and the solo breaks;
(d.) final result is a head arrangement: everyone knows their part in the song.
Where does sheet music come from, then, for such “pencil-free” recording artists?
The secret is on the publishing side. The publishing company hires a staff musician to transcribe the music, from a recording, onto paper, or nowdays, onto a computer screen.
The technical term for doing an audio transcription of music is a “take down.” To do a take down is to write down the notes being played.
The publisher will then print the take down into nice sheet music, and make the sheet music available to the distributors who serve the retail establishments, like music stores or on-line sheet music web sites.
The publisher may have arrangements made for different instruments. One common example you should know by now if you play an instrument, the publisher may create a simplified piano arrangement for beginners, even if the original song never used a piano or any kind of keyboard in the released recording.
Other instruments are possible candidates for arrangement, too. For one example, I can confirm that there is an accordion arrangement for Mason Williams' guitar and orchestra recording of “Classical Gas.” (It is a good one, too.)
The publisher may have the staff musician do a marching band arrangement, so that the arrangement can be sold to high schools. And why not? There's serious money in selling the identical arrangement 1,000 times, for the next 5 years, 10 years, 30 years. – How many football games have you gone to where the band plays “Na-Na-Hey-Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” (by Steam, 1969), “All Right Now” (by Free, 1970)? Royalties are still being generated.
The publisher may print the guitar part (s) in tablature (“tab”) notation, where there are six lines representing the six strings on a guitar, with fret marks, and a mark to indicate which finger presses a given string, and which string is strummed or not strummed, picked or not picked. You do not have to learn music to read tablature, since the graphic representation is just a kind of “map” matching one physical part (eg, a string or a finger) with one kind of marking on the paper. It's almost like looking into a mirror of another guitar player's fretboard. Nothing complicated like quarter notes or rests to deal with.
That is the secret. And that may explain why so many songs have errors in their sheet music – there is no proof-reading; there is no quality control. The original recording artist can not read music notation. The transcriber's best guess is what ends up on the sheet music. And, like any profession, any given transcriber might not be as good as the other transcribers in the business. Some transcribers are better than others. And some transcribers are worse than others.
And we pay the price – full retail – no matter how far off the transit was.