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How to Write a Rock Song (Part 5)

Arranging sheet music

Six articles showing you how to write a song (or instrumental) from scratch, explaining the idea of rhythm and the use of syncopation, melody writing, how to fit words to a melody, how to build appropriate harmonic structures, the use of form, how to devise such common devices as riffs and how to use the instruments you have available to play the music you have written. Month by month the lessons you have learned and the exercises you have written will enable you to write a complete piece of your own.

In this month's article we will look at the problems involved in arranging a song in sheet music form for a small group — vocals, guitar, bass, drums and keyboards.

In the last article we arrived at a complete sheet music version of 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' ie. an introduction, verses and choruses, middle eight and coda written for voice and piano accompaniment plus chord symbols. Most sheet music appears after a song has been recorded and is a condensed version of the arrangement used on the record, often in a different key. Anyone who has worked in a situation of having to back singers who present you with a sheet music version of their repertoire will know that a successful accompaniment will be achieved in most cases by using the chord symbols, previous knowledge of the songs and experience rather than by playing the actual music given.

Sheet music generally contains only the essential parts of the song — melody, words and chords — plus a particular type of accompaniment for piano, which stands quite happily on its own as an instrumental version. Much of the detail that gives the record its effect is lost, some styles suffering more than others in this respect.

In this series of articles, we have arrived at the sheet music version before the song has been arranged for performance. Instead of reducing the recorded arrangement to a piano and vocal version, we will be doing the opposite. At first it is worth breaking the process down into steps that are easily managed and enable a clear view of what is happening. In order to gain an overall view of the way the instruments and voices will fit together, it is a good idea to write out all the parts in open score — this is a layout where the parts for each instrument are written on separate staves below each other on the same page. Figure 1 shows the arrangement of the introduction of 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' written out in open score. This can be a laborious process which uses quite a lot of paper but can avoid a lot of the problems that can arise from writing out parts directly from sketchy first draughts of ideas. Once the open score version is complete, the individual parts can easily and accurately be copied out using separate pages for each instrument. Figure 2 shows the bass part for the whole of the song.

Figure 2. Bass part for the complete song.
(Click image for higher resolution version)

Figure 1. Introduction arrangement.
(Click image for higher resolution version)

The basic principle involved in making any kind of arrangement is that while reflecting the harmonic implications of the chords indicated, rhythmically the parts dovetail together, at the same time retaining an identity of their own. This can be seen in Figure 1 where the guitar and bass parts each fill in the gaps left by the other across the quaver texture provided by the Rhodes electric piano. At the same time the bass fits very tightly with the drum pattern and in combination, all of these instruments provide solid support for the top parts of the introduction which are written for the synthesisers. The guitar is used in a lead role, creating interest by filling the gaps in the phrases in the synthesiser parts. Individually each part makes sense while contributing to the overall effect.

In general it is a good idea to write parts that leave spaces for the other instruments, enabling the dovetailing described, rather than writing parts which would work as complete accompaniments independently and which duplicate each other. The accompaniment should be a team effort rather than several self-sufficient individual performances. Any duplication should be in the interest of tone colour and strength of the part. An example of this can be seen in the synthesiser part which is shared between two synthesisers for this reason. (The notes with stems pointing upwards are played on one synthesiser, another taking the rest of the notes).

Writing parts

It is now worth making one or two points about the way the individual parts should be written out. Make sure that each part has the title written clearly in fairly large letters at the top of the page with the name of the instrument to be used. Write the actual notes as accurately as possible using a ruler for the bar lines. Work out the total number of bars and divide them out as evenly as possible between the number of lines to be used. It is best not to use more than two sides of manuscript paper as this will avoid having to turn a page over during performance; so that if you are using twelve stave paper you will share out the bars between twelve or twenty four lines, which should be sufficient for most songs. Where possible make the ends of the sections (verses, choruses etc.) come at the end of a line. Make sure that any signs and instruction are clearly visible. Make a 'pad' for each instrument by filing each of its parts for different songs in a ring binder. It is a good idea to protect the paper by placing the sheets inside plastic covers.

When making an arrangement of sheet music it is a good idea to start with the lead vocal part. There are two reasons for this; first, if the key has to be altered to suit the vocalist, this can be settled before the other parts are written and secondly, apart from the consideration of key, this part should need little alteration and is an easy one to start with.

The most important part in rock song arrangements is the bass part because of its central position, both rhythmically and harmonically. This means that as well as providing the harmonic foundation for the upper parts, in conjunction with the drums it dictates the rhythmic feel of the song. This part is often quite accurately presented in the sheet music. In my arrangement, I decided to alter the bass line in the introduction and choruses so that, with the drums, there was more of a feeling of drive and also to give a little variety.

The next part to be considered would be the drum part. The best drum parts tend to be fairly simple and consistent with sparing use of fills to mark the ends of sections. Unfortunately, this is not often the view of drummers who tend to use every number as an opportunity to string together their favourite licks, quite happily changing the feel of the piece in the most inappropriate places, and usually varying the tempo in the process. Once you've written your drum part, make sure that this is what is played because between them, the bass and drums control the effect of the whole piece, easily outweighing the upper parts, and are ultimately responsible for the success or otherwise of the whole song.

It is a good idea to aim for a drum part that has a very supportive basic rhythm which leaves as much space as possible. These spaces can then be used by the other instruments, producing an interwoven texture of sound, more interesting than if all the upper parts simply overlay a full rhythm already provided. It is also a good idea to make the bass and drum part fit tightly together. This can often be achieved by using the rhythm of the bass part for the bass drum pattern and fitting the rhythms for the other drums around it. If the bass line is fairly florid use the bass drum to accentuate the main notes in the bass line.

Figure 3.

Figure 4.

In the third part of this series I used the medium rock rhythm shown in Figure 3 as a basis for the piano accompaniment of the sheet music verse of the song. To give a more driving effect I have used the rhythm shown in Figure 4 as the basic rhythm throughout the song, fills being used sparingly to mark the phrases.

Figure 5.

The next part I considered was the Rhodes electric piano part. This was achieved by taking the chord voicings, an octave apart and imposing on them the rhythm shown in Figure 5 in accordance with the dovetailing theory discussed above to provide with the bass and drums, a solid support for the main ideas given to the synthesisers. It is a good idea, though not essential, to have one instrument playing a part involving some thicker lines such as this, providing harmonic security. It is also good to make the voicings change smoothly, without big leaps, in fairly much the same register. This role could have been given to the guitar or synthesiser but the mellow sound of the Rhodes suited the effect better and the variety of sounds available from the other instruments made them more suitable for the fill-playing and melody roles given them in the introduction.

The right hand part of the sheet music version is handed intact to the synthesisers, the notes being shared between two of them to give added prominence to the melody contained in the top line of notes. The spaces left in the synthesiser part are filled by the guitar line. The line contains leaps implying the prevailing chords and contrasting with the smoother voice leading of the other parts.


It is worth repeating that my objective in this arrangement was to produce idiomatic parts that were independent of each other and which fitted together to give a suitable effect. These are sound principles which are used in many arrangements. You can check this for yourself by making open score transcriptions of records that you like, taking down the parts for each instrument one by one. Often record sleeves give details of the instruments used so you will know how many parts are to be written. A band well worth studying from this point of view are Steely Dan, an American band consisting basically of Donald Fagan and Walter Becker, who write the songs and the majority of the arrangements, plus a variety of top players. Greatly under-exposed in this country, Steely Dan and Donald Fagan are the Berlin Philharmonic and Mozart of rock, well worthy of study by anyone interested in approaching songwriting in a conscientious way. Whilst in a classical vein, the Two and Three Part Inventions of J.S. Bach are good pieces to study to learn how to fit parts together.

The point I have tried to make in this series of articles is that the art of songwriting is a process — something that can be broken down into a set of stages, each of which can be studied and practised, rather than some mysterious ability that you either have or haven't. As in all things, some people will be better at it than others, but most problems can be overcome by having a well-organised system. Compare my arrangement of the introduction of 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' with the sheet music version given in Part 4 and think about the remarks made in this article. Often even if you don't agree with an idea it serves as a trigger for an idea of your own.

Previous Article in this issue

SCI's Prophet T8 Special Report

Next article in this issue

Warren Cann's Electro-Drum Column

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Sep 1983


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Writing A Rock Song

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Feature by Martin Glover

Previous article in this issue:

> SCI's Prophet T8 Special Rep...

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> Warren Cann's Electro-Drum C...

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