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Music (Part 11)

Writing it down

Article from Sound International, June 1979

When Tony Bacon of SI first rashly asked me to do this series, my brief was to 'write something about reading and writing music'. So far I've written a fair bit about reading music and the symbols involved, but nothing about actually writing it. This is, I suspect, a stumbling block for a lot of musicians. The idea of taking a pen and making marks on a piece of paper seems to have little to do with playing music, especially rock music. But as I've said before, this facility can be helpful in so many ways; firstly, it's an aid to memory — sure, you can remember how to play a song without writing it down at all, but for how long?

Secondly, the ability to write something down is an aid to communication. It means you can demonstrate music to another musician without actually having to play it!

But there remains a block against actually writing music down. One reason for this, I think, is that we only tend to see notated music in this form:

This bit of music has, in fact, been prepared by an artist, using 'Letraset' symbols, special pens, rulers etc, and it probably took him 10 minutes to do. All the diagrams you've seen in these articles to date have been specially drawn by the same artist (his name's Ken, incidentally) and for the sake of clearness and legibility he's taken his time in preparing each one. The trouble is, that same clearness and legibility can seem a little imposing. You might think, 'I can't write music as neatly as that. Mine comes out looking all messy and silly!' You might be surprised to learn that when I do the initial rough diagrams that Ken tarts up, they look like this:

(etc). I can knock out about 15 of these in five minutes, and it doesn't bother me that they're a bit imperfect-looking, because they're still legible.

The point is, when you write in your ordinary handwriting you don't worry that it doesn't look like (right)

Similarly in music writing, you should aim for a style that you can read and understand, and never mind if it looks a bit informal. Here's how to get started.

The first thing to worry about is the stave on which the notes are written. You can buy stuff called 'manuscript paper' from music shops which comes with blank staves, like this:

There are quite a few different types, the chief variant being the number of staves per sheet; I've found that '10 stave' (10 staves per sheet) is the best for most things as it leaves room between the staves for writing in lyrics, chord symbols, etc.

If you're really poor you could draw the staves yourself, but unless you're good at geometry they come out looking like this:

(A friend of mine has a special five-pointed nib for drawing staves, but there aren't too many of them about!)

Having got the manuscript paper, don't be intimidated by its creamy virgin whiteness. Mess up a couple of sheets — get a few pens and pencils and try drawing a few musical symbols

to get the feel. Some pens are better than others for music writing — felt tips are OK, unless they bleed through to the other side. Some biros are duff because they make little blotches; fountain pens can be good if you get the right one. I (spot the professional) sometimes use a Rotring Rapidograph, a pen developed for technical drawing. This gives a very even line which is good for 'note stems' (these things

and has a variety of different nib sizes, mine being a 0.5. Although this pen's really neat, it's slow and sometimes a bit scratchy, so I generally use felt tips with small points or biros; the main thing is to find a pen with which you feel comfortable.

Now, what do you want to write down? What do you mean, you don't know? There must be some little piece that you play (even if it is only a 5-note riff) that you'd like to immortalise. If you're a singer or guitarist and want to write down a melody line,the first thing to draw on the stave is the 'treble clef':

This is quite difficult, a lot of people give up at this point. If it's any consolation, my one looks like this:

A pretty sorry specimen, eh? Recognisable, though, and that's all it has to be. By the way, the final line of the treble clef traditionally ends up touching the 'G' line of the stave

and in olden days the clef was called the 'G clef'... This is one of the musical symbols you might need to practise drawing, as it's a bit of a bugger to get right at first. Don't worry if your attempts come out a bit deformed at first —

You should now work out what the notes in your melody are, for which purpose you might find useful the vast diagram we did in the June 1978 edition of SI. If you don't have this diagram and find you get stuck, here are two clues:

1. The open top 'E ' string of the guitar is written:

and the other five open strings are written:

2. Middle C (that's the C nearest the lock on your piano lid!) is written:

Vocal parts and guitar parts both sound an octave lower than written, so the note

when written for guitar or man's voice actually sounds

(The exception to this is of course the Bee Gees, who, given a note

will sing

I'll assume, then, that you can work out the notes and where they should go on the stave. A good plan now is to make a preliminary rough sketch of your tune by simply writing out the notes in order, without bar lines.

When you've jotted the note sequence down in this fashion, you can begin to consider the rhythm of the notes... The first question is, what time signature is it in? Try tapping your foot while playing or humming the tune. If the pattern of leg movement that emerges is the repetitive, never-changing disco thump, it's likely that your tune is in 4/4. (Congratulations! You may have a hit on your hands.) If it's a ONE-two-three ONE-two-three beat as in Edelweiss, The Last Waltz or God Save The Queen (how I love those tunes) it's in 3/4 (three crotchets per bar). If it's like a fast shuffle (you know — dum der dum der dum der dum — what was that Status Quo number? Down the Drainpipe or something), it's in 12/8 or 6/8. (Doesn't matter much which, except if you opt for the latter you'll have to write in twice as many bar lines.) A slow blues like Feel like I've done gone fixin' to expectorate by Blind Lemon Braithwaite will usually be in a slow 12/8 metre. Course, your tune might be in 5/4 or 13/8, clever dick, but then you'd know that already. Also, you might find that the time signature changes within the tune. If in doubt, consult a knowall like myself.

Once you've decided what the time signature is, you can write it in next to your treble clef:

(Having written it once you won't need to write it again, as it applies throughout the whole tune unless contra-indicated by some new instruction.) Now you have to work out how your sequence of notes fits into bars of 4/4. This requires mental co-ordination. (Wassat? — Heep/Sabbath fan, Romford.) You have to sing or play the tune while mentally counting 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, etc. Take it a bar at a time; count out the four beats of the first bar while humming or playing the beginning of your melody. With any luck, some of the notes will fall on the beat. Let's say that the first note falls on the first beat... where does the second note come? On the second beat? Ripping! It therefore follows that the first note is a crotchet, which is one beat of a 4/4 bar. Write it in:

Now you can consider the third note — once you've decided where that falls, you can determine how long the 2nd note is. Let's say that the 3rd note comes on the fourth beat of the bar:

The 2nd note therefore has to be two beats long — in other words, a minim. Write it in:

We've now completed three beats of a four-beat bar, and unless the 4th note comes between the 3rd note and the end of the bar, we can complete the bar by writing in that 3rd note:

and adding

(Don't make the mistake of drawing in the bar lines first, or you'll get this sort of thing happening —

Write in the notes first, otherwise it's a bit like putting in all the punctuation marks before writing a sentence!)

Next problem: unless you have a particularly troglodyte mentality, you'll find that not all the notes of your melody fall on the beat. Some may seem to come between the beats; you can check this by changing your method of counting from '1-2-3-4' to '1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and'. Any note which falls on an 'and' is said to be 'off the beat'. If your first note fell on 'one' and your second note coincided with the 'and' between beats 2 and 3

, then your 1st note would be 1½ crotchets long. We write this [as] a 'dotted crotchet', which (you'll recall) is equal to a crotchet plus a quaver.


Naturally, millions of you reading this will have tunes whose notes will fail to fall on, off, round, or anywhere near the beat, but I'm afraid you'll have to wait till next month to find out what to do about that.

Series - "Music"

This is the last part in this series. The first article in this series is:

(SI May 78)

All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 (Viewing)

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Combo Test

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Carl Thompson

Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

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Sound International - Jun 1979

Donated & scanned by: David Thompson


Music Theory



Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 (Viewing)

Feature by Dave Stewart

Previous article in this issue:

> Combo Test

Next article in this issue:

> Carl Thompson

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