Advertisement
Music Theory

Keeping Score: A Beginner’s Guide to Notating Music - Basix

by

If you’re in the business of writing music that’s intended to be performed by other musicians, then you’re also in the business of teaching others to perform what you write. Even if you want your parts to be interpreted and improvised, being able to communicate what you’ve written in a clear and accessible way is essential to the creative process and ensuring the integrity of what you write.

However, many self-taught musicians may not have the skills to read and write formal musical notation, so in this tutorial, I’ll be showing you a nuts and bolts, easy peasy approach to creating and sharing simple scores for your music.


Do Rae Me So Fa I’m Lost

Just because you’ve never drawn a treble clef before doesn’t mean you can’t go old school and write your music with pen and paper, but it probably does mean that you're in for a steep learning curve. Lucky for us, then, that there’s plenty of software out there that will give us a range of other ways to turn our music into dots and lines.

The professionals typically head for something like Sibelius (Windows and Mac, various prices), but if you don’t have that kind of budget, two popular choices are Arobas Guitar Pro (Windows and Mac plaforms, €59.95) and Power Tab (Windows only, free). Incidentally, despite their names, both lend themselves to instruments other than guitar!

Whatever you choose, most, if not all modern notation applications have several functions – for example virtual keyboards and fretboards with which you can enter notes and chords, and the ability to import MIDI files – that will make creating basic scores easy enough for even the most theory-phobic of songwriters.


Exporting Scores From Your DAW

If you’re writing musical ideas using software instruments in your DAW, there’s a good chance that your DAW will be able to output a transcription of those parts for you. If your DAW has that facility, then the whole process should be as easy as a couple of mouse clicks. The only drawback with this method is if your songwriting, like mine, is done with a mix of real and software instruments. In that case, you’ll probably want to have the whole song written out in one score, and if your DAW doesn’t have any advanced score creation features, that means using a dedicated notation program.


Creating Scores from Scratch

For me, a typical scenario is that I have a project in my DAW consisting of programmed drums and bass, and one or two live guitar performances. So here’s my method of getting a song idea out of my DAW and on to paper using Guitar Pro 5:

Create a New Score

In Guitar Pro, create a new score (File > New or ⌘N) and, in the Score Information dialogue (F5), add the track’s details. Incidentally, while it might seem a little silly and grandiose to put your name in the “composer” field, it’s anything but. You never know in whose hands your scores (and therefore your ideas) may end up, so it’s worth taking any opportunity to assert your authorship.

Import MIDI

If there are complex MIDI parts, I’ll import them to a track (File > Import > MIDI), but in most cases it’s simpler for me to add basic synthesised parts by hand.

Looking for the Impossible

It’s worth remembering that your DAW doesn’t know what a fretboard looks like. If you’ve imported a MIDI part, read through it carefully to find any instances where the notes are musically correct but physically wrong. For example, a guitar chord which has notes stretching from the 5th fret all the way to the 12th fret!

Name Sections and Add Musical Directions

It’s often a good idea to map out the song on paper first, noting the song’s components, e.g. intro, verse, chorus, etc., and also any repeated sections. Using this you can avoid duplicating sections unnecessarily, adding musical directions (if you know how to use them) or making written notes, e.g. “Verse 2 same as verse 1” with the text tool (accessed via the floating Tools Window, or by hitting T) if you don’t.

Adding the Parts

Adding standard notation is easy using the graphical keyboard or fretboard (Window > Keyboard / Window > Fretboard) to enter the pitches, but if you can’t read music, getting the note durations correct will mean a little learning and some trial and error.

Fortunately, the trial and error element needn’t be as laborious as it sounds since Guitar Pro and many other notation applications offer a playback function (Window > Play, or hit spacebar), allowing you to quickly verify your score by ear and make adjustments as necessary.

For guitar and bass players, life is a little easier thanks to tablature, which can be entered either directly onto the stave or via the graphical fretboard. In either case, the software will automatically write a traditional notation for you though, as before, this is worth paying some attention to in order to ensure that duration values are correct.

Using the Chord Naming Tool

For most musicians, especially those who don’t read, having chord names and (for guitars) diagrams is a big help. Naming chords correctly can seem complicated, and often there isn’t one “correct” answer, but yet again software saves us. Just select the chord you wish to name, click the Chord tool (Tools Window, or hit A), and select from the list of suggestions. Typically, a chord’s name will be based on the root (usually the lowest) note in the chord, so if you’re stuck, that’s usually a good guide. For more detailed information on chords, check the Further Reading section which is… next!


Further Reading

Hopefully this tutorial has inspired you to tackle making scores for your music, and hopefully you’ll find that, in the process, you’ll learn a lot about musical notation and music in general while having some fun in the process.

To help you along, here are some tools I’ve found useful for building my knowledge of notation and musical theory:

  • Breaks, Jumps & Conditional Actions – A great, easy to follow guide to musical directions
  • Meter – A comprehensive guide to meter, time signatures and rhythmic information, as well as some additional information on musical directions
  • Chord Name Finder – Very useful for checking iffy chord names produced by your notation software, and for helping you learn to name chords
  • The Guide to Chord Theory – Exactly what the title says. Very easy to follow, and well enough laid out that you can refer to it on the fly.

And, from right here on Audiotuts+:

Related Posts
  • Computer Skills
    Hardware
    How to Check and Enable TRIM on a Mac SSDTrim preview retina
    You probably know that solid state drives (SSD) differ from Hard Disk Drives (HDD) in how they store information, and you may have heard that something called TRIM can maintain their performance. In this tutorial, I’ll not only show you how you can enable TRIM support for your SSDs, but also understand what the term means and how it fits into the functionality of solid state storage.Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    General
    All I Want for Christmas is a CutChristmascutpreview400
    Unfortunately, a songwriter is highly unlikely to get a Christmas cut in his or her stocking. I say this, not because it is next to impossible, but because Christmas songs are usually cut and polished in the May to July period, with the end of July pretty much signaling the closing of the window. This is due to the fact that a whole new cast of characters including marketing and sales people, need time to carry out their end of the endeavor. So, get a good head-start in any given year and get your Santa/spiritual masterpieces in circulation early! Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    Critiques
    Critique: "Scarlett" by Anthony QuailsScarlettpreview400
    I am a sucker for the singer/songwriter style of writing. My lifelong love of bands like America and The Eagles gives testament to my fondness for gentle, story-oriented, accoustic songs. Today’s critique is based on just such a wonderful song by songwriter, Anthony Quails, and is titled “Scarlett.”Read More…
  • Computer Skills
    Electronics
    Using a USB Audio Device With a Raspberry PiRpaudio icon 2x
    My previous tutorial on the Raspberry Pi, Using a Raspberry Pi as an AirPlay Receiver, made use of the device’s built-in 3.5mm jack for audio output. This, however, produces sound that is mediocre at best and if you’re wanting to use the Raspberry Pi for any amount of audio listening, it’s going to have to produce a better quality of audio. We’re not going to squeeze much more out of the built-in components so, in this tutorial, I’ll explain how to set up and configure a cheap USB sound card as the Raspberry Pi’s default audio output device, providing a better quality, and volume, audio.Read More…
  • Computer Skills
    OS X
    50 Things You Probably Didn't Know About OS X MavericksMavericks400
    Mavericks, the latest major release of OS X (pronounced Oh-Es Ten), is version 10.9 of Apple’s desktop operating system. With, reportedly, over 200 new features Mavericks is no incremental update. Jonny Ive might suggest that “Apple has reimagined the operating system for the desktop”, but the truth is Apple has incorporated some of the best ideas from third-party developers and has sought to integrate some of the features of iOS (the operating system for the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad) into it’s desktop big brother.Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    Audio Production
    Recording Your First Song Part 2 – Basic Techniques (Basix)Prev
    Welcome to the second part of my series covering all you need to know to start recording your first song. Last time around, we spent some time thinking about the reasons and methods behind home recording and looked at some bare rudiments or writing and arrangement. This month, we’re going to dive right in and run through some of the core techniques and methods that you’ll rely on in your productions.Read More…