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5 Ways to Notate Your Music

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Read Time: 5 min
This post is part of a series called Creative Session: All About Music Notation.
Music Notation in Sibelius - Part 1
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You have a new tune in your head and don't want to lose it. What do you do? You're thinking hard about how to structure your new masterpiece, and want to preserve your ideas. How do you keep track of them? You're noodling on your piano, and have come up with a new bassline. What is the most effective way of passing that on to the bass player?

People have been notating music for four thousand years now, and it's all we have of music that was written before recording was invented. Today it remains an essential tool for every musician, and the ability to read and write some sort of notation is a skill well worth learning.

Here are five ways you can notate your music:

1. Don't Notate, Record

If you want to get a quick record of a new tune or song idea, the first step might be just to record it. The recording doesn't have to be of good quality, just enough to help you remember your idea. Unless you are very used to writing notation, the extra time and effort it requires might be just long enough to forget.

Try to keep a small recording device with you at all times, especially when you're being musical. You may already have one without realizing it. Many MP3 players include the ability to record, as do almost all mobile phones - though you'll need to add an extra app for your iPhone (like this one). You could also look into purchasing a dedicated voice recording device - the Recording Device Information blog has some great advice on this.

If you were playing your keyboard when inspiration struck, you'll find that most keyboards today are capable of some sort of music recording. They'll normally only record what you're playing, though, not what you're singing. Or if you're keyboard is plugged into your computer, you can use computer software to record your ideas. Recording as MIDI will give you more notation options down the track.

2. Chord Charts

A chord chart is simple and common way of notating a song. No special equipment is needed - just pen and paper. And little music expertise is necessary - you just have to know the chords you were playing.

A chord chart gives a general guideline about the song, but doesn't give the full story. So a chord chart is useless if you want to remember a new melody or rhythmic idea. But it can be helpful to give to your band when you're teaching them a new song - as long as you're around to explain how you want the song to go.

There are different ways of writing chord charts. The most basic is to write out the lyrics of the song, and then write the chord names above the words where chord changes occur. This sort of chord chart contains very little musical information, and is popular with beginner musicians (especially guitarists) who are learning to play a song they are very familiar with.

Better still is to write the chords first, with bar lines (usually four bars per line) and time signature. You could also include lyrics, but they are much less necessary with this sort of chart. It is also helpful to include labels for the different parts of the song, including introduction, verse, chorus and bridge. I'm a fan of this sort of chord chart, and normally create mine in a table in a word processor, though it is possible to create one more simply by using the pipe character ("|") for bars and the slash character ("/") to mark time.

Finally, you could do the same on some manuscript (music notation) paper, then add some rhythm notation on the staff. If you don't have any manuscript paper, you can create your own here and here.

3. Get Fake with a Lead Sheet

I learned to play my dad's old organ by using fakebooks. "Fake" is a simplified form of notation that places chords above the staff, the song melody on the staff, and the lyrics under the staff. Bookshops and websites are full of fakebooks. The ones I learned on even wrote the name of each note on very large note heads, which probably slowed down my learning to read music.

Using this sort of notation for a lead sheet may also be useful to composers. It is simple like a chord chart (including harmony and timing information), and adds melody information. It allows you to capture the basic ingredients of your song quite rapidly. It also allows you to create your notation piece by piece. Start by writing the bars and chords, and add the lyrics and melody line later.

4. Guitar Tablature

Guitar tab is a very popular way for guitarists to write and share exactly what they play. It consists of six lines, representing the six strings of the guitar, with numbers written over the top of the line, indicating which fret to pluck that string on. Time goes from left to right. Rhythm information is not accurately notated.

There are thousands of sites sharing guitar tabs for popular songs, and many software tools for creating guitar tablature. But it's probably quicker and easier just to print out some blank guitar tab sheets from Blank Sheet and write out your notation with a pen.

Composers who are guitarists, or writing guitar parts, should seriously consider using guitar tablature. Blank Sheet also allows you to print your guitar tabs under traditional notation, allowing your to combine fake and tabs on the one sheet.

5. Full Musical Score

This is the traditional way of notating full compositions, and the reason that we can play complex symphonies that were written hundreds of years ago. Few composers today would bother printing an entire score, unless the music was to be played by an orchestra or had a focus on live performance.

Yet it has never been easier to create a musical score than it is today. Many MIDI sequencing programs can print music notation, and there are also a large number of programs dedicated to music notation. Activemusician have a great list of options.


Unless you work alone and have a perfect memory, music notation will play an important part in the composing process. Today we have a wider set of options than ever before, both in terms of method of notation, and tools for creating it.

How do you notate your songs, and what are your favourite tools?

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