Visualizing song structures

How do you write out a pop, rock or dance song? There’s no single standard method. Some musicians use standard western notation. Some do everything by ear. Many of us use methods that fall somewhere in between. One such compromise system in widespread use is the lead sheet:

Other systems for song documentation include chord charts and the Nashville numbering system. But plenty of musicians are unfamiliar with these systems, and may not have any method for writing down songs at all. This leads to a lot of confusion during rehearsals and recording sessions. Any given section of a rock or pop song is likely to be simple, a few chords in a particular pattern, but the difficulty comes in figuring out and remembering the bigger structure: whether the guitar solo comes after the second verse or the chorus, how many bars long the bridge is, what beat the ending falls on.

Jazz is easier to play than rock in a certain sense, because its song forms are more standardized. There are a few very widely used templates: the head-solos-head format, the thirty-two bar AABA standard, blues, rhythm changes and so on. Because of this formal standardization, you can put a bunch of jazz musicians who have never even met each other on a stage together with zero rehearsal, and they’ll be able to bang some tunes out. Rock and pop are a lot more idiosyncratic, so even though they tend to be technically simpler than jazz, getting the different parts sorted out can take a lot more work.

The world of computer recording and sequencing can be a big help with visualizing a song’s structure. Once a tune is in a digital audio editor, it’s automatically “notated” in terms of chunks of audio against a grid of bars and beats. It suddenly becomes easy to visualize song structures, even if you have no idea how music notation works. You can use markers, color-coding and named memory locations to create an interactive road map of the track. Here’s a recent composition I did for grad school using Ableton Live:

Learning to visualize a song on the computer screen doesn’t just make your life easier when you’re writing or recording. By looking at song structures, you can learn a lot about how music is put together, about the symmetries and asymmetries, the repetition and variation and recursion. You can learn these things through very attentive listening too, but getting your eyes involved really helps to drive the ideas home.

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