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There is a time and a place for everything, and sometimes a simple song requires nothing more than a few simple harmonies that are easily achieved with nothing more than your ears.

However, that's the exception, not the rule. I believe notating your arrangements has great value for many reasons:

* You can look at each chord and each moment vertically as well as horizontally. "Earrangements" tend to be strong on melodic/polyphonic elements, but are not usually nearly as complex when it comes to harmonies and interwoven rhythmic elements (like arpeggiations). Ideally, an arrangement is strongest when it considers both the individual vocal lines as well as the overall effect, and this is far easier when you're using your eyes as well as your ears.

* You can use both hemispheres of your brain. When arranging by ear, you're usually thinking big picture, and following what sounds good. When you write down your arrangements you can far more easily apply critical analysis and music theory to your work. Yes, there are a few people who will be able to tell that their raised third in the secondary dominant chord will be more effective if it resolves downward to the seventh of the next chord, but for everyone else, it's nice to see the notes to understand your decisions and consider other options. 

* You can jump around while arranging, focusing on whatever section of the song appeals to you at the time. When arranging by ear, it's far more difficult to leap right to the tenor line in the second measure of the bridge.

* You'll have a far easier time teaching the music, as people with sheet music in front of them have something visual to follow along with (and can always learn by ear as well). Plus, rehearsing specific sections and moments is easier when you can jump right to them, and everyone has a reference so they can all see how their notes relate to other parts (the tenor gets their note from the altos in the previous measure) and work together in a cohesive whole (the baris have the ninth of the chord, so they should back off against the tonic in the bass line).

* You can still do everything you'd do with an arrangement by ear. You lose nothing. 

* You can make changes over time much more easily, as you have the original arrangement to easily reference and alter.

* You can share the arrangement with others more easily (via pdf file, xerox), and receive feedback along the way (it's possible to send partial audio files to others, but far easier to share a piece of paper).

* Your group will be able to hand the arrangement down more easily (if you have several generations, like a college or high school group) or revisit it in a decade, and you'll avoid "generation loss" as happens when an arrangement is passed down over time by ear.

Yes, music notation takes some learning, but it is far easier to arrange with today's computer notation programs (which will play back your work with a variety of sounds, and allow you to easily transpose, copy, paste...) than it used to be twenty years ago when you had nothing more than a piece of staff paper and a pen. For example, modern notation programs will let you know when you have too many (or not enough) beats in a measure.

And if you're still not convinced, consider the following analogy: you might be able to create and remember a short statement or poem by ear, but if you want to write something substantial, carefully edit it,  and share it with others, you're going to write it down. Music is the same thing... yet all the more complex, as you have pitches, rhythms, dynamics and other timbres interwoven with the lyrics. 

So... write it down!


Dear Deke Sharon, This is why

Dear Deke Sharon,

This is why I cling to your every word. Dave Brown and I have been arguing about this (him on the dumb 'by-ear' losing side, obvs) and I'm glad to know that I'm righter.

That said, I'd be fascinated to see some of the actual music of things you've arranged...I can't even wrap my mind around the front corner of 'The Walk'...

That's all,


Your biggest fan

Christopher M. Diaz | ICCA & CARA Judge | FSU ANY '08 | Mouth Off! co-founder/host

I TOTALLY agree!

You really hit the nail on the head with this article, Deke. I'm totally in your camp!

uh, maybe

I don't know if I agree with this one.  I think I come down on both sides of the fence.  It's interesting that Rockapella NEVER had ink, even for their most complex arrangements.  Of all of the things that are mentioned in the article as things one can do only if a written arrangement exists, I think that alone is ample proof that the only one that isn't possible without it is being able to pass it on to other groups. 

Having had to thoroughly learn and be fluent in notation, I felt completely liberated with the advent of multitrack tape machines for home use.  It felt like a much more immediate, fluid medium.  Notation is an old and inefficient archiving method - one from which can only be drawn certain information.  Notes on a page are not a performance, they are only directions of a sort.  Many composers hear what they want in their 'mind's ear', and writing it down is just another step in translating the idea into sound, and not always a necessary one.  It used to be, before there were any alternatives, but I wonder what Mozart would have done with a multitrack.  How much more material might he have generated had he not had to laboriously mark down notes on paper?  The multitrack sequencing program I create with gives me the option of looking at waveforms or a musical score, and with a mouse click I can see every note on the page and make adjustments on the fly.  It also lets me break a song down by any sort of arbitrary section I choose, and I can reorganize verses, choruses, etc., quickly and easily.  Jumping to a specific part of a specific line is immediate and visual - no searching through the pages of an arrangement. 

As far as teaching/learning music goes, I feel handicapped by my reading ability at times because I read music like I read a paper.  I can sight-sing 99% of what I see perfectly the first time,  so there's no incentive to get off the ink.  Memorizing uses a completely different part of the brain, and the process of learning music off a tape also uses a different part of the brain than the part that's enlisted for memorizing sheet music.  Sometimes I find it useful to have both.  If there's a glitch in my 'memorize by listening' hemisphere, I can quickly refer to my 'memorize by staring at the bloody notes' hemisphere to visualize the page and find the correction. 

Last night i was listening to an obscure performance of Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" played on an obscure instrument, the Ondes Martinon, while following the score.  One movement was marked with a tempo and the instructions "infinitely slow and extatic".  How that was translated by the performer was the embodiment of the performance, not the notes on the page. 

One of the things I've noticed over the years about groups that work from printed arrangements is that frequently they become trapped in the studious observation of the printed page, and the feeling of groove and spontaneity is lost.  I'm not saying this happens all the time, because it doesn't, but there are many times when the tyranny of the printed page is evident in the performance.  I realize that this is a qualitative statement, and a dicey one due to its total subjectivity, but it has often been my gut response to a 'too carefully observant' performance.  I feel qualified to make it, however, because I have had so much experience both playing and singing in ensembles of all types and sizes that used printed music and also having spent a great deal of time working with ensembles that don't.  So I'm not so sure that you 'lose nothing' by arranging on paper.  I think that sometimes both looseness and spontaneity are lost - not intentionally - by concretizing things on paper. 



Multitrack Sequencing Program

 Which Multitrack Sequencing Program do you use?

I agree with Barry

Christopher Diaz and I have this discussion constantly, and I'm convinced we'll never reach a result because there is no "right" answer.  I can sight read near perfectly, but it still isn't music to me until I hear it.  Somehow in my head, music = sounds.

Paper clearly has advantages, as Deke eloquently enumerates.  But earrangements have great advantages as well.

Written arrangements seem to be most prolific, and most useful for the majority of learners.  But I'm proud to hear that both Rockapella and the House Jacks (and I think the Bobs?) tend to fall into the no-sheet-music camp.  I guess that means I'm in good company! :)

--Dave Brown

now: Mouth Off host | ICCA & CARA Judge

then: CASA president, CASAcademy director, CASA Bd of Directors | BYU Vocal Point | Noteworthy co-foun

The House Jacks notate everything!

...well, almost everything. We take requests from the audience, and sometimes throw together a very simple tune for a corporate gig, but everything else lands on paper.

You can still arrange a song by ear using a multitrack recorder, and then write it down once you're done. This allows a different kind of analysis and consideration that you don't get when working by ear. Start with your ear, just don't forgo your eyes as well. 

I do agree that some groups tend to stick too closely to the written page... but those tend to be the amateur groups - ones who, if arranging by ear, would have extremely simple arrangements that took a very long time to create.

As for groups that are experienced, talented, professional: they already do have an element of "by ear" in their process - once they get off the written page, they noodle, tweak, change. In the House Jacks, people ask "who does your arrangements" to which I respond "I do, but then the guys change everything..." and they do. In a very good way. And the songs keep changing even after they have been performed, as nothing is ever "written in stone."

I tell groups everytime I work with them: "my arrangements, and all arrangements, are merely a road map, to help you communicate with the audience. As such, change them! Make them your own! Like a custom tailored suit, it's going to be better if you alter it to fit you precisely, which is exactly what I'd be doing were I the one directing your group."

In other words, Barry, we agree - the music is most absolutely not on the page. It exists in space, in voices, in time. People who rely on the sheet music as the alpha and omega end up losing a great deal of musicality, turning what should be technicolor into a black and white performance.

However, by the same token, I think groups benefit by taking what they're working on by ear and writing them down at some stage in the process. As mentioned, it preserves the music for posterity (although a good multitracked recording does the same), but it also gives a chance for the left brain to consider what's going on... and sometimes that extra perspective and insight can benefit a piece of music, and a group's sound.


- Deke Sharon • 800.579.9305 • http://www.dekesharon.com

The answer is... YES!

 Very fascinating to hear the different ways different artists deal with music.  I have always seen notation as a means to an end - I hear something, and I have to have a way to record it.  Before I carried a tape recorder around with me, I carried staff paper to notate it.  Before I knew how to notate, I had devised a highly imperfect personal shorthand to help me remember what I was thinking.  Before I had that shorthand, I just lost all my ideas in to the ether.

I fall squarely in both camps.  I actually think that I _compose_ by ear, and _arrange_ by sight.  Melodies and song structure pretty much all happen in my head

I write and record stuff sometimes making it all up on the fly, not writing anything down.  More commonly, I record an idea - create by ear - and if I like it, I will notate it and start to arrange it.  How I arrange it depends on what group I decide to use it for.  If its a solo thing for me, I arrange loosely.  If it's for a group, I arrange very specifically depending on who I'm arranging for.

I frequently bounce back and forth within one song.  I might notate the melody and chord structure in Finale.  Then I'll convert to midi, import into pro tools, and record a scratch track.  In that scratch track, I'll improvise bass lines, background stuff, ideas, textures.  Then I'll listen to the track for a while - days, weeks, sometimes months.  Then when I figure out what group I'm going to use that song for, I pull out the rough notation and finish it, taking the new ideas I like from the recording, discarding stuff that I don't like, and adding other things.

The reason I like this process is because I like the balance of intellectual and intuitive.  Some ideas come while I'm recording, stuff that feels good to sing, going with the flow, and they totally work.  Some ideas come in the process of notation, and are things that I would never think to improvise, but while working out the meticulous details they make sense, and THEY totally work.  It's all about finding the balance between.. mind and spirit?  Concrete and abstract?

I have to say, however, that I believe everyone, as much as possible, ought to study notation: not only will it make you a better reader - and who doesn't want to be a better reader? - notated music is the standard way of communicating musical ideas, and you want to be able to communicate with other musicians.  It also opens up your mind in ways that can't really be understood until you do it.  I loathed my time studying post-Tonal music theory, but it DID expand my musical and creative mind.

The multi-tracking-by-ear approach also has it's limitations because I will always create what feels good for my voice, suits my range, works with my style.  That's fine if I'm working on a solo piece, but if I'm writing for other people, I MUST let my brain override my intuition based on the reality of what the other singers can or cannot do.  I have to do that looking at the staff, remembering ranges, tessituras, passaggio, timbres, etc.

Not to mention that I frequently find that BRILLIANT IDEA I JUST CAME UP WITH, when I get down to notating it, sounds an awful lot like the radio hit I was just listening to in the car... and my mind has to come up with some solutions to save me from my dirty plagarizin' ways.  



 If I'm going to be teaching parts to someone, I will notate it in excrutiating detail.  Reasons: 1) I expect I'll be teaching each part to more than one person in the lifetime of the song, sometimes before the first performance (!).  I need a ready reference, for them to refer to, and for me to refer to as we rehearse.  Question?  Check the chart!  2) I expect singers to learn parts on their own.  I also give them rehearsal tracks, but the more resources they have, the easier time they will have learning it.  3) As I said before, there are some things I can't sing that I want others to sing - I have to notate that.

I'm all for adapting, changing, letting groups do things with arrangements - I'm with Deke on that one - but, I want them to do that AFTER they have learned the source material.  That way they stay true to the essence of the piece.



Sound vs. Sight

Rereading through these posts carefully, I think you'll notice that everyone in some way respectfully agrees with each other. You could ironically disagree with that statement, but one thing is certain: nobody is wrong here. Dave Brown sums this up well by saying "there is no 'right' answer" and I think we all agree with that completely.

Everything should be taken into account when documenting or writing a song down with the understanding that nothing is or should ever be set in stone. If it works, it works. We all know that every group and individual in a group has a different style and way of learning a song that works best for them. Why limit ourselves to one way of notating music, then? I enjoyed reading how everyone composes and arranges in their own way. We should never limit ourselves and should make as many documentations as possible of our ideas to understand it and present it to others along with using all of the resources and tools at our disposal to do so. This includes all types of notation from multi track recordings (this counts as a type of notation) to finale scores to even braille notation, if you want to! What's stopping you? Maybe it'll give you ideas. Everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) should be used! Never limit! That said, there is one factor that you can't argue with in documenting with a type of notational system that involves your eyes instead of your ears, and that's time. We all have plenty of it, I know, but...

Think of it in terms of art. With a painting or a sculpture, we can walk into a museum, look at the painting and have an instantaneous perception of the overall concept of the piece of artwork at hand. We can then take a few more seconds to walk around the painting or sculpture to grasp a different concept of what it looks like from different angles of perception. Essentially, however, we can have immediate insight to what is trying to be portrayed in its completeness in an instant. In order to have the same experience in its plenitude with a piece of music, however, the word "instant" is thrown out he window (any window of your choice). If a piece of music is 10 minutes long, that's how long we must spend getting the full representation that the composer intended for us to experience. If you haven't figured it out yet, learning from sheet music is the painting and learning from your ears is the... yeah, you get the point.

What am I trying to say? Use them both! People hear what they see, right? Now imagine experiencing a piece of artwork that involved both the visual and the sound world to experience it. A composer and artist (we'll call them a "Compartister") now would have more tools and ways to create a journey for the person experiencing the artwork. I gain the most understanding when I'm learning music when I'm doing it from 5 different scores, listening to midi renditions of it, listening to the original recording, listening to it live, listening to covers of it, etc. So, yes, write it down, record it, teach it by wrote, document it as much as possible! Deke never said it was a commandment, he just said it really helps, and it so does!

As far as the comment "people hear what the see," that can be a whole new posted topic. I found the following link interesting to express that concept:


I know the answer!

 "If you haven't figured it out yet, learning from sheet music is the painting and learning from your ears is the... "

Pudding!  Pudding!  Is it pudding?

MMM Pudding....

It's totally pudding. No spoons needed. Only straws.

Very Interesting

As I stated in a different comment on one of your later blog posts, I have ZERO talent with instruments. I can somewhat read music (thanks high school choir experience! *cheesy smile at the camera*), but because of some kind of brain trauma suffered as a child, when I try to write music on actual notation, it comes out jumbled & makes absolutely no sense.

So, I carried around 2 mini-tape recorders for many years (1997-2004), re-recording parts of a song I thought up or wanted to one day try sans instruments. I'm sure you get what I mean, recording part 1 on TR1, then play that back and record harmony on TR2, & continue the process until It sounds like a terrible quality song. My karaoke machine was used for the same purpose (dual tapes man! WOW!)

Being one of those people who will never be able to arrange music on sheet paper, multi-track recording comes in very handy. But I digress, I have found myself using a small keyboard that displays the note on its small screen to play out parts recorded to my recording software (I use a program called Mixcraft in case you wondered), & then also write down what I see on the screen so my younger (and way more musically gifted) brother can write them down on sheet paper for me, for future reference, or any changes.

I really like how everyone here has differing viewpoints, but still come, more or less, to a nice "agree to disagree" feeling. Would that I could do notations, but I cannot. I won't let it stop me though, even now as I carry around a single digital voice recorder (yaaay technology! I wish I had this when I was deployed). As many of my A Cappella heroes tell me, with your voice, even the sky is not the limit anymore...

I apologize if my English starts to get a little strange. I've been up all night playing games & reading your blog.

Music...joy, comfort, pain, sorry, happiness, pleasure, excitement. It's all there.

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