Musical Notation

Copying Music By Hand as a Way of “Listening”

I was thinking a bit more about my post yesterday, and the importance of listening as a way of developing your songwriting skills.

I started that post by mentioning that the classical composers may have had innate talents and skills that made them great composers of music, but mainly they worked hard at it — a lesson for the rest of us that most success is the result of hard work.

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But there was something else I meant to mention in that blog post. Back in the days of Mozart, you couldn’t just go to Spotify or Apple Music if you wanted to listen to anything. In fact, the only way they’d hear music was if they were at a concert or church service, or if they were sitting at a keyboard playing it for themselves.

In any case, we have much more ability to listen to music in today’s world than at any other time in human history.

Classical composers had one other way that they “listened” to music, and it was this: they’d copy out the music of other composers by hand. Copying the music notation of a notable musical work gave other composers a way of really digging down into the nuts and bolts of that musical work, and really understanding how and why it works.

To do that, classical composers needed to be well-versed in music theory. But you can do the same thing with today’s modern pop songs, even if you don’t feel that your ability to write notation is up to scratch.

Here are some ways you can notate and study the music that other songwriters have written. First, choose a song that you really like, and then:

  1. Try to figure out the chord progressions. If you aren’t sure if you’ve gotten the chords right, there are many websites that can help if you do an online search. (If you’re stuck on a particular chord, I’m happy to help, so leave a comment below.)
  2. Write out the lyrics (don’t use copy/paste). By typing each word and line, you get to dig into the words in a way that copy/paste doesn’t allow.
  3. Notate the melodies. If you have experience with musical notation, write the melodies out on musical staff paper. If that’s not possible, here’s an activity that can be very valuable: make a line drawing of the melody, using lines that move up when the melody ascends, and moves down when it descends. Line drawings help you see that all-important melodic shape.
  4. Do an analysis of the use of instruments in the song. Like this: Draw a box for each section of the song (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.), and inside each box, write the instruments you hear. If the song is already well-known, someone may have already posted an article or video about this, so try to do as much of this activity by ear as possible before consulting other online sources for the answers.

You get the idea: the more of this kind of pen-in-hand analysis you can do, the better your ears become, and the better your own music will become. Essentially, you’re using other great songs as a kind of teacher, showing you how good music can be put together.

And the fact that you’re doing this by ear will improve your aural skills, and probably not only improves your songwriting, but will also hone your instrumental abilities.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

If you’ve always wanted to know how to write out musical notation, and if you’ve wanted to improve your ability to read music, “Easy Music Theory by Gary Ewer” is the course you need. Twenty-five video-based lessons, and you can do it without a teacher! Check out Easy Music Theory by Gary Ewer

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One Comment

  1. Great suggestions here. I’ve also found it helpful to actually obtain a score of a piece I find intriguing, and copy it out by hand. That seems to make me more keenly aware of the techniques used than merely studying it visually.

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