Don't give your sheet music to
the backing band and expect them to
read it perfectly until you've read this!
The dictionary definition
of Sheet Music is "a musical composition in printed or
written form". Generally speaking, sheet music, notation,
music score or "dots" is simply a combination of music
notes written down on specially drafted paper which tells a
musician or musicians which notes to play and when to play them.
Cabaret entertainers who perform in different venues using the
"resident band" for their backing music should (theoretically)
receive the exact same musical backing at each performance.
This is because, although the bands vary from night to night,
they are all playing the same notes from the same music sheet
that the entertainer gave them before he/she went on stage.
You'll notice that we have said that they should
receive the same backing every night, but, as all cabaret entertainers
know, the quality of the musical backing depends very much in
the individual band members ability to read and play the notes
on the music sheet!
Don't shoot the
To be fair, many bands are thrown in at the deep-end when it comes
to backing cabaret entertainers and rarely get a rehearsal beforehand.
Many only get to see the "dots" (a common term for music
sheets or notation) a few minutes before going onstage so if you're
an entertainer, don't be too hard on the backing musicians please!
If you were asked, in front of 200 people, to read out loud a
chapter of a novel which you'd never seen or read before in your
life, you may well hesitate or stumble over one or two of the
words or maybe even mistake a full stop for a comma somewhere.
Well, it's the same with musicians. Ask them to play a piece of
music they've never seen or heard before in their life, exactly
note for note as it is on the music sheet, and it's only natural
that they may just hesitate or miss a note here or there. However,
the more professional and experienced the musician, the more accurate
the rendition of the music will be and the less noticable any
minor mistakes will be.
In our experience we've found that over 90% of theatre musicians
have excellent music reading ability whereas in the club/pub environment
it's the converse - only about 10 - 20% of club/pub musicians
can "sight-read" (a sight-reader is the term given to
a musician who can play the notes on a music sheet correctly at
the first attempt). Mind you, many semi-professional club musicians
who are not sight-readers have a surprisingly good "ear"
and "feel" for music and very often their knowledge
of the song, a general knowledge of the "geography"
of music sheets, and their ability to read chord symbols and "watch
out for breaks" can often provide you with better backing
than some sight-readers can provide!
This is because most music sheets are written by the original
composer who may have written the song differently to the way
that it was subsequently recorded and released by the singer who
eventually made it a hit. An example of this would be a song which
was written, perhaps as a slow ballad, but became an uptempo hit
for, say, a disco group. Picture the scene - you want to sing
the fast disco version (because that's the version you and everyone
knows), but you've given your sight-reader the slow ballad original
sheet music. He's not going to play what you expect, believe me!
Tips for using
sheet music with a band
When you are performing in a venue where there is a "resident
band" (sometimes known as a "House band" or "Session
Musicians") you should bring all your sheet music plus a
folder with clear plastic pockets where you can insert the sheets
for the particular songs in the order you are going to sing them.
There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, you often never really know what type of audience you
are going to be performing to until you get to the venue. As long
as you have all your music sheets with you, you will be better
equiped to choose songs to suit your audience. Many singers just
go in to a venue and do "their set" no matter what,
but the true professionals can read their audience and choose
the right music accordingly.
Secondly, the use of a folder with plastic pockets means that
you can choose your set list, on the night, and place the corresponding
music sheets, in the order that you will be singing them in, into
the folder and give it to the band. Don't under any circumstances
sellotape or staple your sheets together because this makes it
very difficult for the musician to turn the page - don't forget,
he has to stop playing his instrument to turn a page, so the difference
between a quarter of a second and a half of a second to turn a
page can be vital to him keeping time or getting the next chord
of the next bar correct.
Make the first page just a normal sheet of paper with the name
of the songs you are going to sing, the keys, and the order you
are going to sing them in. There is nothing worse than a band
on stage having to shout out to you asking you which song is next
or having to leaf through dozens of dog-eared old pieces of manuscript
to eventually find the sheet for your next song. It doesn't help
the band, it doesn't help you, it's not very professional, and
it just doesn't help anyone, even your audience!
All the sheet music
you give the band should be written in the correct key that you
are going to sing it in. It's hard enough for a band to have to
sight-read a piece of music first time never mind having to sight-read
and transpose it at the same time. If you do this
to a band, expect mistakes from them, and it's not their fault,
it's yours. You have been warned!
Also the arrangement of the sheet music should suit the type of
arrangement you are singing ie don't give a ballad version of
a song to a band and ask them to play it in a disco version -
if you want a disco version,
buy sheet music written in that style.
Don't take your original
sheets with you to a gig! Make a copy (you are usually allowed
to legally make one copy as a backup) and take the copy to the
gig. If the sheet gets lost, stolen, or damaged then at least
you still have the original in a safe place at home.
Buying Sheet Music for use with a band
You should always try to choose songs which suit your voice (a
bit obvious that one)! When you buy the sheet music for that song,
make sure it is the same arrangement and style that you are going
to be singing it in and also make sure it's in the key you are
going to sing it in. You can buy many music sheets online and
print them out in the Sibelius Scorch format - Scorch allows you
to change the key of the music (see our downloadable music sheet
section for more info).
Try to buy sheet music that isn't too "busy" (ie make
sure the music is well set out and easy to read with not too much
clutter on the pages) and always opt for sheets that have chord
symbols (also known as guitar chords or guitar guides). This will
ensure that you yourself will be able to recognise the music on
the sheet as well as any non sight-reading backing musicians you
may work with. The chord symbols are important to the non sight-readers
because it allows them to follow your arrangemet on the sheet
and add in their own "fills" (and if they actually know
the song, they should be able to do an excellent job of it).
Ideally you should have more than one piece of sheet music for
each song. Although it's become the norm to hand a band one piece
of music (usually a piano sheet with chord symbols, bass line
and melody line) it's not very good when 4 or 5 musicians are
on a dimly lit stage, trying to play as best they can while they
are all huddled around one single music sheet - expect them to
The more professional approach is to have sheet music for each
song that is particular to each instrument in the band. For small
club type venues a sheet for the drummer, guitar player, bass
player and piano/keyboard player will usually more than suffice
but for bigger bands and orchestras you should also have sheets
containg the string part, brass part and even backing vocals if
there is a vocal backing group.
Learning to read sheet music
Reading sheet music is the standard way to learn to play a musical
instrument, especially in classical music. It's almost unheard
of for a classical performer to learn an instrument or to play
a piece of music in any other way. An exception to this rule is
piano where a certain amount of memorisation is expected but generally,
classical musicians, even pianists, always have the sheet music
in front of them when they are performing.
Jazz music tends to be mainly improvised but jazz musicians often
use sheet music to keep their arrangements a little tighter and
show certain melodies and chord changes.
Most pop musicians prefer to learn the piece "by ear"
(a common term for imitating a piece of music) and much folk music
is passed down through the generations orally rather than via
However, although some very successful musicians such as Paul
McCartney will tell you that they can't read music, rest assured
- Paul McCartney uses musicians in his band and in his recording
studio who CAN read music.
Always remember, if you choose to play "by ear" rather
than learning to read music, you are effectively blocking off
a whole world of wonderful music that composers, classical and
pop, have to offer. You may well find yourself stuck in a very
narrow musical rut where the only music you can play is limited
to what you can physically play yourself.
Music is the international language of the world, so go on, open
yourself up to that big wide world out there and learn to read
A brief history
of sheet music
Up until around the 15th century, music was pretty much written
by hand and preserved in large bound volumes. The invention of
the printing press changed all this and the first machine-printed
music appeared towards the end of the century. In 1501 Ottaviano
Petrucci published Harmonice musices odhecaton which contained
96 pieces of printed music. Pertucci's printing method produced
clean and readable music but the process of production was laborious
and difficult. It was another 20 years before printing in the
way we know it today was produced. The first publishing copyright
on music sheets probably emerged towards the end of the 16th century
when Queen Elizabeth granted a monopoly on printing music to Thomas
Tallis and William Byrd. When their monopoly expired, it was then
given to Thomas Morley. The next 3 centuries saw printed music
flourish and in the 19th century the music industry was dominated
by sheet music publishers. In the United States a group of publishers
and composers dominated the industry (and were known as "Tin
Pan Alley"). In the early 20th century recorded music became
popular and with the growth in popularity of radio, the importance
of the sheet music publishers lessened. The record industry eventually
replaced the sheet music publishers as the music industry's largest
In recent years there has been an upsurge in interest again in
sheet music thanks to the developement of sheet music in computer
readable format. Many different systems have been developed to
do this but the best and most popular (in our opinion) is the
Scorch system and the MusicNotes Viewer system.
Music Sheet Collectors
Many people collect music sheets and it has become very common
for music lovers to display antique music sheets on their wall
in frames for decoration (as well as an investment for the future).
Sheet music produced from the 1890s onward usually featured favorite
songs from the stage. Later, movies and radio spread popular music
even further into homes. Any amateur or professional musician
of the day would have stacks of colorful sheet music stashed in
piano benches and tucked away in boxes. Performers associated
with the original music were often depicted on the cover of the
music sheet - a definite benefit for today's collector. The faces
of early 20th century personalities such as Al Jolson, Fannie
Brice and Eddie Cantor graced many early issues and later stars
of the 40s like Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour thrilled their
fans on sheet music covers. These paper items were so popular,
many examples sold more than one million copies when first issued.
"Collecting Paper" by Gene Utz reports that "A
Bird in a Gilded Cage" sold two million copies in 1900! In
1910, familiar tunes "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and
"Down By the Old Mill Stream" each sold five to six
Because of the sheer
volume produced and distributed, even though they're made of paper
and can be somewhat fragile, only a few sheet music examples are
truly rare. This can actually be a boon for the collector, since
finding items for a sheet music collection is virtually stress
free. The challenge comes with finding paper that's in excellent
condition. Next, a sheet music collector must learn to narrow
their focus and save their collecting cash for their favorite
finds rather than purchasing everything they run across. Competition
is not extremely fierce since there are plenty of song titles
go to around, but there are some cases of crossover collecting.
For example, sheet music with a military theme often interests
collectors of militaria. Broadway musical enthusiasts will seek
out numerous titles from Rodgers and Hammerstein or Irving Berlin
as well. Other people are just attracted to the many covers featuring
colorful drawings of beautiful women. Framed and hung on a wall,
these make a colourful decoration that anyone can appreciate.
Another great feature
about ferreting out old sheet music is the price. Once again,
because of the volume produced and saved over the years, most
common pieces sell in the £2 to £3 range but a rare
piece, like Scott Joplin's Breeze from Alabama from 1902, lists
in Schroeder's Antiques Price Guide for around £35.
Article Written by Kenny Campbell
(This article cannot be reproduced without express
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