An Album of Sheet Music in a Digital Age

Beck’s forthcoming album has been raising a lot of dialogue online and in person. Not for the music that he’s releasing, but in how he’s releasing it; in sheet music form (Forbes has a great article on this, which you can read here). Many are lauding this as genius, or a bold and daring move, and maybe it is. But, and maybe it’s just the day job speaking, I think it’s going to come up short. Beck’s choice to release his upcoming album only in sheet music is a great concept that is not fully realized and may end up angering fans more than anything.

From Beck’s website, this “album comes in an almost-forgotten form—twenty songs existing only as individual pieces of sheet music, never before released or recorded.” Really, calling sheet music a “long forgotten” form of music? Go into any music store and look on the wall. There is a collection of music books (in standard notation, tab and both) at any store. Better yet, go to a musical or symphonic performance and ask what’s on those fancy black stands. As a theatre musician, I use sheet music on a regular basis as does the regular jazz and orchestral musician. It is NOT a “long forgotten” form, but still a major way to convey musical thoughts and ideas. I will admit, however, that is is NOT the way that many musicians start out learning to play music; that’s reserved for sitting in front of a stereo, listening to your favorite song, and banging out the notes until you get it right.

And that’s a big issue that Beck’s album faces. By releasing his album only in sheet music form, it’s completely limited to those musicians that 1. can read sheet music well and 2. are fans of Beck. One of the upsides to this format (and sincerely, I hope this happens) is that some of the fans take the time to LEARN how to read in order to be able to play this new music. Truthfully, I’m sure we’ll hear some stories like this, but not a lot.

Secondly, what about those fans of Beck’s that aren’t musicians? I’m sure there are some, right? My co-worker mentioned that he’s kind of ticked that he can’t listen to this new album, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a standard theme among many of the fans. What would he do with this album of sheet music? Look at it? Hang it on the wall?

I get the concept of why you’d want to go this route, and Will Burns (the author of the article I’ve referenced above) brings up a lot of excellent points. But I’d argue that if Beck’s whole intention was to get this music out to people that would consume it on a musician level, he’s only halfway there.

Release the album – in this context – as a conductors score. As in, every part (guitar, bass, drums, vocals, etc..) are written out on a grand staff. If you check the page that’s circling the internet already, it looks to be written in the standard format for pianists (vocal line on top, piano part on bottom with chord markings overhead). Release a recorded album as well.

I know, a recorded album is exactly what he doesn’t want to do, but hear me out. Many enthusiasts of classical music buy conductors scores, and go over them while listening to the music. Some even go so far as to mimic conducting an orchestra, though they may be doing nothing more than waving their hands in the air to the cat. Is this not experiencing the music on a more visceral level, and even more profound than just putting a set of headphones on and sitting in your favorite chair? Allow your fans this opportunity or “invitation;” to follow your music note for note, and feel as if they’re in the music with you, going through every measure and conducting it.

And they would enjoy it, whether or not they could read music. That’s the kicker, as many orchestral aficionados can’t read music. But they follow along, know what’s happening in the piece, and enjoy the music. For those people that still just want to ingest music aurally, you’d still have the recorded album for them. For the musicians that love this concept and want to learn the tunes, grab the score AND the recording.

I like this concept, I really do. As a working musician, I’ve fought online for many years, lauding the advantages of knowing how to read sheet music and Beck’s new album is yet another reason. However, I think with some tweaks and a little more thought into his actual demographic, he could make a much bigger impact and have more people singing his praises for this bold and daring move than complaining about it.

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