How Sheet Music for Popular Songs is Written

Let’s look at the rock, country and pop song books they sell at music stores. How do you think they write those books? You probably think that Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan put pen to paper, and wrote their parts out in tablature and staff notation. If you think that’s how sheet music gets written, you’re wrong.

Many songbooks of popular music have a label which says “Authentic Transcription,” or words to that effect. When an artist finishes an album, the publisher hires a transcriptionist to write the sheet music and tablature based on the recordings. The transcriptionist reads the recorded music by ear. There are exceptions, but the artist usually has nothing to do with writing the sheet music. The artist doesn’t even proof the finished music before it goes into print. This is what I meant when I said that in modern music, staff notation isn’t usually part of the initial creative process.

Clapton, Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t write out their parts prior to playing them. Their method for creating music is based on setting lyrics to grooves, and vice versa. Modern music is usually created first and written later, instead of being composed on paper. Someone transcribes the music from the recording by ear, and that becomes the authorized sheet music for the song.

Later, we will look at different types of written music, and how to overcome common problems with learning to read and write music. I’ll also talk about why using the song books they sell in music stores is often an ineffective way to learn to play real music.

See my earlier posts on Reading Music by Ear:

Reading Music By Ear – Part 1

Reading Music By Ear – Part 2

© 2019, 2020 by Gregory Varhaug