Modern Styles and Staff Notation

Let’s look at the history of modern music in terms of its complicated relationship with standard notation. To understand why classical teaching methods are out of step with the needs of students who want to learn modern styles, we need to look at how music, and musicians, have changed over the last hundred years.

The era of modern music began not long after 1900. Dixieland bands in the 1920s and swing bands in the 1940s all scored their music. Studio musicians in popular recordings of the 1940s and 1950s, including early rock-and-roll records, read parts written by arrangers.

In other branches in the recording business, starting in the 1920s, record producers were recording folk and blues musicians who wrote their own songs, but didn’t read or write music. By the late 1950s, producers like Leonard Chess had streamlined and professionalized the creative process for writing and recording blues, country and rock-and-roll music.

In recording sessions where a non-reading group had created a song together, the group was often backed up by studio musicians and background singers who read their parts. The standard procedure for recording a non-reading band was to make a rough recording of the group playing the song. A rough recording allows you to nail down all of the details of a song permanently. Based on the recording, the arranger wrote a chord chart, and used it as the musical schematic for writing individual parts for the studio musicians. During the recording, the group performed from memory, since they already knew their parts. The studio musicians played parts written by the arranger.

In those days, the arranger was the intermediary between the group and the studio musicians. Arrangers told studio musicians more or less exactly what to play. The emergence of rock music changed the traditional hierarchy in the recording studio. Today the traditional role of the arranger, as separate from writers, musicians and producers, has almost completely disappeared.

The Great Studio Cliques

The 1960s and 1970s was the era of the great studio cliques, like “ The Wrecking Crew,” Motown’s “Funk Brothers,” “The Nashville A Team,” and the “Muscle Shoals Swampers.” These studio groups made music by allowing the group chemistry among the musicians to work its magic, instead of having one person decide what everyone plays. Between them, these studio groups recorded hundreds of hit records for dozens of major groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They’re worth looking into because they demonstrate the working methods used by professional rock, country and jazz musicians today.

There are several films every modern musician should see, like “The Wrecking Crew,” “Session Men,” “Standing In the Shadow of Motown,” and “Muscle Shoals.” These films are a record of what happened when a new generation of studio musicians started creating their parts on the spot, without written music. They give you a picture of the types of working situations you’re preparing for. They are a window into how modern musicians collaborate to create music. The music business is a little more professional than in the days depicted in these films.

There are also many other videos on the web, like the Beach Boys recording “Good Vibrations” with members of the Wrecking Crew, which are prime examples of the modern creative process in action. The Wrecking Crew, and the other great studio cliques, professionalized the modern approach to producing music, both live and in the studio. They raised the bar for all rock, pop and country musicians. They changed the course of modern music. Their recorded examples are what we aspire to as modern-day musicians.

Here’s a story that goes to the heart of the disconnect between traditional and modern musicians. In the film documentary “The Wrecking Crew,” Tommy Tedesco described how, in the 1960s, they were called in to record a track for a surfer movie. The arrangers for the movie studio couldn’t write anything that captured the raw energy of the rock-and-roll hits they were trying to imitate. As a last resort, the studio decided to hire a rock combo to record the track. The studio booked a week of recording time to record a 3-minute surf-rock track in the style of the Beach Boys or Jan and Dean. To the astonishment of the studio execs, the Wrecking Crew came in and gave them exactly what they were looking for in a few takes.

That type of thing wouldn’t happen today. Modern composers know how to score rock and other modern styles, to the extent they can be notated, and when there’s a reason to notate them. Broadway scores started incorporating rock music in the late 1960s. In some scores, rhythm section (guitar, bass, drum and keyboard) parts are meticulously scored, while other times the musicians are required to interpret their parts from chord charts.

Sometimes you have to sight-read and improvise in the same part. For instance, the bass guitar part to “Let The Sunshine In,” from the Broadway musical Hair, is written into the score, although the bass player in the original cast recording took some liberties in interpreting it. In the better version from the 5th Dimension, the bass guitar part is obviously improvised. This is an example of where you can really hear the difference between a part that’s improvised, and a part that’s canned. Most of the musicians in the Wrecking Crew were good sight readers, and worked with staff notation a lot.

Tommy Tedesco was everybody’s first call for film work not only because he was a technically-skilled player, but because he was an expert sight-reader. That’s an example of how the traditional and modern musical worlds aren’t mutually exclusive. But the Wrecking Crew were most valued for their ability to spontaneously arrange music as a group.

“Auto-arrange,” is musicians’ slang for creating a spontaneous group arrangement of a song. It’s another practice that’s so universal in the modern music world, many musicians don’t have a name for it. It’s a standard operating procedure for modern musicians. For rock, country and jazz groups, it’s the main way of recording and performing music. Glen Campbell described how he made up the distinctive rhythm guitar part for Strangers in the Night on the spot during the recording session. Some of the best music ever performed or recorded was made without using staff notation, or any written music at all.

The 1980s and 90s brought us MIDI, synthesizers and loop-based recording. Today, parts that would have been recorded by a full orchestra are produced by computers. Now it’s easy to record background string and horn parts with virtual instruments. With virtual instruments, you can improvise your parts. You don’t have to write out your parts first. Computers have made composition and recording almost completely intuitive. Your ability to create music, even complete arrangements, is not limited just because you don’t understand musical notation.

Today, for many modern musicians, it simply isn’t necessary to learn to read music. For many pro players, reading staff just isn’t a part of their day-to-day routine. There are not many sight-reading gigs left in the world, compared to a few decades ago.

On the other hand, staff notation has its role in rock music. It’s the most efficient way to document complex musical ideas in a visual format. Prog rockers Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, and studio rats Walter Becker and Donald Fagan wrote out much of their music. Three of those four are keyboard players. Guitarist Brian Setzer writes all of the horn parts for his 17-piece brass band.

Some composers use both improvisation and writing in staff notation to create new music. Frank Zappa composed music by recording group improvisations, picking out ideas he liked from the recordings, and working them into finished pieces. Zappa was a prodigious writer, and all of his musicians had to be expert readers as well as excellent improvisers.

But the Emersons and Zappas of the world are the exceptions to the rule where it comes to how rock music is composed. On most rock recording sessions, if there’s any written music, it’s usually in the form of chord charts, not staff notation. British prog rock group Yes is only one group that used recording as their main means of documenting and developing complex musical ideas.

There are many recording and performing situations where the ability to read music doesn’t give you any advantage over another musician who doesn’t read. Neither Glen Campbell with the Wrecking Crew, or Duane Allman with the Swampers, read staff notation. But that didn’t disqualify them, or make them less valuable to the creative projects they worked on.

© 2019, 2020 Greg Varhaug