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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Beck's Song Reader - Forget the Sheet Music!

A short history of music in Europe.

Once upon a time we sang songs we learned from our parents. And we, in turn, learned them to our kids. Fiddles were handed down over the generations. Songs and ditties changed as they were sung and handed down, songs disappeared, other songs appeared. Such was the life of music.

Later on, we started to write down lyrics in order not to forget, and invented a way to write down melodies too. We invented sheet music. Soon we started to think the sheet music wás the music. In order to hear the music, we however still had to perform the sheet music. And some people simply kept playing and singing without the sheet music. They had to excuse themselves for it, had to pose as second rank musicians - "Do you play an instrument?" "Yes, but only a bit - I don't read staff notation, you see." - but they did it.


Then records appeared. Suddenly sheet music became less important again. Worse was that performing also became less important. The record - the tape, the CD, the MP3 file -  did the work for us. Some people kept playing the sheet music, however - we called them 'amateur musicians'; and some even kept playing without sheet music - we still had trouble calling them any kind of musicians at all.

Of course I am exaggerating, as usual. But there is a grain of truth in the story - something like it has happened over the ages.

I came to think about it when I read about Beck (Hansen) releasing his newest album. It is called "Song Reader" (check http://songreader.net) and is not a CD or a record - it is a beautiful edition of the sheet music of twenty new songs. Just the sheet music. If you want to know how they sound when played by Beck, you will never know - Beck made, as he writes in his introduction to the sheet music set, "an album that could only be heard by playing the songs".

Song Reader fell on my doormat a couple of days ago. I ordered it because I was curious. And because I was fascinated by this idea of bringing out an album only in sheet music form. We all know record sales are dropping - is Beck trying to penetrate a new market? It looks like that is not the major point (although Song Reader seems to have sold well given the fact that according to the official Song Reader site it is sold out - but if you are interested, try music stores, they may still have one in stock). It seems like Beck is fascinated by the pre-record times when music was sold through sheet music and had to be performed at home in order  to be heard. I still have a couple of hundred of songs that appeared as sheet music at home - fascinating stuff,  if only for the art work; and the art work of Song Reader is equally fascinating.

So I'm going to learn to play my versions of the songs, the next few months. As Beck invites us: "Don't feel beholden to what's notated. Use any instrument you want. Change the chord; rephrase the melodies. Keep only the lyrics, if desired. (...) These arrangements are starting-off points; they don't originate from any definitive recording or performance." And he invites us to upload our versions of his songs - a couple of hundred are on the Song Reader site already.

It's a step towards freedom.

A step begging for the next step: Beck not sending you his sheet music, but just his encouragement to take up any song or make up your own song. To make music, to sing without worrying about anything - no worry about the right or the wrong note, the correct lyrics, or the in-tune or out-of-tune (or copyrights, for that matter). And you doing that.

Wouldn't that be great fun?

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