Sheet music and backing bands

(The original version of this article was first published on the Mp3 Backing Trax website circa 2006 – 2012)

Don’t give your sheet music to the backing band and expect them to play 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 blame the musicians
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 hundreds of strangers, 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 mistakenly miss a full stop or 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 in your audience 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 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 they have just been handed before stepping on stage never mind you expecting them to sight-read and transpose it all 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!

Don’t take your original sheets with you to a gig
Make a copy of all your music sheets (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.

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 make mistakes!

The more professional approach is to have separate sheet music for each instrument in the band so, yes, it means having multiple sheets of music written specifically for each instrument for EVERY song!

For small club type venues a 4 sets of sheet music (one each 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 containing the string parts, brass parts and even backing vocals if there is a vocal backing group.

Learning to read sheet music yourself
The ability to read sheet music yourself – or at least understand the kinda geography and terminology of the music sheet – can be very helpful to you as a singer. You will be able to better instructed and advise your backing band if you yourself fully understand the music sheets you’re giving them.

Reading music is also 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 playing from memory) and much folk music is passed down through the generations orally rather than via music sheets.

Although some very successful musicians such as Sir 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 DO 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 of all genres 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 music!

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 force.

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 Sibelius 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. In later years, movies and radio spread popular music even further into homes.

Any amateur or professional musician of the day would have stacks of 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 million copies.

Despite the sheer volume of sheet music produced and distributed there are a few examples which are still rare. The main challenge is finding rare sheets that are also in excellent condition. 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.

While competition is not extremely fierce and there are plenty of song titles to go around, there are some cases of what’s known as “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 around to find old sheet music is the low price they can often be obtained for. As previously stated, because of the volume of sheet music produced over the years, most common pieces sell in the £2 to £3 range. However a rare piece, like Scott Joplin’s Breeze from Alabama from 1902, lists in Schroeder’s Antiques Price Guide for around £35.