How to Notate Music for a Rock Band

Rock music and classical music have a lot of similarities. They also have many differences. It’s not surprising then that I often have classically-trained musicians, who are thinking like classically-trained musicians, asking for transcription requests of rock and pop music that don’t make a lot of sense. They will be wanting to perform the latest song from Taylor Swift or a classic Pink Floyd single and they will request that every instrument on the record is transcribed as if it were an orchestral score – separate bass part, drum kit notated, synth pad notated on its own grand staff, the guitar part written out, etc, etc.

They’re not thinking like pop/rock musicians. The best way to notate music for modern/pop genres is with either a chord chart or a leadline that *everyone* in the band reads off, from the drummer to the lead vocalist. These scores have the bars written out so that everyone can stay together, and they will most often have the vocal melody and lyrics written out so that all the members of the band can listen to the singer and know where they are in the music. Most importantly, though, in lieu of actual notes written out for the individual instruments, the harmonic chords are written above the staff, and everyone reads off these. (For the classical music geeks out there, it’s kind of like a modern-day figure bass, and everyone’s reading off the continuo part.)

These chords tell the piano, bass, synth, and guitar players almost everything they need to know. All they generally need to do is supplement the score with a couple listens to the original song to match any idiosyncrasies in the recording to their own performance. If there’s a particular little melodic motif that’s especially prevalent in the song, this will often be written into the chart if it can’t be deciphered from the chord symbols alone. Now, if you have a pop or rock song with less traditional rock instruments – say a trumpet or a violin – then yes, these will have to be separately notated from the leadline. When it comes to your rhythm section though, you don’t need to have the individual parts written out. A chord chart or leadline should more than suffice.