Before recording, there was simply music making. When you wanted to hear music, you had to find some actual living, breathing, fleshy musicians to make it happen. “Live” was the only kind of music. And prior to the record album, the mass publication of sheet music was the disruption that built a music industry.

But there’s no reason people can’t get together and play music themselves. So, the first question you might ask, when seeing that Beck is releasing an “album” in the form of a set of sheet music, is, “why not?” And, for music in general, “why not more?”

Working with McSweeney’s, Beck [Beck Hansen] is preparing a release called Song Reader for December 2012. The physical format is also part of the design, including full-color illustrated art and a hardcover carrying case. The publicity for the release somewhat grandiosely says the reader is an “experiment in what an album can be at the end of 2012” and calls sheet music an “almost-forgotten form.” That claim is fair at least in that it’s sheet music without an accompanying release of a recording. Apart from a work by Bach, that is indeed something different. And the physical object sounds lavish: 108 full-sized pages, all in color, and twelve artists.

(Lest you think Beck is going entirely oldschool and will be releasing music on stone tablets next, he also has a compelling release for the just-released PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita game Sound Shapes, along with our friends Jim Guthrie and I Am Robot and Proud and the ubiquitous Deadmau5. More on that side of the “future of music” later; see the Beck video.)

But what is the state of sheet music, anyway? Well, while it is generally accompanied by recording, it’s not quite forgotten yet. But the market in the United States is being hit hard by recession and music education cutbacks.

A report by market research group IBISWorld, released at the end of last year, reported a time of transition for the industry. That report suggested the kind of transition to digital from print that the record industry has undergone – though this desirably-attractive release from Beck is an excellent example of why releasing on paper can have its own value.

Sheet music faces some challenges that even recording doesn’t. The industry report notes that musicians can turn to YouTube karaoke or instructional videos and avoid looking at scores at all – even before you get into free (often-illegal) guitar tab or file sharing. And music notation itself assumes that people know how to read music, which these alternatives don’t. (There’s a problem recording labels never had to address.)

Notation sales are falling off, though not at the same precipitous rate as recording revenues. In the report, “IBISWorld estimates that industry revenue fell at a 3.9% annualized pace to $339.1 million in the five years to 2011.” The report blames a number of factors, including online competition lowering prices and the aforementioned proliferation of free online alternatives, but also government cuts in the US for arts education and the recession dampening available disposable income.

But if you’re an individual artist, you don’t have to take on these grander trends all at once. Short-run printing is often relatively inexpensive – especially when compared to something prohibitive like cutting your own vinyl release. And note that Beck includes both instrumentals and vocals – meaning not everything has to have lyrics – and uses the release as an opportunity to add additional artists.

The independent artist and label, and a tightly-knit community of DJs and enthusiasts, have helped keep vinyl alive. If sheet music is to enjoy a similar future, it seems likely that it’ll be those same kinds of communities that make it happen.

Via A.V. Club (The Onion) and thanks to CDM industrial design and music media intern Arvid Jense!

  • chunter

    When I wonder how a song goes, I will often search for tabs, then play them and find out the tabs are wrong.

  • Michael

    Problem is a lot of people like me sent tabs to olga or before that to the newsgroups when we were first learning how to play guitar, and now that shit has been duplicated (and smothered with ads) all over the internet.


  • George LoPezDispenser

    A few years ago deerhoof released the sheet music for an album months before its release, and solicited “remixes” from fans. I thought that was really cool, but on the whole I enjoyed the “canonical” recording when it came out way more than the cover versions I’d heard first. For that reason I think I’d rather hear Beck do these songs than hear someone else’s version, or even my own.

    I also think, although it certainly isn’t Beck’s fault, I find sheet music to be a preposterous, antiquated, pointlessly difficult notation system. Their aren’t any decent alternatives, but there should be.

    • goldenmaster

      I think it is a strangely antiquated idea.  But also really original and cool!  I think calling sheet music what you call it is a little silly… I think it depends on the situation of course, but it’s the most accurate and widespread music notation system.  I’ve seen others–guitar tab, even old school lute and organ tablature.  I’ve seen tablature for other ethnic instruments, and so on, and every other type of music notation i’ve seen is generally harder to read, less accurate, and also doesn’t give you a picture of the music in the abstract like western notation does.  Not that reading music is essential for musicians.  But you’ll find that the musicians who actually play, and are good, the best ones will almost all read music.

    • George LoPez Dispenser

      My big problems with western notation are:

      1. Pitch

      Western notation assumes a piece is played diatonically, and straying from a diatonic scale presents an added mental difficulty for both the musician and the notator. Musical “spelling” is oriented around diatonic scales, with the strange result that every note in an octave can be spelled (and notated) several different ways. If you’re playing in E-flat major, “A” is flat. In A major, “G” is sharp. These two notes have different locations on the stave, even with the same clef. But G-sharp and A-flat are the exact same note, played on the same key/fret/button/what-have-you. That’s damned confusing.

      A result of this is that some keys are arbitrarily “harder” to play in, not because of the physical constraints of the musician or the instrument, but because they contain too many sharps or flats, and put a strain on a musician’s ability to read the damn thing.

      A corollary is that the same vertical distance between two notes can denote entirely different intervals depending on the key being used. “Go up three semitones” is an instruction that most halfway competent musicians will intuitively understand, but this instruction is notated differently dependent on the key. That’s pointlessly bewildering, especially in complex music where key changes within a piece are commonplace.

      2. Rhythm

      Music is read left to right. It’s divided (visually and conceptually) into measures, each of which is the same duration and has the same internal metrical divisions (barring time or tempo changes). But neither measure length nor note symbols use width as an indicator of length. It looks like a metrical grid but it isn’t. It simply doesn’t make sense to me for a sixteenth note and a whole note to be denoted by symbols that are roughly the same size. It would be better to have a steady reading speed, with note lengths proportional to width, and the physical width of measures determined by time signature.

      Basically my ideal musical notation system would start with a sequencer-like piano roll and then refine it to make it more universal and useful on the printed page.

    • Peter Kirn

      Right, but that’s what’s interesting about this project. People will presumably render the songs before they’ve heard them. That could make for more original renditions from fans.

    • George LoPez Dispenser

      I’m not hating on the project, I think it’s pretty cool. But I just think that ultimately, when/if these songs come out as a proper Beck LP, I’m going to enjoy them more that way. That’s not really a criticism so much as a prediction, if perhaps an overly pessimistic one.

    • Brian

      Sheet music is neither antiquated nor pointlessly difficult. It turns music into shapes and single letters–WHAT MORE COULD YOU ASK FOR? A more complicated chord chart? You’ll never get proper textures and melodies and dynamics and articulation out of that. Sheet music is a perfectly fine system, it just takes getting used to. It’s a new language–no one said it would be an over-night learn.

  • Sheldon

    ooof, this is just a brilliant attention-whore marketing move. didn’t think i could hate Beck any more than I already did, wrong again.

    • Foljs

      I could not care less about Beck, but it’s a nice idea and a revival of an old format is a cool artistic gesture, especially at a time when musicians don’t make much money off of music sales as they used to. So, sheet music for fans + live performances would be a nice combination.

      From all that you got “attention whore”? Like we are talking about the Kardashians or something? And you “though you couldn’thate Beck any more that you already did”? Because he pissed on your cornflakes?

      Get yourself together…

  • jhhl

    I sometimes get (extremely copy restricted – you get to make two printouts) sheet music from, and it’s not a pleasurable experience. I think the idea of publishing sheet music – or other kinds of music instructions – without accompanying recordings is a great idea. Old magazines like SCORE used to do that. They even had synthesizer patch diagrams (“dope sheets”). That’s a music paradigm , composer -> performer -> listener, that need not disappear, and broadens the idea of composition. 

  • Paul Rose

    I find it a great idea and I am again so sorry that I stopped piano lessons after a couple of months when I was a teenager and thus never learned to read sheet music properly. I can play bass and guitar fairly well, I can produce any style of music with a computer, but I can’t read sheet music. That’s a big shame. 

  • Pcj99

    I’d be curious to know if Beck could sight read his own score…

  • Alfonso El Sabio

    As someone who walks in both the world of performance of music and the preservation of cultural heritage, I have been saying for years now that the next big intellectual property battle over “digital” production will be sheet music — it’s been the case since the 16th century and most folks have stopped paying attention to the situation. Desktop publishing and, in general, the proliferation and application of digital technologies will continue to wreak havoc … perhaps even in a good way.

  • SkyRon™

    I have a few actual examples of “sheet music” in my little library. I have far more examples of “music notation”, and that definition can easily hold all my “sheet music”. It’s a quaint term, so, OK!

    Let’s go beyond the quaint, once commercially-viable (e.g., the 1920’s-40’s) term. Beck is playing with notation, and doesn’t quite know where to go with that. He’s a brilliant producer, but something of a lame conceptualist, sorry! And I’ve been hounding him since the mid-1990’s (but, alas, without any success. He’s still a rockstar.).

    OK, all is well, and all shall be well! (

  • Redbeard, How to Make Beats

    I was never big on sheet music but have known quite a few musicians who are. I like beck, by the way. why are we hating on him so much.

  • Mill Biller

    I do like this idea, and I think it’s the perfect time to release sheet music again, instead of an actual album. We’re in a recession and everybody is remixing everybody anyway, atm. 

    I like to do remixes, and to “remix” his songs like this will be awesome…