Don’t get too excited. It’s time for post containing what I like to call Dadvice. You know what I’m talking about. Advice that’s mostly mundane but eminently practical. The kind of resent precisely because you know it’s worth bearing in mind.
Our subject is how you present your work. It’s no secret that the most important thing is doing quality work, but presentation is important too.
Imagine your bank writes to you in Comic Sans. Imagine your doctor turns up in sweatpants. Imagine that limo you hired arrives covered in a fine layer of dirt.
Presentation counts. It’s a stamp of quality. It’s a subtle way of showing what you value.
In songwriting well-presented work says ‘I’m proud of what I make’. It says ‘I want other people to engage with what I make’. It says ‘I’m a professional and value presenting myself well to other professionals’. Wholesome qualities pertaining to Dadvice of all kinds.
When you’re putting your work either before a professional who might be able to open doors for you or before musicians and singers who are going to perform and record it, it’s in everyone’s interest that they’re focusing on your work and not the way you’ve presented it. And that’s what good presentation does: it’s done so well you don’t notice it. You feel that mark of quality. In fact, when I coach a new writer, 90% of the time I can tell almost instantly what stage they’re working at from a quick glance at how their work is presented on the page. Professional work goes hand in hand with professional presentation.
It’s especially important for getting your work performed. Time is always tight in rehearsal or in the studio. The more attention your performers have to give to working out what you mean by all the assorted squiggles and improvised repeat marks on the page, the less attention they’ll give to nailing your work. Spending the extra time investing in clear presentation always pays off later.
Good presentation is all about clarity, and clear presentation comes down to three things: it’s simple, accurate and clean.
Simple because the less complicated something is the easier it is to understand. Accurate because any mistakes on the page mean mistakes in performance or time wasted in rehearsal. Clean because because until we evolve beyond needing to read information from a screen or page, anything that’s a distraction to the eye is a distraction from understanding what the writer is trying to say.
Different genres use different conventions for notating lyric sheets, chord sheets, lead sheets and/or instrumental parts. But they all come back to the same principle – clarity – and sub-principles – simplicity, accuracy, and I guess the noun would be cleanliness. So you’re at liberty to find your own house style that suits your genre: the best way to achieve this is to get your hands on pro versions of what you’re trying to create (not published versions – they have their own conventions) and adopt whatever presentational choices work for you.
Ok. Let’s turn our amps up to eleven with some practical Dadvice tips.
Just plain ol’ words. No notes, chords or other distractions. If you’re working from these copies in the rehearsal room or recording studio, presumably you’ve sent your singer a demo recording already.
- Let’s work with the assumption your lyric sheets will be typed. Handwritten drafts are great for album artwork, but in performance clarity is key.
- Fancy fonts are nice, but simple, clear fonts are practical. Times, Arial, Georgia never fail.
- Some people capitalize all of the lyrics, some people just use normal capitalization. I don’t recommend the practice of capitalizing only the hook: the singer doesn’t really need to know it’s the hook and it looks weird. It’s like when my Grandma writes text messages in capitals and it sounds like she’s shouting.
- I recommend including the section names (Chorus, Verse, Bridge) either in a column to the left or above each section. You don’t have to go into immaculate detail about what each section means, but a few clues will help your singer understand the song’s shape and help out when you say ‘Let’s take it from the Bridge’.
- Punctuation can be tricky in lyrics – in a poem you can use punctuation to make your meaning clear, but no one can hear punctuation when words are sung. So it’s always worth keeping it simple. Basic punctuation on your lyric sheet will help the singer understand what he or she is singing.
- Important things like the title, writer credit and copyright notice are worth including, as well as mundane things like the title and page number in the header on every page.
- Tedious as it might seem, I recommend writing out every section every time it comes back – having your singer dart backwards and forwards because you wrote REPEAT PRE-CHORUS then CHORUS can be distracting. The extra paper you use is more than made up for by ease of performance.
Just chords, mapped out measures and maybe a stylistic instruction. For when you’re working with players who know how to groove.
- Again, let’s work with the assumption your Chord Sheets will be typed in a simple, plain font. It can be easier to do this stuff handwritten, but printed is almost always clearer and all it takes is some wizardry with the Tab key in Microsoft Word.
- Decent players can realize whatever you write just from chords and how long each chord lasts. It’s definitely worth giving some structural signposts – the Chorus groove is likely to be different from the Verse groove. It can also be helpful to give some little lyric clues at new sections – not because decent players need them, but because if rehearsal time is tight as a performer those little reassurances that you’re in the right place can mean a lot.
- Evenly spaced measures will help your performers understand what’s going on. The standard is to put four or eight measures per line and have a blank line between sections. If there are multiple chords per measure, it’s worth spacing the chords out proportionally (i.e. do they change on the second, third, fourth beat?).
- As well as including a title, credit, copyright notice etc on the first page, it’s essential to say a few words about the tempo, time signature/meter and style of the song. It doesn’t need an essay, but the more specific you are the less general a groove you’ll get. Obviously if you have a specific groove you can demonstrate in the room you can do that too.
- Again, I’d recommend writing out repeating sections (like the chorus) once for every time they’re played. You performers might need to vary what they play slightly when sections come back and you’ll make it easier for them to make notes and keep tabs of this.
Everything in one place: melody, chords and lyrics. Not always necessary for all performers, but definitely the most comprehensive and useful way to notate your song if you can. The melodic contour is useful even for singers who don’t read notation. Everyone gets a copy of the same thing which makes rehearsal so much more straightforward.
- All the usual things still apply: typeset (Sibelius and Finale are the industry standard), clear titles, credits, copyright notice and page number and title on every page.
- It’s common wherever possible to put four measures per line, because at least in most popular music 4-bar lines or phrases are most common.
- It’s definitely worth including section titles, because they serve as awesomely convenient rehearsal marks. It’s conventional to use double bar lines at the end of each section.
- Some people object to including measure numbers, but they can’t hurt. Often they’re included on every measure (saves counting back from the start of the line) and they might need to go under each measure and left aligned to avoid clashing with chord symbols.
- Chord symbols are essential. Fret diagrams aren’t generally necessary, unless you’re a guitarist and have very specific suggestions for chord voicing.
- There’s something of an art to splitting up multi-syllable words under two or more notes. What’s important is that you’re consistent in your policy. Generally I split words on the hard consonant or new vowel which starts the next syllable. Sounds more complicated than it is: dir-ty, lit-tle, na-ive, con-so-nant, split-ters. But when a word is made of individual parts that are words in themselves, I usually override this rule if it means not splitting up the root word: cheat-ing, truck-er, re-mark-a-ble.
- I recommend adding a slur on melismas (more than one note per syllable) as it serves as an extra visual reminder as to what’s going on.
- It’s possible to specify on your lead sheet which instruments play where, and what you’d like them to play, if you’re able to be specific about it. The Italian word tacet is usually used to mean don’t play. Details are usually included above each section, sometimes in a box. You can also use ‘+’ and ‘-‘ to indicate where you want instruments to enter and drop out.
For when you really want to be specific about what your players do.
- Virtually everything that applies to Lead Sheets applies here too. Measure numbers or at least clear section headers are all the more important for rehearsal because everyone’s part will look different. You’ll also want to include the part name on each part: if you drop a big pile of unbound parts you don’t want to spend forever working out what goes where.
- It’s not uncommon for instrumental parts to vary between being really specific and offering more general instructions. Guitar parts might have riffs notated, or might just have chord symbols over blank measures.
- Page turns are worth thinking about: most players need a few seconds to turn. If the part is on three pages it’s possible to tape them all together. Otherwise it’s worth laying the parts out so they can turn quickly: it’s better to have two staves of music on a page because it makes a turn possible, rather than cram everything together to save space and have your players drop out for eight bars because they have to turn.
- If you’re using parts in for recording, it’s worth binding with masking tape over staples or binders or anything else. You can stick the pages together in a concertina and it’ll make turning quietly much easier to do.
So there we go. Some thoughts on making your work shine. Ultimately, it’s up to you to find your house style and figure out how you can present your work at its clearest. Once it’s become a habit you won’t even need to think about it. And after you’ve spent all that time crafting great material, it’s the least you and songs deserve.