My brain is more of a colander than a steel box. A new song idea may drain out through the holes before I can commit it to long term storage. Luckily, I am not a medieval bard relying solely on memory to retain my songs. I have technology.
In today’s post, I’ll discuss how using notation software has changed the way I write music, and review the Soundslice online sheet music editor.
I’ve tried various ways to document my song ideas. My first song was written on Day One, a journaling app on my phone. You could get similar results from Notepad or Google Docs. I wrote down the lyrics and then used my own shorthand for recording the chords and playing tips. This method works as long as the song is fresh. However, when the piece makes its way to the root cellar of my mind, the cobwebs build up, and I can’t fully recall how I intended to play it. You seen from the below screenshot that the melody isn’t recorded at all, let alone any ideas for harmony or supporting instrumentation.
On the plus side, all my songs are in one place. They’re easy to find, timestamped, and I can’t accidentally spill water on them (which is more handy than I’d like to admit).
In my recent ukulele lessons, Kevin and I are exploring how to arrange my songs beyond what I can sing and play as a single performer. In order to try out different arrangements with multiple parts, we’ve been transcribing my songs into Guitar Pro. This is sometimes tedious as we try to decipher exactly what I’m singing into notes, bars and measures. I thought I could speed up the process by transcribing the melody myself and bringing that initial skeleton of a song to my lesson. From that first draft, we could work together to add other parts. I don’t have a license for Guitar Pro, so I tried using the free version of Soundslice as the notation software.
Soundslice is an online platform which allows users to author and share sheet music. The Soundslice player plays back the music as written so you can listen to the composition even if you can’t read music. I’m impressed by the performance and ease of use of the platform. Here are my takeaways from using the Soundslice free tier to document my music.
I’m not gonna sugar coat it, it can be tedious to transcribe music you’ve already written into sheet music. My first songs were written using improvisation, without regard for bar lines or strict meter. I also wasn’t a stickler for the second verse to match the first verse in melody or form. I was ok with flexing and stretching when I felt like it. After all, my songwriting is a journaling process, not geared towards performance. Figuring out what I was doing in these loosey goosey songs, and then writing it down, was tricky.
I notated my most recent song, Two Trees, in Soundslice right from the beginning. I discovered that there are timesaving aspects to this way of working. For instance, once I developed the first verse, I copied and pasted it into the second verse so I knew the structure would match. I changed the words and tweaked some notes. Previously, it would have required several iterations of singing and maybe some recording to try to get it right.
Overall, it may have taken me slightly more time from start to finish than it would have using the basic lyric/chord notation method. However, given that at the end of the process my songs are documented in sheet music, and the other benefits I discuss below, this process is well worth the additional effort.
Soundslice supports improvisation. To write the verses, I wrote a chord progression, then sang stream of consciousness phrases while the Soundslice player looped those measures over and over. Once I had something I liked, I notated it in the sheet music.
When I use a similar technique manually on the piano or uke, sometimes my chord transitions aren’t smooth and I distract myself trying to play the music and think of lyrics at the same time. With Soundslice keeping strict time, the results are more accurate. I can devote my full attention to improvising a melody or lyrics. I also can’t subconsciously cheat and extend a measure to fit in a few stray syllables.
Basically, I created my own jam track. Although I’d done this before in GarageBand, it was easier to do in Soundslice. See this post for more on that technique.
I can view my work as the audience, not as the performer, when the Soundslice player plays my song. By offloading remembering the words, the chord changes and getting the timing right to Soundslice, I can focus objectively on the overall sound. When I hear things I want to change, like a note out of key, I stop the player, make the tweak, then start the player again. My changes are recorded right into the sheet music so I won’t forget them.
Soundslice is great for experimentation. You know how it takes a little practice to tap your head and rub your belly at the same time? With Soundslice, I can notate rhythms that I cannot physically play and sing at the same time. This expands the options of what is possible in my songwriting. For instance, I tried a few different rhythms to make my song jazzier. Now that I found a rhythm I like, I’ll devote practice time to learn to play it well.
Soundslice is great for learning. You can play the song along with the Soundslice player. You can change the tempo to practice it slower before building up to full speed. You can turn off one or more parts of a multi-part composition and essentially make your own karaoke track.
Because I notated parts of the song that I cannot technically play yet, I am practicing with Soundslice so that I can become fluent in those parts. If I want to play the song with someone else, I’ll be able to point them at the soundslice file so they can learn their part.
It was useful to have the song documented in Soundslice at my lesson with Kevin. We discussed the structure and the lyrics, and generated ideas for additional instrumentation. Unfortunately, with Soundslice’s free tier, we were unable to export it from Soundslice into Guitar Pro, so Kevin couldn’t easily add his ideas.
I am able to share the Soundslice file publicly. See below for the link to the song in Soundslice.
Pros and cons of Soundslice
Still wondering if you should spend time and money on notation software? Here’s some further pros and cons of working with Soundslice’s free tier.
- Intuitive interface – The user interface of Guitar Pro and Soundslice seem similar. This is the first music transcription software I have used and I was able to notate a song within a day.
- Transcribe via tab or on the staff – It was easy to transcribe the fingerings from the ukulele into the tab. Soundslice automatically positioned the corresponding notes on the staff. You don’t have to read treble or bass clef to write music.
- Create backing tracks – Not only can I create a lyric/voice line and a ukulele line, I can also add into additional instruments. The Soundslice player can play those backing tracks while I sing and play the uke, creating counter rhythms, harmonies and a fuller sound.
- Sharing – Even with the free tier, I can author an unlimited amount of songs and share them globally.
- Requires basic knowledge of music notation – You’ll want to know the symbols for eighth, quarter, half, and whole notes and rests. The good thing is that you will get immediate feedback and will learn quickly through trial and error.
- Notation does not capture nuance – You can put as much effort as you like into recording accidentals, like ritard, decrescendos, accents, bending notes, etc. For me, this was more effort than it was worth. I just wanted a basic outline of the song.
- Computerized playing – The Soundslice player sounds like a computer. It has a variety of instruments, but you are not going to mistake it for live music. At some point, I’d like to record myself singing and playing my songs. The paid tiers allow synching a YouTube video to the playback so I may explore that in the future.
- No export – The free tier does not allow exporting the sheet music you create to an external tool like Guitar Pro, or printing the music to PDF.
- Share publicly or not at all – You need to share the music with everyone or no one. I would have liked feedback from Kevin prior to sharing it globally, but I need to upgrade to a paid tier to do that.
- Can’t change an instrument – I created a track with as a ukulele instrument when I meant for it to contain a voice line. I wasn’t able to change the instrument voice. I would have had to rewrite the track.
- Online only – There is no offline mode so you need to be connected to the internet to author or playback slices.
Although it looks like the cons outnumber the pros, many of the cons can be fixed by upgrading to a paid tier. Soundslice is a promising tool, but before I buy it, I want to try out a few more tools.
Overall, I am sold on using notation software as part of my songwriting process. The overall effort from start to finish is not much more than writing a song in Notepad. The benefits of improvising while writing, and then having a track I can practice with, and share with other people, outweigh the work it takes to notate.
If you’re writing songs just for journaling, you may find this method overkill. If you like to fill your journals and then burn them, you won’t need to apply this level of rigor to your songwriting. You have reaped the benefits just by writing the song. Let the winds of time erase it like a Zen sand garden. But, if you’re a pack rat like me, or you think someday you might want to share it with someone else, you may thank yourself for writing your song down in a way that it can be fully remembered.
Here’s a link to my song, Two Trees, in Soundslice. Click on the play button to hear it the Soundslice player.
How do you document your songs? What are your favorite songwriting tools?