How to notate a song when you don’t read music THIS IS FULL OF SWEARING and why not


originally drafted December 22



Question number one! Why can’t I just sing my song into an app on my phone and have it transcribed.

Answer number one: because you don’t produce pure tones and the overtones in your voice confuse the hell out of the software. You’ll be asked to input the song on a keyboard, oh goody. If you’ve found an app that works, be sure and tell me, I haven’t seen one yet.

Question number two: Is there any other way of doing this that doesn’t involve so much work?

Answer number two. Sure, you can see if somebody at one of those Mechanical Turks sites like Fiverr will do it for you after you send them an MP3. Who knows how much it might cost. This way has the distinct advantage of being under your control, even if it’s slow.

Beginneth the lesson

Sheet music gives a specific and replicable understanding of what notes, rests and intervals occur during a melody, or in the instrumental accompaniment for a melody, aka a tune, a song, an air.

Sheet music is always approximate. Don’t let snobs sit for free in your musical creativity and poison it just because you can’t read music or easily write it. The map is not the territory and the live performer gets the last note. It’s a memory aid for you as well as a hard copy for the world and it means that you’re serious about sharing your music in certain platforms.

but if your music is never written down that just means you’re not participating in a colonial musical methodology which does not take all aspects of culture and performance into significance as it is recorded

There is no dispute in my heart either way. I can see both views as valid, and others besides. 

In order to get specific to be able to convey this to someone else, you need to know at the outset:

The beats per minute

the key

the time signature

For the beats per minute, you sing the song aloud while tapping this. Sing at least one whole verse of the song so you get a solid average.

So for example the “Way up in the Sky” song is 118 bpm.

The key is a little harder. Unless you specifically do a key change in the middle of the song, like the G to A in the middle of Barry Manilow’s classic “Can’t Smile Without You” which may God kick my brains to the curb was the first key change song I could think of, thank you classic AM radio from the 70s, OR you do something bizarre in the last bar of the song which throws this trick off, there is a very simple way to tell what key your song is in.  Sing the song to the end and the last note the song is on is either the key the song is in or part of the major chord (or minor chord) of the key the song is in. I am assuming if you’ve gotten this far you can tell the difference between a minor and a major song by ear.

ACK BUT HOW DO I TELL what KEY it is in. Go to the website with guitar chords, and strum around until the last chord sounds right. Play with it until you’re virtually plucking the right note – the last note of your song. The strings, as you move the chords or the virtual capo up and down, change in value so you can record the notes.

While you’re there, you can figure out which guitar chords go along with the song you wrote and strum like you know what you’re doing, it’s very satisfying. All those chords your sausage fingers will never play, bwa ha ha ha ha !!!! 

Those B chords you will never play. Sigh. Anyway.

So you know how fast you’re going and what key you’re in. Now you have to figure out the time signature. I won’t lie, this is not my favourite part. But we’ll get through it.

If you can count four, you’re in four (one two three four). If you can count two, you’re in two (one two one two one two – literally the two step rhythm, or as I like to call it with all the sarcasm in my flabby corpus, ‘white man’s rhythm’.) Everybody knows what waltz time sounds like, one two three, one two three. If you can count ticketa-ticketa-ticketa you’re in six-eight. If you have anything more complicated than that, you’re probably a legitimate musician or grew up with them, and so I must ask you to leave or at least avert your eyes. TFO as the kids say these days when they’re feeling dismissively hostile. Well it’s your fault, professional musicians, you did make a big divide between us, and let’s not start with how badly things are taught in school. If at all.

You didn’t come here for that, did you. Not my immense, intense, pignosed raging fucking anger at the various missteps of my life, not all of which were my goddamned fault. But you came here to be educated, so by Christ you’re gonna get it.

Virtually every filk song ever written is in four four, so if you can count four you’re okay writing it down in four four time.

So there you are. Now you can open a file in a music notation software program like Musenote or Finale and tell it that you want to enter a song. You only want one clef, most likely, unless you sing bass. Tell it the key, the BPM if requested, and the time signature. It’ll ask for a bunch of other stuff, choose the defaults for the rest.


When you first start singing a song, you take a breath, sing a note or a couple of notes and then you hit a downbeat. The ONE in the One two three four. So if you are like me the first time you start writing songs down (awful, obvious hint, don’t be, you will feel sorry for yourself like unto draping black crepe on things) you will somehow miss the obvious-to-every-one else fact that every bar of a song in four four time is a bucket for four beats, and you have to get the right number of beats in the bucket or the entire song notation process runs off the rails.

I am easily frustrated and emotionally sit around seven or eight years old most of the time and mother of babbling bozoids but this was the worst part. The worst worst worst part for me. I could not get it right. If I hadn’t had a playback function on the software I never would have gotten it right, and you may find yourself in the same situation; or there may be other cognitive tripwires along the path to writing a song down.

So figure out how many notes / beats go in the ‘not full’ bar at the beginning of the song, and then you can reasonably divvy up the rest of them without chasing your tail/tails for the next thirty bars. Most melodies fit in thirty-one bars. Does the presence of such a slippery prime number, squatting like a garden toad in the middle of your song, not disturb you? I know it disturbs me, but apart from comparing my feelings to a garden toad, how am I supposed to convey that? Is it art?

Anyhoo, with few exceptions, the math for any song in four four always has something left over, and the leftover bits are actually at the beginning of the song, and it’s so you can breathe. Sixers don’t have to breathe so their songs sound anatomically improbable.

Okay, you’re now having to master entering notes and rests and getting notes to go past the end of bars with those funny swoopy lines as you’re typing in the notes. It’s terrifying, and I didn’t tell you anything useful about it, so you’ll be feeling grumpy because I’ve left you all alone with this software you downloaded.

It can be very useful at this point to back off and get as much of the contents of the bars – those buckets I mentioned earlier, as clear as you can before you start learning how to enter the notes with. In other words, break the two tasks down so that you know how many notes are going in each bar before you assign a value (note) to them in entry. This will also prevent you from making two different mistakes at the same time while you’re entering the notes. 

Then, very tediously figure out what the first note is in relation to the last note (which gave you the key). Chordbook or a keyboards that show the note as you play are useful here, and where it the beat is so that the first note in the second bar is on the downbeat. 

Playback allows you to tell if the notes are in the wrong place and the wrong value; you will be very sick of the song by the time you’re done. Depending on verses and chorus and spoken parts it will take an hour or two to finish it the first time, so pace yourself and stay hydrated, it can be frustrating.

Usually a 4/4 song with a short chorus is 31 bars long.