More Adventures in Sheet Music

A Follow Up

One of the reasons I knew it was time to have a blog of my own was the many responses I would get when I would ask a question or present information on Facebook. So it is with the first entry of this forum. People are certainly fascinated by sheet music and welcomed my mini-history of the medium, particularly as many musicians don’t track down the original sheets, and learn songs either by transcribing them or via a fakebook. Although much of the following has either appeared in Facebook responses or the Jazz Research list, it doesn’t hurt to restate these things here.

Allan Chase of Berklee College had some questions which I would like to address. He asks, “Could you go into more depth about the sources of the piano arrangements and harmonizations?”

As I stated in the article, before the sheet music industry published ‘off-the-record’ versions matching the hit version of a song, sheets were usually prepared by a staff or free-lance arranger writing a piano/vocal arrangement sourced from a lead sheet supplied by the writer of the song, or the lead sheet might be supplied by a staff arranger/music preparation person at a movie studio. Back then, a song could only be copyrighted if it was actually written down in music notation; the copyright law read that the song had to exist in ‘tangible form,’ and that was the form in which it could be accepted.

Up until the late 1950s, harmonies that had alterations might have been simplified via the chord frames, but would still be represented correctly in the piano arrangement. When writing for big bands, diminished chords were often used in guitar and piano parts instead of chord names with alterations; a G diminished chord might be used instead of a C7b9 as an example, which would make sense since the bass (or baritone sax) would be covering the root of the chord anyway. Arrangers became adept at substituting diminished chords in such situations. Gil Evans was a master at this, and his use of diminished chords can be easily seen now in his scores for Claude Thornhill; Jazz Lines Publications has now prepared several of them from original sources, and we’ve cleaned up the note errors.

As far as I know, most pop songwriters had nothing to do with the actual preparation of sheet music, although composers of Broadway shows such as Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and Berlin did. Berlin played his songs to a musical transcriber who prepared the arrangements for sheets; Helmy Kresa did this from 1926 on (Kresa composed the song “That’s My Desire” and also wrote the piano arrangement for the sheet of “All of Me.”). Whenever I spoke with a songwriter who was active during the 30s and 40s, all of them were pretty happy with the sheet music of their songs. They most likely knew and/or worked with the arrangers who prepared them. Most of this was done in New York, and there were a lot of arrangers preparing a lot of music for publishers and radio shows.

I am not aware of instances where the publisher altered the composer’s harmony, although it certainly might have happened. As stated before, the arrangers often knew the songwriters.

Mr. Chase continues, “Around the early 1990s, I noticed the individual sheet music I would buy at Colony started to reflect jazz practice and not be the same as the vintage, original sheet music. For example, I have versions of “All the Things You Are” with different chords….or “Body and Soul” in C vs. Db with old and newer changes.”

I oversaw sheets of vintage songs at Warner Bros. Publications during the period Mr. Chase discusses, and we NEVER issued sheets where we changed the harmony to make it more ‘hip’ when I was there, even though we might have re-engraved them if the only original was in poor condition. I do remember “Body and Soul” issued in different keys from an earlier period, and that did happen every once in awhile if the song became a hit and a different key was requested. As for “All the Things You Are,” certain songs were ‘protected,’ meaning that a print publisher would not license them to another print publisher except under certain circumstances. Anything by Jerome Kern certainly qualified; Berlin did not license songs for mixed folios under any circumstances. We did not control “All the Things…”, hence I have no idea what another print publisher did with it or to it. I know that Jerome Kern was meticulous about his sheet music; anything published of his in his lifetime was overseen and approved by him, and I can guarantee that he would have been quite angry about his harmony being altered in a P/V sheet.

What I did do was change things like minor 6th chords to reflect the actual harmony as written in the piano arrangement. An example would be a Gm6 with an E in the bass, which was clearly an Em7b5 chord, especially if it was going to a form of an A7. I changed hundreds of those. Every once in awhile, we would hear from a songwriter who wanted to make a correction in a sheet that he/she was never happy with (I cited my conversation with Gordon Lightfoot in the original posting). I suspect that this was the case with Burt Bacharach, which Mr. Chase cites as a composer where only one book of his music “seems like Burt’s arrangements to me - much more complex and composerly, and harder to read and play.” Bacharach may never have seen his sheet music when it was first published, or didn’t pay much attention to it, and then decided to fix the songs to reflect what he actually wanted. Having worked with him to prepare the “Theme from ‘Arthur’” and “That’s What Friends are For,” I can attest that he was fastidious. Mike Stoller spent the better part of a day with arranger/editor Ethan Neuburg going over new versions of his many songs with Jerry Lieber for a new folio of his music we published. I continue to be full of pride thinking of the many wonderful composers whose music we brought to sheet music life, or finally fixed long-standing issues which made the composers happy.

Something interesting about keys of songs….When Linda Ronstadt recorded her three albums of standards with Nelson Riddle, WB obtained the folio rights, and since they did not want us to contact Nelson to get copies of the scores, we were on our own to transcribe them. These albums became advanced ear training courses, with Anthony Esposito, Dave Jessie, Ethan Neuburg and myself at the piano going over each arrangement very slowly; the ensemble was originally mixed so that it was almost equal in volume with the vocal but Ronstadt didn’t like this, so they were re-mixed with the ensemble softer, making them trickier to discern. We didn’t have the computer programs to make life easier back then, so we had to use our ears and an open-reel tape machine running at 15 IPS. The books sold many thousands of copies, and one day I found out why. A performer at a piano bar told me that FINALLY these songs were published in keys that were perfect for female singers, and they were playing and singing them right off the page. Nelson’s arrangements were heard all over the world in this manner.

“How can we trace the original versions?” One must track down the original publication, something easier to do because many original sheets have been scanned and are available through the internet through such sources as Internet Archive.

“I’d love to know more details about how non-reading writers who use relatively complex harmony (Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, Rickie Lee Jones come to mind) get their music into print.”

The answer is simple: an arranger transcribes them off the record. During the time when Joni Mitchell recorded her classic albums, someone would record the vinyl onto a tape running at high speed so that it could be played back slower to get the bass line. The transcriber usually sat a piano or with a guitar and played the music over and over until the right melody and harmony were found; if you think those artists were challenging to transcribe, Prince was one of the most difficult. Mitchell’s album “Mingus” was produced by our editorial team. There may have been lead and/or lyric sheets, but I honestly don’t remember. Those arrangements most likely went out for approval; I believe Sy Johnson went over them.

It goes without saying that reading music has nothing to do with hearing sophisticated harmony in one’s inner ear. Robert Russell Bennett transcribed songs for Irving Berlin, and if a harmony was in doubt, several choices would be played to him. He knew the right chord immediately once he heard it. Wilson is a brilliant musician who can sing or play parts and orchestrates that way; that’s how “Pet Sounds” was conceived and executed. Frank Sinatra also had an acute sense of what he wanted. When meeting with Nelson Riddle to tell him how he wanted his arrangements to sound, he might have asked for an introduction similar to a work by Brahms, or even an operatic aria; he loved and knew ‘classical’ music. Sinatra proved that he was an excellent conductor who could negotiate rubato passages and dynamics as well or better than a lot of conductors who studied for years.

The Real Book has a purpose - to provide more harmonic choices based on what musicians have played or can play, but if one is going to be serious about learning songs, one should at least search out the original versions. Then the artist is on his or her own.