Musical research is an incredibly important aspect of growing as a musician. We’re already subconsciously absorbing information when we listen to music—even if it’s in the background. Documenting what we’re hearing can really solidify what we take away from the listening experience.
As musicians, we are sound. Everything we hear influences us, but the way we collect sounds can resemble how we might collect receipts for tax purposes: They’re just scattered all over the place. If that’s the case, when April comes around you suddenly wish you had a system for finding your receipts, organized by category, in one central location.
Our musical minds are similar to our households at tax time. You hear so many musical ideas but they’re completely unorganized. I started thinking about how to categorize my favorite musical ideas because I wanted to collect and record what I found influential. This led me to musical journaling.
The Musical Journal
My musical journal is a notebook where I write down musical ideas that I find appealing. I don’t make full song transcriptions. Instead, I highlight small phrases, a progression, or other details about a song. I make notes about how they work and what I like about them.
It’s less a personal Real Book and more of a recipe book. When most musicians transcribe, they often notate much longer sections or ideas. My musical journals are filled with smaller snapshots.
My goal is to have a physical reference of ideas that inspire and appeal to me. I consult the journal when I need to play a certain style of music or jump-start some creativity. Musical styles tend to have specific elements and if you want to get deep into a style, you must get good at recognizing its traits.
For instance, I have a journal on punk music. It includes notes on my favorite punk songs from the Buzzcocks, the Clash, the Ramones, the Germs, the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and Black Flag, to name just a few. When I need to play a punk gig or session, or want to compose in that style, I’ll go through my punk journal to see what progressions or chord shapes are common. Punk music uses a lot of full barre chords. If you play the right punk chords with the wrong voicings, it won’t sound like punk.
Back to organization. I keep a different journal for each style of music I’m researching. I have one for funk that includes songs by the Meters, Funkadelic, and Sly Stone. I have another for blues with research on Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White, Muddy Waters, and others.
Because I listen to and am asked to play different styles of music, my research tends to be broad. Although I would encourage you to listen to many different types of music, it’s not necessary to journal about everything you hear.
Here are just a few examples of things I like to include in my journals.
Many musicians don’t make notes on song tempos, yet the tempo is incredibly important to the feel of a song. Changing a tempo by merely 2 bpm can greatly alter its sound and feel. If you study a specific style of music, you may also notice that a lot of it lives in a tempo neighborhood. Being aware of this can deepen your playing. In Fig. 1, you can see a page out of my journal about a song called “Western Dream.”
When researching styles of music, you will find similar chord cycles. Musical styles are like families, and chord progressions typically have a direct relationship to other songs in that genre. You’ll see a lot of I–IV–V progressions in the blues, for example.
Guitar riffs also tend to get recycled. As with chord progressions, it might not be the identical riff, but it may sit in a similar position and use a closely related collection of notes.
Understanding these riff positions or collections is important. For instance, I’ve seen a lot of guitarists who study blues play the correct notes, but in the wrong position. Why does this matter? For one thing, the note’s timbre can be different, depending on what string it’s played on. For another, the position and fingering give you access to certain expressions like bends, hammer-ons, and pull-offs.
When I’m journaling, I note the position the riff is played in (Fig. 2). And it may vary considerably from where I play a similar riff in a different genre.