Produced by

Beck's Sheet Music Album Is So Nineteenth Century

The shape-shifting musician’s next release is his most unlistenable yet. Literally.

Thursday, August 09, 2012 - 02:21 PM

Well this one had us momentarily scratching our heads. On Wednesday, Beck announced that his next album will come not as a compact disc, nor as a set of downloadable tracks. Not even as platter of 180 gram vinyl. No, the next release from the shape-shifting musician will be his most unlistenable yet. Beck Hansen's Song Reader is a 20-song collection of sheet music -- all unrecorded, unreleased material, and “an experiment in what an album can be at the end of 2012.”

Now, it's certainly not the first time Beck has experimented with distribution of his own music. In the four years since Beck's last full length record, Modern Guilt, he's remained especially prolific as a producer, as well as devoted himself to a host of interesting projects: from his web-based Record Club covers project to making music for video games. But the Song Reader (to be released by publishing house McSweeney's) takes his trademark playfulness and experimentation to the next level. 

Set for release in December 2012, (just in time for prime family-gathering season), the collection will look back to the days before recorded sound, when the only way to hear music was to cluster around the piano or take to the porch with a banjo for a group sing. And, that seems to be one of the missions of the project: “bringing [the songs] to life depends on you.”

It seems like such a novel (or novelty?) release, complete with hardcover carrying case, and artwork by Marcel Dzama and others. But it’s easy to see how something so old-timey could receive a most 21st century update.

To get some perspective, I called up Jonathan Hiam, curator of the American Music Collection and The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at New York Public Library. He knows his sheet music -- next to the Library of Congress, the NYPL has the largest collection of sheet music in the world (around 500,000 pieces), dating back to the 1750s. The heyday of sheet music in America, he told me, was in the mid to late 19th century, when it was all about parlour music: middle class households gathering around a piano. More than song books, individual sheets of music were a major business -- sold at department store counters, and through periodicals and publications like Ladies Home Journal or Godey’s Lady’s Book, which included music for popular ballads, waltzes and polkas in every issue.

I asked Hiam if he thought the collection from Beck might inspire a resurgence of parlour-style music making (particularly in light of the recent news that so many upright pianos are turning up in dumps and junkyards). He was doubtful, telling me he expected that the “party would go online.”

Once the Song Reader drops, fans and fellow musicians can submit their versions online. Perhaps we'll even hear some of these songs recorded by Beck himself. And who knows, he could even get his own entry in the NYPL sheet music collection.

And then maybe he'll answer the question we've all been asking: When's the next Beck record?


More in:

Comments [13]


Oh, and Rich: Good job! You've got a new fan.

I can't see a downside for this. People will realize that actually playing music takes time and discipline. I have many friends who will really take to this idea, and December is a great time to do it - just sit inside with friends and sing.

People used to entertain each other by reading poetry - not just their own but from books. Poetry! One of the least techie forms of art! Maybe authors can take a page from this and release books to be read aloud.

I found out about this while stewing about Amanda F*cking Future Of Music Palmer's more... shall we say, problematic use of fans on her tour, and it just seems like a much more democratic way of involving fans. This gives me hope.

Sep. 16 2012 10:51 PM

And the gold medal for pretentiousness goes to Beck!!!!
His next venture: A restaurant with no food, just recipes."

Yes, because nobody ever buys cookbooks.

Sep. 16 2012 10:12 PM
Rich Thomsen from Minneapolis, MN

I love this idea and can't wait to try the rest of them in the winter. I cranked up the tempo and got out the electric guitar for a different take on Do We? We Do!

Aug. 29 2012 08:50 PM

An editorial in The Independent:
While not quite in the same class as John Cage's 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence, Andy Warhol's empty sculpture stand or Gianni Motti's blank white canvases, rock musician Beck's decision to release his latest album only as a collection of 20 pieces of sheet music constitutes something more than artistic eccentricity.

An ironic commentary on music in the post-Napster, post-file sharing, post-Spotify era? Perhaps. But it is nonetheless difficult to shake off the feeling that his fans are being short-changed by an album he has not even bothered to record.
For all platinum-selling Beck's penchant for postmodern twists, there are limits to the insight that art is as much about the observer as the artist. Maybe the plan is only to offer his own, definitive version once YouTube has filled up with fans' versions. The only question will be, will he turn up at the gig?

Aug. 29 2012 07:00 AM

Ha. I love how some of the comments suggest it's pretentious to ask your audience (particularly your guitar-musician audience) to actually know how to read music. Guess you're not that much of a musician after all.



Aug. 14 2012 05:48 PM
Ted in Atlanta from a bit behind

sorry but that is f'ing brilliant! that guy is mindblowingly creative.

Aug. 13 2012 12:43 AM
Bill Sample from Vancouver

I think it's a brilliant bit of business. Requires that music consumers need the skill of reading music. Means hiring more music teachers, means employing more music transcribers, means making the musical experience a family thing and putting it back into the living room, means turning off the TV, getting off the iPad, keeping those pianos out of the dump, and making music personal again. I'm all for it.

Aug. 11 2012 03:29 PM
Max Miller from New York

I think this is such an awesome idea! I've recorded a version of "Do We? We Do" based on the picture above. To hear the new Beck song, go here!

Aug. 11 2012 12:48 PM
notnicolajames from UK

Beck is either brilliant or a mixture between arrogant and ignorant. On the one hand I’m intrigued. It can turn into an exciting exchange between musicians interpreting his songs, probably on youtube. Anyone can try to create their own version instead of just covering what you hear from the CD. Musician’s creativity will lead to vastly different ‘feels’ of the songs, unlimited by a recorded version they have to live up to.

On the other hand I don’t like that Beck’s release will create exclusion. Many musicians don’t read sheet music (I only started learning it end of last year). I wonder if someone will go ahead and translate it into tabs? That won’t be able to re-create the rhythm though. Also, and this bothers me most, does Beck only want musicians and musically trained fans to enjoy his music?

Help me decide if I should buy the song reader or not:

Aug. 11 2012 07:38 AM
shireen from london

I think it's bloody brilliant! popular music has become such a disposable commodity, I think it's a fantastic way invite engagement.

Aug. 10 2012 03:39 PM
The Miff from Brazil

This could actually be a brilliant, forward idea. There are many great musicians out there who don't get exposure. Many of them go on YouTube and do covers of well-known songs to get that exposure.

Now imagine, for those of us who don't read sheet music but want to hear the album... we go to YouTube, search "Beck sheet music", and we hear talented musicians doing their own versions... and no two titles sound the same!

Great for the listener and talented artists looking for exposure, but not so good for Beck's bank account.

Aug. 10 2012 12:54 PM
Billy Rob from NYC

And the gold medal for pretentiousness goes to Beck!!!!
His next venture: A restaurant with no food, just recipes.
More at:

Aug. 10 2012 12:30 PM

Isn't this what classical music has always done?

Aug. 09 2012 10:20 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.


About The Soundcheck Blog

Get hot takes and deep dives from John Schaefer and the rest of the Soundcheck crew, as fast as sound travels.