Beck Hansen's Song Reader

Yeah, the Flaming Lips have found some unusual ways to present their music — headphone concerts, Zaireeka — but man, they’ve got nothing on Beck. Beck Hansen’s Song Reader, the follow-up to the man’s Grammy-nominated Modern Guilt, will only be available as sheet music. According to Becks new, um, label (?), McSweeney’s:

Song Reader is an experiment in what an album can be at the end of 2012 — an alternative that enlists the listener in the tone of every track, and that’s as visually absorbing as a dozen gatefold LPs put together. The songs here are as unfailingly exciting as you’d expect from their author, but if you want to hear “Do We? We Do,” or “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard,” bringing them to life depends on you.

As someone whose musical facilities range somewhere between garden-variety tone-deafness and appalling ineptitude, I won’t be able to review this one. Here’s some more info: The 20-song album will be released in December and will feature original art from Marcel Dzama, an introduction by Jody Rosen, a foreword by Beck, and “when necessary, ukelele notation.” Some renditions of the songs performed by readers and select musicians will be featured on McSweeney’s site.

Beck - Song Reader

So is this a genuinely cool act of defiance in a musical landscape increasingly littered with disposable MP3s? Or the most pretentious thing since Metal Machine Music? Tell us in the comments.

Comments (150)
  1. this eliminates so many people from being able to participate in the music except by various recording of likely dubious quality. This would be ok for a couple of songs, but for an album that we’ve all been looking forward to for so long?

  2. Finally, I can take my love of Beck’s music, and put it with my love of practicing an instrument I can’t play to learn songs I can’t hear!

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  4. I really love this idea. If you don’t have an instrument to play these songs with, maybe this could be motivation to try to learn one? To me the album is a cool way to let audiences be part of the creative process. Because the songs will never have any pinned down interpretation, they’ll live forever in a way. It could be that this ends up a silly novelty, but there’s the potential for something cool and special.

  5. file:///C:/Users/Doug/Desktop/Downloads/Gifs/tumblr_m72ngm9Jc21qf8nkzo1_400.gif

  6. Surely he *must* have recorded the songs himself too, no? And he’ll release his versions a little aftewards, that’s what I’m guessing. I love this idea though. With all the talk of how record labels from the physical age of music are adapting to the digital age, Beck is harking back yet further to marry the print age and the digital age.

    This sort of collaborative approach to music making, between artist and fan, is going to become more common. But, whereas Bjork sidelined everyone without an iPad, Beck is sidelining everybody who isn’t musical. So long as these innovations are in any way exclusive, they’re not quite hitting the mark. The Internet should be about inclusivity, not exclusivity.

    • Right, but I think it will be very difficult to make something that’s completely inclusive without sacrificing certain qualities.

      • The other thing is that there’s something aspirational about this sidelining. If you love Beck, this might make you want to take up an instrument, which as someone who plays piano I can tell you is a wonderful experience. Bjork’s album…kind of makes me want an iPad? Ehhhhh…

        • That’s a good point. I play too, and if this can encourage more to pick up, or sit at, an instrument, that can only be a good thing.

          • Yeah, I’m half expecting him to release his own versions at some point, but hopefully he’ll wait long enough to allow other people time to learn this stuff and let it disseminate.

            As far this not being inclusive, I don’t entirely agree–yes, those who aren’t musically inclined are going to have a different experience than everyone else, but it’s not as if there is going to be a lack of these songs on the internet. So we don’t get to experience them the way we’re accustomed to right away, but that’s one of the things that I find so interesting about this, that it’s breaking down the connection modern music has built up over the last 70 or so years where the way a song is meant to be heard is how the original performer (generally speaking) does it. And that right there is part of the experience than anyone on the internet can partake in.

            Also, for the people complaining about how the only versions of these song for us to hear, I would be really surprised if more well known musicians did not take on learning at least one or two of these songs, posting them, and/or playing them live.

          • Yeah I started playing piano because of Beck. No wait, no I didn’t. Because I don’t have/can’t afford a piano, instrument, or lessons. So thanks Beck for making me feel like a poor ass. At least Bjork ALSO released her version of the album.

            I suppose he doesn’t owe me anything, but I would hesitate to call this a cool move on Beck’s part.

    • I’m guessing a “Live” album or something similar.

    • “The Internet should be about inclusivity, not exclusivity.”


      Beck’s album is not the internet.

    • “Exclusivity” started with the fans excluding the artists from being paid by file sharing. It’s just come around on them as artists search for ways to continue to make art, and be paid for their work.

    • you don’t have to record music to write music. i used to live with a guy who wrote an entire symphony inside his head straight onto sheet music without every even trying it out on a keyboard first. when it was played by a local orchestra it was stunning. i have started tentatively looking into music theory recently but this is great motivation to get me off my ass and actually learn how to read music.

  7. It’s quite funny that we can describe publishing music in the manner that it has been released for the vast majority of the few thousand years of music history as “unusual”.

    • I was just thinking that. People had to either go to a concert or play the music themselves then.

    • That’s a good point. I wouldn’t say it is the way music was distributed for the vast majority of the past few thousand years, but I would agree that the number of decades when sheet music was *the* way is far greater than the number of decades for which recordings have been dominant.

      • Yeah that’s true. For some reason in my head I was equating sheet music with notated music. In fairness, it’s hardly my fault that the ancient world was so attached to rock or stone tablets. I guess that was probably the fault of the RIAA of the times who likely objected to the move to papyrus… “Tablet copying is killing music”.

    • naw man, your point is not culturally relevant, people think within their own lifetimes making it quite a normal reaction. I get that when you look at it in that contrarian for the lulz point of view it seems funny but thats like saying,

      “Its funny that people think treating the bubonic plague by putting frogs on your skin is ‘unusual’ when thats how they treated it 4eva, silly antibiotics.”

      • Except putting frogs on your skin to treat the bubonic plague won’t work. Sheet music is still music. Recorded music, and mass consumption of it, is less than a century old. The observation that written music strikes us as a foreign way to distribute it, even though sound recording is a relatively new technology, is interesting from a historical perspective. It’s more than a contrarian for the lulz point of view.

        Also, don’t expect anyone to hear you out when you begin an argument by claiming the opposing view is “not culturally relevant”. I get what you’re saying, but everyone will just think you sound like a douche saying it. You probably wouldn’t have gotten downvoted if you didn’t start that way.

    • it’s quite appropriate that the guy sounding like an old man has a profile pic to match.

  8. As crazy as it seems, it will be pretty cool hearing all the versions of the songs that people will put on youtube and whatnot.

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    • There are literally hundreds (thousands?) of people on this earth. I’m sure it’ll happen.

    • I have included and probably always will include Beck as one of my favorite 3 artists. I plan to sit down and learn some of these songs and enjoy doing it. I do not plan to take video or share my attempts.

      I think it is an entertaining, interactive way to engage your fans with your music. I would be disappointed if no physical version of Beck’s recordings of the songs were released, though.

    • Yes and yes. WRONGNESS PROVEN

      Just kidding, my favourite band is the Grammophone.

    • he thinks beck is a band. adorable.

    • Buddy, I’m not even a big fan of Beck, and I’ll make an attempt to learn some of these songs. It’ll be fun. Also, “clever” has little to do with it.

    • Given the example shown above, most moderately-skilled musicians could sight read that.

  10. Beck and the Flaming Lips are caught in a Cosby show B-story between Cliff and Rudy’s tap teacher. After every release I think one calls the other and says “Challenenngeee.”

  11. My favorite Beck album is still the one he recorded in sign language.

  12. This headline might as well read “New Chocolate Cake Only Available as Smell” or “New Sexual Position Only Available as Idea.”

    I could go do this all day.

  13. Well, yeah. Sheet music just sounds “warmer”, you know?

  14. The Fiery Furnaces did this three years ago:

    At least they did it as a statement. Beck is just doing it for kicks.

  15. I hope he makes a superband from all of the music nerds that master this album

  16. Don’t fail me now, 10th grade Music Theory…

  17. When he inevitably performs the songs live will that act ultimately defeat the purpose of this? This is a very cool idea, by the way. I just hope there’s enough time between the release of the music and his eventual performance of the songs to allow for the true vision of our more talented brothers and sisters to flow out across the Youtubes uninfluenced.

    Also, will there be a tab version for us stupids?

  18. if it’s all basic guitar chords, i’ll be ok.

  19. This sucks.

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  21. Personally I’m actually really excited about this. He’ll undoubtedly release his own recordings at some point in the future but I’m looking forward to giving it a go myself.

  22. I love this idea. And I was indifferent about this album until I read this story. I can’t wait to hear different peoples’ versions, and eventually Beck’s own. Pop music could use more bizarre risk-taking.

  23. I will buy this if I can pay with a recording of $15.

  24. Beck is just so fucking bored.

  25. There better be a best of each track comp at the end of this.

  26. “Album of the century!” – Beethoven

  27. can’t wait till beck releases and album of himself “interpreting” this music.

  28. He should release the sheet music exclusively as zipped .svg files.

  29. I was really excited to learn all the songs, but then I got about halfway through and realized that they were all just rearrangements of Thrid Eye Blind hits.

  30. Encourages others to play these and release their own versions.. Someone might have said this since I only skimmed the comments.. But brilliant! Also it could inspire other to pick up a instrument and get cracking on it.

    • I’m hoping there will be an official website for “submissions” (covers?) and perhaps a voting system so the best versions get the most attention. Maybe Beck will even release a compilation of the versions he thinks are the best interpretations.

  31. Can’t we just look at this as ‘Beck is releasing some sheet music for original tunes!’ instead of ‘Becks new album is only on sheet music’ kind of a big difference no? most of the people upset by this seem to be thinking that if Beck writes music, it has to be performed and recorded.

    I think this is a great idea. I was just listening to a podcast today, they were talking about how the definitive recorded song is a relatively new thing, until very recently there was no definitive version. I love the idea that the version you perform or record yourself is just as valid as anyone else’s.

  32. The cellist in me wants to say that this is not an outlandish way to distribute music, but there is a difference between classical-style music and rock music when it comes to scores. Classical music will by and large be played by the same instruments, but rock music (Beck’s music) is so much more tied to the production and the specific artists. I can play a Shostakovich cello sonata and make it sound like a Shostakovich piece, but I could never make this sound like a Beck album.

  33. A recording artist releasing a collection of sheet music through a humor site/publishing company (with, to my knowledge, no prior musical releases)… Does anyone else think this could be a joke? I’m not saying Beck didn’t put some songs on paper, but this is obviously not an ‘album.’

  34. Record a real album ya lazy hippie!

  35. Beck’s a composer now. This is cool. I’m sure he’ll release his own versions, maybe alongside some of the best interpretations and recordings of fans. What and idea!

  36. Can’t wait for the tour.

  37. I’m being a bit too serious I guess, but this news (be it gimmick or foresight or madness on Beck’s part) made me think how wonderfully happy this would make a music fan who has lost his/her hearing, assuming he or she has learned to read sheet music previously. More musicians should do this.

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  38. As someone who does lots of home recording as a hobby I think this is super cool, but if I was a big Beck fan and looking forward to his new work I’d be a little bummed. Kind of like how I am now as a big Flaming Lips fan. (It’s all fun stuff but nothing can compare to a cohesive album of great tunes. I’m thankful for the output all the same though.) Regardless, it’ll be a fun experiment I think and it will be cool to see people put their own spins on this material.

    And it looks to me that to actually play the songs you’ll need to recruit a band, rather than just learn to play an instrument. Unless they’re all solo acoustic or piano tunes or you plan on being a multi-instrumentalist.

  39. Came to Stereogum to confirm that this story is not an article posted by The Onion.

  40. The best thing about music (and any art, really) is when it’s as inaccessible as possible.

    Since when did Beck become an asshole?

  41. Check out my version of “Do We? We Do” , based on that page in the picture!!

  42. If it was from a mainstream artist/musician who only had a couple of straight forward released under their belt I might call shenanigans. But this is Beck, and Beck has always been “weird” and “artsy”. The fact that “Loser” was a huge hit was a fluke and Beck knew that. “Two Turntables and Microphone” could even be seen as him making fun of that fact. Most everything he’s ever done when taken as a whole can EASILY be seen as one giant sonic experiment (“from the guy who did that ‘Loser’ song”). So Beck releasing an album as a Song Book doesn’t seem like any big deal to me. I mean, I’m sure the guy has a ton of other songs ready to be released in a more listenable manner, anyway.

    Now, whether or not you find random people, both unknown and famous, recording those songs and posting them to various video sites around teh internets interesting is a more subjective conversation. Personally, I do. But I can also see where some people might hear something and say, “Man, I wish I could hear Beck do this song himself.”

  43. sure the has to be an app that can play this right?

  44. i’m seeing problems with this release.
    the point of putting out a record is so people can hear it. not everyone is a talented musician.
    as far as the people who can read and play the music, a cover of a song doesnt do much unless you know what it is your covering. just seems pointless to release without the audio.
    i do love intricate album art and liner notes though, so i give 2 thumbs up on that level, it looks awesome, i want to have it, but i also want to hear it.

    will he play it live on tour? hope so.

  45. Yo, just want you all to know that IMPORT JR. has music reading SKILLZ TO NOT NEARLY AFFORD ANY BILLS AT ALL OBVIOUSLY but will be recording the entire LP.

    Our music has been praised by Thurston Moore and Max Tundra when we recorded under a different name. So haters please stick around because criticism and audience interaction is essential to, well, communicating, which includes making sure the “language of music” is being translated properly and isn’t just like a mess or lazy or unengaging ’cause it’s just pastiche with no consciousness of how language and music has evolved since whatever era they’re pillorying.

    Also will announce IMPORT JR RECORDS release of L.O.C.S. MUSIC (Lowering Our Common Standards Music) first compilation LP, CAN YE featuring multiple contributors literally from several different countries.

    Google our shit as Goodbye The Band. We were featured on a classical music blog ’cause we really like melodies.

    Anyway … DEFLATE HEAD. I’m really excited about this and will be trying hard to actually make good recordings out of these songs, if possible.

    Can Ye Jest
    Import Jr. Industries
    a subsidy of Goodbye The Band Liquor

  46. this is awesome! welcome back to the 19th century everybody, at time in which, if you wanted to hear music, you had to learn to fucking play it yourself(!) or get a friend to play it for you or hire a court musician or go out somewhere and appreciate the real living flesh and blood talent of human beings who put their time and heart and sweat and energy into learning how to play an instrument, not a fucking iPod!
    kudos to you Beck, I will definitely be buying this!!

  47. First, I would like to thank everyone for just having this debate; “Everyone” including Beck, to musicians, to music appreciators, to music usurpers. It has been interesting to watch this conversation develop, as it’s a discussion which is in dire need of having.

    Releasing an LP of sheet music is a great idea for a variety of reasons: Foremost of which, is that it challenges the value of music. In an age where music is still consumed, but has been reduced to 0 value as a commodity, any attempt to revalue Art is welcomed in my book. Our cultures value/consumption of music is anomalous to be sure. Historically, if a product (or service) had no value, the reason was lack of demand. One could use lamplighters, or chimney sweeps as an example. No so with music. The demand is HUGE, but the value is low. Why? Because everyone feels entitled to it, and therefor steals it. This one particular point of the debate is objective; taking something which belongs to someone else without compensation or dispensation is theft.

    The notion of entitlement, in this instance, has been challenged by making the product inaccessible to those who don’t understand the delivery method. Brilliant. This leaves the individual with one of a few options. One: buy the sheet music and play it . Two: learn to read sheet music. Three: Pay someone with knowledge of reading music to play it. Four: Don’t engage this record. Stealing the record from a torrent is conspicuously absent. Only valuing the commodity in some way shape or form is left as an option.

    There is no “app to play this”, and the point of the record is not “so you can hear it.” The intention is to illustrate how we (as a culture) mindlessly, and carelessly, consume that which isn’t ours, with no regard for the Artist, or how we impact the industry. Perhaps some of the people who “don’t get it”, may be demystified if it were applied to a different commodity which is more highly valued. How about we start to steal all the clothes we want, devalue the market to the point of collapse, and then only sewing patterns were available. How about instead of buying a home, we start forcing construction workers to work for free (because they love construction work so much!), devalue the industry to the point of collapse, until only old blueprints were available. How about instead of watching TV, we all steal someone else’s signal, devalue the industry to the point of collapse, and had to READ a book. Making a dent?

    If you care about Art, or music, or business, or ethics, support this (and other) projects. Buy a record…the whole thing! Don’t stream it on Spotify! Buy the whole damn thing; maybe even the CD!!! Value the things about which you care. Remember that you vote every time you purchase anything. Please vote for music!!!

    • I think this is a pretentious move on Beck’s part masquerading as “returning music to it’s truest form”. I buy music I like. I own records. Tapes. Etc. I pay for the music I can afford. Holding up the ability to read music as a value judgement is incredibly pompous. By not engaging this record (because I can’t), you’re saying I don’t put value in music? In art? That’s incredibly presumptuous.

      And I was off-put by your statement that the point of this record is not so you can hear it. In what way then is supporting this record supporting music?

      Far be it from me to tell Beck not to do what he wants as an artist – I want to make it clear that I’m not debating that. But what I AM saying is that Beck is a huge asshole for doing this. When you make art inaccessible you’re doing it a disservice. And I’m not talking about stealing music – I understand why it’s important to buy things. But whenever anyone talks about a “musician’s musician” or a “comedian’s comedian” or a “painter’s painter” or an “X’s X” I get annoyed. Why make art at an international level only to make it available/accessible to a handful of people when there are so many others that probably can;t enjoy it that want to?

  48. You’ve missed the point Fern. Accessibility isn’t the issue. There’s actually been an intentional effort made to make it less accessible. You’ve made mass accessibility of Art a virtue, and have imposed that as a virtue on the Artist as well. In this instance, your sense of what ‘virtue’ is, is not shared. To answer your first question; if you choose not to support this record it doesn’t mean you are not supporting the Arts, but you also can’t devalue it. The only options on the table are value it, or walk away…only theft is not an option. Sorry you find an Artist making an effort to revalue the industry pompous. I find your imposition of altruistic virtue on Art and Artist alike to be trite, in a didactically socialist sort of way. The many ways in which this record does re-value music as a commodity have been explained to you, so try a re-read when you’re ready.

    • We can debate whether it’s a pretentious move on Beck’s part all day. Why don’t we all just agree on how pretentious it is to capitalize the “A” in “Art” and “Artist”?

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