October 23rd, 2023Tech Talk

Sheet Music or DAWs: Are Beat Makers Musicians?

Since the advent of technology, the music industry has evolved so much that one could ask: are beat makers musicians?

Music is a testament to human creativity and diversity. From classical compositions in music sheets, to DAW-produced beats, artists continually find new ways to make music and experiment with sound, rhythm and melodies.

There is no one-size-fits-all path or solution when it comes to becoming a musician. Every artist contributes to the industry with their own perspective, creative vision, and technical know-how. But how does a music beat maker measure up compared to classically-trained musicians?

In this article, we discuss the different skill sets and methodologies that both types of artists rely on to make music.

The Historical Context of Sheet Music

Sheet music has existed for hundreds of years, from the ancient Greeks to the medieval and Renaissance periods.

While the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century played an important role in the distribution of written music, sheet music didn't become standardized until the 17th and 18th centuries. Music notation became more refined every new century, helping composers and performers convey music on paper.

Today, sheet music has also been adapted to modern technologies, with tools such as digital scoring and notation software, making the composition process easier. These technological advancements also contributed to the rise of digital audio workstations (DAWs), enabling artists worldwide to edit and mix music digitally.

Sheet Music and DAWs: What Are the Differences?

Let's do a comparative analysis to see the differences between sheet music and DAW compositions.

Understanding Sheet Music

Years before the emergence of digital tools, musicians relied on sheet music to immortalize their art. But what is sheet music? Simply put, it is a written musical language that helps musicians read and interpret a composition. It is based on a complex syntax, including notes, clefs, and rhythmic symbols indicating how the piece should be played.

Classically trained musicians often spend years learning music theory to better read and write sheet music. This methodology is one of the best and most precise ways to translate music onto paper.

Here are some of the main elements of sheet music that you should know about.

  • Staff: the horizontal lines where notes are placed.

  • Notes: the symbols that represent musical pitches. Higher pitches appear higher on the staff, and vice versa. A group of notes creates a melody.

  • Clefs: the symbols that indicate the pitch of the notes. 

  • Bar lines: they organize the music into segments by dividing the staff into bars.

  • Dynamics: a symbol that indicates the intensity of the music, such as piano (soft) and forte (loud).

  • Lyrics: the words that should be sung at specific moments. They are usually written under the staff.

Understanding DAWs

Computers and digital programs completely changed the world as we know it, and the musical industry is no exception. From handwritten to printed sheet music, musicians now have a different way to compose music through DAWs.

A DAW (digital audio workstation) is a software that allows users to record, arrange, and edit music. It combines various tools and functionalities such as:

  • MIDI sequencing: MIDI data allows musicians to control virtual instruments and hardware synthesizers.

  • Editing: tools that help artists manipulate pieces of the 

  • Virtual instruments: built-in instruments such as drums, synthesizers, and samplers to add sound to a piece without the hardware. 

  • Audio effects: various effects such as reverb, compressors, and delays that add depth to sounds.

  • Mastering: a powerful tool that helps prepare the final version for distribution. 

  • Collaboration: features such as live chat and video calls– allow musicians to collaborate remotely without having to be in the same studio.

The popularization of beat-making apps such as Ableton Live, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, and BeatConnect contributed to making music production accessible to thousands of creatives around the world. There is no more need to spend thousands of dollars on studio sessions.

With minimal hardware and a good DAW, any beat maker can make their ideas come to life thanks to technology. This allows a whole new generation of artists and new genres to emerge, harnessing the power of virtual instruments to create new masterpieces. 


Two Different Experiences

Both sheet and digital music are based on music theory and emphasize the importance of structure, melody, harmonies, and rhythm. The main difference between these two composition methods lies in their approach.

Sheet Music

Sheet music provides a tactile experience. It connects the artist directly to their creation as they lay their musical ideas on paper. Composers also need to work with performers to hear the final result of their work. They must provide a standardized sheet so that experienced musicians can easily interpret a composition and play it live.

Finally, sheet music is an amazing educational tool, helping music students learn the basics of music theory. Popular artists such as Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi often use sheet music for their performances.

DAW Music

By using DAWs, musicians can hear their creations as they go. They can adjust tracks, manipulate samples, and add sound effects in a few clicks. These platforms offer unparalleled flexibility. Famous artists such as Deadmou5, Hans Zimmer, and Flume all use DAWs to bring their intricate ideas to life. 

DAW music has also facilitated collaboration across borders and genres, allowing artists from around the world to create unique tracks.

Challenges and Advancements

Sheet music and DAWs both rely on artistry to create transformative masterpieces. From the emotional crescendos of orchestras to the detailed compositions of electronic music, both methods offer different experiences, advantages, and limitations.

On the one hand, sheet music presents some limitations regarding notation. Composers need to be as clear as they can to translate their ideas into paper and then on to the stage. It also presents some limits regarding spontaneity, as the writing process is slower. 

On the other hand, digital music also faces challenges, such as safely preserving digital files. In the era of digitalization, file hacking and corruption are real challenges that producers need to be aware of. Artists also need to ensure consistent sound quality across platforms, as the number of digital distribution channels keeps increasing.

Thankfully, technology also birthed amazing innovations, allowing producers to enjoy the best of both worlds. For example, some musicians might enjoy the warm sound of analog music but would like to hear their compositions as they go. In that case, they might be interested in trying digital tools that mimic the sound of analog while benefiting from the flexibility that DAWs offer.

Whether you choose sheet music or DAW music to make beats depends on your needs and context. If you plan on working with an orchestra, sheet music might be necessary to guide the performers. If you would rather experiment with sound effects and virtual instruments, digital music might be better for you.

One thing's for sure: the possibilities are endless in terms of creativity and tools available for artists who want to make their voices heard, and beat makers can definitely be considered musicians.

Are you curious to try a DAW? Try out BeatConnect and sign up for your first Beat Battle!