Keeping a Line Journal

In an instant, musical ideas spring to life. You might be transcribing and stumble upon something you like, or perhaps you suddenly play an idea that seemed to come to you from nowhere. I bet this happens all the time. In fact, I’ll bet you come up with something you like nearly every time you practice. What do you do when you discover or create ideas you like?

I used to just play the idea a bunch, thinking, wow…this is a great line. The next day, needless to say, I’d have difficulty remembering the line, and a week later, I’d forget the line entirely.

Keeping a line journal is not only a great way to remember the lines you pick up from transcribing or create yourself, but it’s an essential tool to keep track of the knowledge-base you hope to expand throughout your life.

Whatever it is, write it down

When you’re practicing, you’re in the zone. You don’t want to interrupt it for any reason. This is your time and you want to spend it playing, not writing. That attitude kept me from writing down a lot of things that could have potentially been gems. Sometimes I’ll play something and think, hmmm, that’s kind of nice, but is it nice enough to write down?

Whatever it is, write it down. During your practice, keep manuscript-paper and a pen handy at all times. Consider this your scratch paper where you’ll jot down anything that comes to mind. Knowing that this is not your formal line journal, you have no need to keep it neat and organized, allowing you to scribble anything down quickly and get back to your practice.

I write down literally anything and everything that I think is the least bit cool when I’m practicing. It could be a line, a harmonic concept, a rhythmic idea. Anything. I keep these ideas on this scratch paper in its own pile and when one page fills up, I put down another.

When I have time, I review the pile, looking for anything that could be of value.

While you’re watching television or have nothing to do, just sift through these loose pages and boldly circle or highlight anything that you might consider putting into your line journal. Your line journal is where the keepers will go. Be discriminant and decisive.

Staying organized

The key to a quality line journal is making it organized in a way that you can easily access the material. How many times have you written something down, only to find that a few days later, you can’t seem to find where you wrote it?

Keeping all your ideas on scratch paper and transitioning the best ones to your official journal will help with that, as will keeping your journal ordered in a way that makes sense to you.

There are many ways you could order it. I’m reminded of the scene in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity  where the main character, played by John Cusack in the movie, is sharing with his coworker how he organizes his record collection: autobiographically.

You probably don’t want to keep your line journal ordered autobiographically. What works for me and what most players I know do is to put the lines into various sections of chord types. For instance, you could have a section where you write anything that works over dominant. And another section for major. And another for minor.

Keeping the sections fairly basic is a good way to go:

  • Major
  • Minor
  • Dominant
  • ii Vs

Some people like to have a section of iii Vi ii Vs and minor ii Vs as well. Depending upon the material you’re trying to classify, you may want to have less or more categories. I’d aim to keep things simple and have as few sections as possible. As you progress, you’ll most likely find that some lines that you thought you had to create a new category for, could have actually fit into something you already had.

You’ll also find that a line can fit into multiple places, so what do you do about that when you’re trying to keep things as orderly as possible? What I do is put the line in the section where it came from or where it would seem to be the more obvious place for it. For example, if I transcribed a line over a G major chord, but it could also work well over E minor, I’d write it in the major section because that’s where it originally came from.

I’d then make a note to myself about that particular line and how it works well for E minor as well. In fact, keeping notes for all lines is a good idea as it allows you to understand the line more deeply when you glance at the line in the future.

And obviously, there’s more than notes to keep for the line. Here’s an outline for what each line in your line journal could include:

  • The musical example, with the chords written over each measure
  • The album, song, time-mark, and soloist for where you found it. If you created it, simply put “me”
  • The type of line it is, such as a ii V, or a major line
  • Space for a paragraph of notes about the line…what makes it great, alternate uses, variations

Keep it up to date

Start practicing with a piece of scratch paper in front of you the next time you practice. Write down anything that you think is interesting without judging then and there whether it is something you truly care about. Then, transition the best lines you find on this scratch paper to your line journal.

Once you start this process, your line journal will quickly grow. Keep it organized and keep it up to date. Don’t fall behind by leaving lines you really like in the mess of scratch paper. Get them into your line journal as soon as you know you want them there. Conversely, spend some time figuring out what you truly want there, even if it takes you several examinations of a line to accept or reject it.

Stop living in a mess of notes and scribbles. Start a formal line journal and keep it up!