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To transcribe or not to?

I like music

Senior Member
Hi everyone,

Would you say there's a minimum threshold of "musical understanding" (perhaps orchestration?) that you should have before transcribing music becomes beneficial?

Here's why I ask: there are lots of things that I'd like to transcribe, but given that I'm still a relative beginner, I feel like I would be doing nothing more than guessing (especially in music where there are dense harmonies, and a ton of instruments). I feel like I'd essentially be guessing, and the guessing part isn't really transcription. It feels like a ridiculously difficult thing to do.

So the question is, should I still plod on and keep doing it? I find it enjoyable, if very slow (I've spent hours on a couple of bars where there were only a couple of sections playing).

And by the way, when I say transcribe, I mean straight into my DAW (not onto paper, yet).

Curious to know if there are dos and don'ts around this, and what I should keep in mind!
 
OP
I

I like music

Senior Member
I think that's one of the best ways to improve in every aspect of your musical education... keep doing it
Thank you. And in terms of 'difficulty' of what I'm trying to transcribe (or just general tips around how to do it, how not to) if you have any advice, I'd love to hear it!
 

Vardaro

Active Member
Study classical symphonic scores vs piano reductions.
And Ravel's La Valse, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, exist in piano and orchestral versions.
 

bryla

Senior Member
My advice:
1: Play along with regular pop songs on a piano. Start with melody, then bass and chords
2: Write those melodies down in a lead sheet form

As you progress you will start to notice more and more details and slowly you can write many elements of an orchestral arrangement. When you do that you can input it in you sequencer (or better yet Sibelius with Noteperformer). Then you'll notice certain things that don't sound quite the same despite you've done the best you could to transcribe it. This is the point you get the score and compare those sections. Adjust your transcribtion and behold this new orchestrational technique you've acquired. Now you'll be better able to listen for that the next time.

I spent maybe 5 years on each of the first steps before beginning with orchestral music and still then it started with melody and bass.
 
OP
I

I like music

Senior Member
My advice:
1: Play along with regular pop songs on a piano. Start with melody, then bass and chords
2: Write those melodies down in a lead sheet form

As you progress you will start to notice more and more details and slowly you can write many elements of an orchestral arrangement. When you do that you can input it in you sequencer (or better yet Sibelius with Noteperformer). Then you'll notice certain things that don't sound quite the same despite you've done the best you could to transcribe it. This is the point you get the score and compare those sections. Adjust your transcribtion and behold this new orchestrational technique you've acquired. Now you'll be better able to listen for that the next time.

I spent maybe 5 years on each of the first steps before beginning with orchestral music and still then it started with melody and bass.
Ahhh - makes a lot of sense. Yes, this is something I can get started with easily I feel. Thanks!
 

kmaster

Now in LA: let's get coffee!
"Slow and with much guessing" is how everyone starts off their transcription abilities. It's the repeated mistakes that train you how to be quicker and more accurate!

Why not transcribe straight onto paper? Use your DAW to check the sounds, but there is something to be said about internalizing knowledge by physically writing it down. It's why people still often take notes with a pen, even if it's onto digital paper!

Also, I recommend an app like Anytune - it can loop sections of, isolate by frequency or by position in the stereo spectrum in, and slow down playback of audio recordings. Very helpful to find hidden inner voices.
 
OP
I

I like music

Senior Member
"Slow and with much guessing" is how everyone starts off their transcription abilities. It's the repeated mistakes that train you how to be quicker and more accurate!

Why not transcribe straight onto paper? Use your DAW to check the sounds, but there is something to be said about internalizing knowledge by physically writing it down. It's why people still often take notes with a pen, even if it's onto digital paper!

Also, I recommend an app like Anytune - it can loop sections of, isolate by frequency or by position in the stereo spectrum in, and slow down playback of audio recordings. Very helpful to find hidden inner voices.
Amazing, thank you. Yeah, just printing off a ton of staff paper as we speak :)
 

JJP

I put dots and lines on paper.
I've used Transcribe as well, but it is important to know that you still need to use your ears on polyphonic material. Resonances, reverb, and phase cancellations can cause the program to think it's hearing one pitch when your ears will clearly tell you it's something else because of the context.

That's not to say Transcribe! isn't a great tool. I still once or twice a year throw something into Transcribe! when I'm handed something particularly tricky, and I do this work almost every day.
 
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bryla

Senior Member
I only use it for looping. It's simply the easiest wav-player for me.

I have been doing a lot of orchestral restorations from old recordings this year and features like m/s is easy to enable as well.

When I studied I transcribed a lot of jazz piano solos. There I used to set playback speed to 70% and I learned to listen for bass lines by employing the octave transposition feature.
 
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MatFluor

Senior Member
Transcribe! is golden - but I never use its predictive functions. But the easy loop-selection and slowdown can be a life-saver on dense stuff.
 

Rob

Senior Member
And there's an app too that does a great job at slowing down music and much more, called Audiostretch. Almost a mobile Transcribe...
 
OP
I

I like music

Senior Member
It is encouraging to know that things like this exist precisely because it is hard to actually hear what's going on in a number of cases (just by ear). It at least makes me feel that I'm not totally useless, and it is a challenge even for gifted-and-or-experienced musicians.
 
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JJP

I put dots and lines on paper.
It is encouraging to know that things like this exist precisely because it is hard to actually hear what's going on in a number of cases (just by ear). It at least makes me feel that I'm not totally useless, and it is a challenge even for gifted-and-or-experienced musicians.
That is exactly why I charge hourly for the time it takes to transcribe. Even the simplest things can take a lot of time if the recording or performance isn't the best, or there are other elements obscuring things. I can't tell you how many times I've had to tear into harmonies wondering "What is that?" only to find that it's something simple but one person is out of tune, or the balance is off or the mix has been compressed beyond all recognition and is slightly distorting. :faint:
 
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JT

Senior Member
Transcribing is very useful as everyone has said. But if you're a beginner, take it slow. Do simple ear training exercises and combine that with sight singing. Start with melodies. Learn to hear intervals. Learn to transform a rhythm you hear into a rhythm you can write down.

As a composer it's invaluable to be able to hear a melody in your head while you're driving and then seeing that melody in your head as notation, without using a piano, DAW, nothing.
 
OP
I

I like music

Senior Member
Many great pieces of advice above from really wonderful musicians.

I too get hired often as a transcriber. The "benefit" side is an interesting one.

The short answer is: Yes, and do it as much as you can.

That said, I have felt like there is more than one side to this.
For myself I have come to think of transcribing in two categories:

1. Those pieces I love, and wish I wrote, and I am hoping to write like that in the future
2. Aural sight reading:

What I mean by # 2 is I have so many songs that I have transcribed, made my clients very happy, and I could barely even tell you the name of them. Maybe I would remember the first chord of them.

So just like practicing sight reading, it's hard to say what specific benefit other than a longer goal of increasing talent.

I got paid too. Like JT alluded to, I used to say for some songs "My ears have joined the Metoo movement" Ear rape can happen to any transcriber.

Few bullet point suggestions
  • Don't touch your DAW other than tempo mapping. That can be useful, but you still have to think
  • sing....sing, sing sing
  • Practice transcribing without pitches, and in addition without a recording. Take a song - say Happy Birthday - and just write out the rhythm. This can be very useful if you are still not strong on notation
  • Scribbles can be wonderful for "real-time" short hand. (ie. Beethoven 5 _ _ _ ___________)
  • Pick music you can check the score later for accuracy
  • Apply what you are playing with an instrument.

I guess the point I am making is I find being hired to transcribe music for publication is a little different than what I would do for my own musical practice. Simply because I am not trying to internalize it. Jazz players are most likely the best model for #1. For internalizing I would also say transpose thru all 12 keys, invert a small chuck, play it fast/slow reharmonize etc. etc.
You can also try writing out the score by memory and checking.

lastly for getting going on transcribing away from an instrument I found Bartok's Microcosmos the ideal practice for myself. All of book 1 moves by step motion. He uses some pentatonic scales so you do get minor 3rds, but in the context it's a step. He is so methodical....it's great.

Just don't expect a good "tune". I don't have perfect pitch, so I would check the first note, and everything else would be completed pencil paper at the table.


Thank you for your thoughtful and comprehensive response. Some of the things you said, I really need to go back to, and make a part of a routine. In particular, writing onto paper rather than into the DAW.

This is particularly scary because I can barely read (you know, I still have to use mnemonics to know which note is which, and even though on basic rhythmic stuff I'm getting better, when I look at scores, I have to spend a good 5-10 seconds per note just to be sure of what it is, and I often make mistakes on rhythm)

That said, I'm taking violin lessons, and also have started taking 1-to-1 theory lessons, so this will certainly help!
 
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