You love that tune you heard at your friend’s party the other night and want to try your hand at transcribing it. But when you start, you realize there is a mess of complicated chords, the melody is a bit whack, and the drummer seems to find 7/16 a convincingly wonderful time signature.
So do you give up?
Well, if you are experienced at transcribing music, then you’re ready to jump in and conquer this bad beast. But if this is your first try, you’ll want to work up to this syncopated atonal monstrosity. Like learning to walk or to read, it starts with the small steps. Transcribing music is no different.
Getting Ready for Harder Transcriptions
While practice makes perfect, there are several things you can do to prepare yourself for more difficult transcriptions:
- Familiarize yourself with major, minor, jazz, and altered scales.
- Learn complex rhythms, polyrhythms, and complex time signatures.
- Listen to and play a wide variety of musical styles from all over the world.
- Surf the Internet for unfamiliar scales, harmonies, and rhythms.
- Learn orchestration basics
Essentially, the more you expand your mental musical library, the easier transcribing will be. By growing your personal musical vocabulary, you will be able to quickly pick out a son clave rhythm, a whole tone scale, or a complex harmony just because you have taken the time to familiarize yourself with a broad expanse of musical styles. Try this ear-bender on for size:
Genre-hops to Exercise Your Transcription Chops
Trying different genres is a great way to hone your transcription skills. Each genre requires it’s own level of expertise. Practice transcribing in the six genres below with the tips that we have used so far in this series. For a refresher on how to transcribe any particular section check out the articles below:
- Transcribing Drums
- Finding the Key to a Song
- Figuring out the Rhythm Section and Harmony
- Transcribing the Melody
Start small, with the melody and rhythm. Then work your way to figuring out chord progressions and harmonies. For some of the simpler examples, you may not need to transcribe more than a melody and lyrics. Each of these videos provides a simple transcription or lead sheet. Follow these steps:
- Listen to the video—no peeking!
- Transcribe the melody, lyrics, and rhythm
- Transcribe any chords and harmony
- Check your work
You may find that, with the more complicated examples at the end, a full transcription may take you hours to complete. That’s okay. The more you need to transcribe, the longer it will take. Take a break, but come back to it—like everything else in music, transcribing takes practice. The leaps and bounds in your musicianship are your reward.
1. Baby Steps with Kid Songs
Depending on your current musical skills, your first transcriptions may be children’s songs, like nursery rhymes. Don’t laugh—these catchy tunes have beat the Billboard Top 40 hands down. How many centuries has it been since “Ring around the Rosie” came out? Check back in 500 years and see if people are still singing “Roar”!
So don’t shy away from these simplest of tunes. They are often short, repetitive, and have very simple major scale chord structures based on I and V.
2. TV Tunes and Jingles
You can also start with favorite jingles and TV tunes. Like children’s songs, they are shorter, with simple catchy melodies— a good place to start.
3. Pop Music
Pop music is usually not known for its musical complexity. The very name “pop” (for “popular’) reflects the genre’s simplicity and directness. What’s great about transcribing pop tunes is that they often have very repetitive musical forms, easy chords, and catchy lyrics that you can memorize quickly, saving time during transcription.
Much of the music you hear on the radio is easy to transcribe. However, be sure to listen for tunes that might have hidden complex harmonies, or difficult melodies. Country music may have simple chords but the lyrics may be a little more difficult. Most pop songs have syncopated melodies—a great opportunity to build your rhythmic skills.
The various forms of rock get more and more complex in harmony as you delve into the genre, with complicated drum parts and ominous chord structures that are meant to rip into your soul—they might just drive you batty if you haven’t yet ventured into altered chords. Add to that lyrics that are just as likely to be growled as sung.
This song from Queen delves into different time signatures and lush harmonies that are not typical of the tamer stuff you hear on the radio today.
Jazz music wins the crown for complex chords, especially when you stray from Big Band swing and go into the esoteric improvs and lush harmony of more contemporary jazz styles.
6. Classical Music, Film Scores, and Full Band Arrangements
When you are a professional composer, songwriter, or arranger, transcribing entire instrumental scores is a daunting task—way beyond writing down a simple lead sheet for you and the band to cover at your next gig. Transcribing full arrangements takes a lot of time and patience. Listen to this fully orchestrated opera excerpt:
Now compare with this vocal/piano transcription of a full operatic score, which simplifies the full orchestral score with a piano reduction. This type of transcription is often used for rehearsals or smaller scale performances, like recitals.
In many of these cases, you can start with a piano reduction, which is the melody, harmony, and rhythm of a full ensemble piece written only for piano. You may love the soundtrack from the latest Avengers flick and write out a transcription only for piano. Why? Well, you may be making an arrangement for your own learning and pleasure, or for the next great YouTube piano cover video.
On the other hand, sometimes you will need the full arrangement and all the parts. Many vintage films which are now in public domain, for example, no longer have full scores available. Many composers, arrangers, and conductors have spent time transcribing these old gems in order to preserve the music for future generations.
Here’s an example of an orchestral reduction transcription, which highlights the parts without fully scoring every measure of rest in every part. Orchestral reductions are easier to read than full scores, and useful when studying a particular composer or piece.
More Advanced Transcriptions
Below are some samples from YouTube that include a short transcription. These are just a few more complex examples of rhythm, melody, and harmony that you might encounter when you transcribe.
With each video:
- Listen to the example without looking at the transcription
- Attempt to write out the transcription
- Check your work against the video transcription
Review the earlier articles in this series if you need to brush up on how to transcribe melody, harmony, and rhythm.
Transcribe as a Career?
While this series has been concerned with the practical skills needed to transcribe, if you find that you really have a passion for transcribing music, there may be a future for you in writing out arrangements, transcribing music for bands and individuals, and delving into orchestration and creating piano versions of popular tunes and film scores.
Once you go professional, be sure to check where you stand in regards to copyright law in your country. Public domain music is usually available to all, but most radio tunes have copyright restrictions. There is a burgeoning online market for musicians that are excellent at transcription.
With practice and baby steps you will learn how to master transcription. This invaluable skill will help develop your overall musicianship and will even make you more marketable. Learning how to transcribe music opens up incredible doors creatively and intellectually as you truly grasp the inner workings of music.