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Introduction to Transcribing

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Transcribing Music Contents

by Conrad Albrecht

What is "transcribing music"? I'm actually using the term not quite technically correctly. Literally, "transcribing" means writing down the music you're hearing. But before you can write it down, you have to figure out the notes and rhythms, and it's this figuring out that I want to help you with; I don't much care whether you actually write it down or not. "Transcribing" seems to be the most common term for figuring out music you're hearing, even if you don't actually write it down.

Why transcribe music?

  1. To be a better composer. When I started studying jazz composition at Berklee, I had the young, naive notion that musical inspiration came just out of my own head. Then one day a friend played me some music he'd written. It was great, much richer and more exciting than my stuff. I asked him how he learned to write like that; he answered with two words: "record copies" (just another name for transcribing). That helped me learn that the soil in your head needs a heavy dose of the fertilizer of other people's ideas in order to bear fruit. And for a composer, transcribing is, I believe, the very best way to learn from other composers' ideas.
  2. To be a better musician. If you play in the pop/rock/jazz genre, often you aren't told exactly what notes to play; you have to choose them yourself, perhaps from just chord symbols. So you're really a "composer" too, and everything in item 1 above applies to you; you can get better ideas for what notes to play by transcribing music.
  3. To play songs from recordings. In pop/rock/jazz, even if you're just playing covers of hit songs in a band, there's usually no such thing as sheet music which will show you the bass part, the different guitar parts, the drum part, etc. So just to play the song more or less "like the record", you need to transcribe from the recording (even if you just call it "learning by ear" instead of "transcribing").

How to transcribe.

  1. Just do it. You probably need to know how to play an instrument at least a little to get started. Then you can start transcribing by listening to a bit (say, a second, or a few seconds) of a recording; hunting for the notes on your instrument that sound like the bit you listened to; and repeat, over and over. The more you do it, the better you'll get.
  2. Google "transcribing music". This search turns up lots of software and articles meant to help you transcribe. Unfortunately, most of the articles seem rather vague to me, and I doubt whether most of the software helps you figure out some of the hardest things to hear. That's why I'm writing:
  3. These articles. In these articles I plan to get very specific, showing you examples of figuring out musical details in recordings using spectrograms (sound pictures) made by our C-Ur-Sound software.

Next: Seeing Musical Features in a Spectrogram (Bridge Over Troubled Water)

Transcribing Music Contents

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