A person hears a song on the radio or at a concert. Being a musician herself, she would like to learn how to play that song. She goes online or visits a music store and purchases a copy of sheet music for that song. After some practice, she impresses her friends by performing the song herself. How was that sheet music produced in the first place?
Music transcription is like a journey. It is the process by which a piece of recorded music is reproduced as musical notation. Music is transcribed both privately by musicians who would like to learn a piece for themselves and professionally by those who publish the transcriptions commercially. Music transcriptions are found on websites, in song books, individual sheets and instrument-specific publications such as Guitar World.
Much of the popular music produced today is recorded without having been written out in musical notation. If a person wants to play a song they have heard, they have to figure it out for themselves or find a copy of the sheet music. Either way, the person will need some form of music transcription to learn the song.
How is it done?
There is a method to the madness of music transcription. It is a process that takes talent, tools and time.
• Talent: A transcriber must have an accurate ear for music and a thorough knowledge of music theory. A knowledge of musical styles and basic song structure are indispensable as well.
• Tools: Although one can transcribe music with pencil and paper, it is far easier to use a music transcription software program, such as Sibelius or Finale. These programs streamline the task of music transcription, help insure transcription accuracy, and create clean and readable transcriptions.
• Time: Different transcribers have different paces at which they work. In general, the task of music transcription means listening to a piece of music repeatedly, in segments, and often at slower than normal speeds. It is a task that requires patience.
What does it look like?
Here is how this process might look for the musician at the beginning of this article. She gets a recording of the song she wants to learn. She sits down at her computer. She listens to the song several times to get the basic structure of the song. Then, segment by segment, she enters the music she is hearing into the transcription program: The key, the time signature, the notes and rhythms, perhaps the dynamics and the lyrics. After finishing, she plays back her transcription and compares it to the original recording to check for accuracy. Finally, she saves and prints her work, and goes to work learning to perform the song herself. The journey is complete.
The bottom line
Music transcription is the vehicle that allows music to make the long journey from audio recording or concert stage to printed page. It is the skill that allows musicians to play their favorite hits for fun, or make money helping others do so.