How To Transcribe Music Effectively and More Often

June 6, 2024
Transcribe Music - Image of man listening to music intently with headphones by Dollar Gill

Transcribing music is a valuable skill for all musicians, educators, and music enthusiasts. Typically, the phrase “transcribe music” simply involves listening to a piece of music and figuring out the notes, rhythms, and other musical elements.

Writing things down on sheet music or tab is actually optional. There’s a reason for this. Usually, musicians are “lifting” licks, basslines, chords, and chord progressions to just further their vocabulary. You might write something down to commit it to memory, but for the most part, transcribing music refers to figuring something out.

Personally, what works for me to get vocabulary into my long-term memory, is to immediately apply the new found knowledge. Writing things down, only slows down that process for me.

In this music lesson, I’ll some practical tips for transcribing music, from the initial setup and gear, to my actual process for approaching transcribing music. So, if your new to transcribing music or have been doing it for some time, but not seeing the results you’d like, this lesson is for you.

Let’s get started.

Disclaimer: I’m reader-supported. So, when you buy through links on my site, I may earn an affiliate commission. Having that said, this article does contain affiliate links that I receive a small commission for at no cost to you. This is what I use to transcribe music and I fully recommend trying it out. You can read my full affiliate disclosure in my privacy policy in the footer.

Setting Up Your Environment

Choose the Right Space

Creating a comfortable and distraction-free environment is crucial to your success. So, find a quiet room where you can focus on the music and hear the music clearly.

Also, ensure that your workspace is organized and free of clutter. Good lighting and a comfortable chair (you’ll be sitting for extended periods of time) can also make a significant difference.

Ultimately, having a space that is enjoyable to be in with minimal friction for productivity is really what will get you transcribe music more often.

Essential Tools and Equipment

To transcribe music effectively, you need the right tools:

  • Computer or Tablet: A device to play back the music and use transcription software.
  • Music Playback Device: High-quality speakers or headphones to listen to the music clearly. If you have a space all to yourself, I recommend open-backed headphones. This will provide you with a clear sound in which the bass frequencies are easier to distinguish. If you have to share a space, then I recommend closed-backed headphones with a flat EQ, where the bass frequencies are not enhanced. By the way, closed-back headphones are more quiet because they conceal the sound that is projecting into your ears.
  • Notation Software: Programs like Sibelius, Finale, or MuseScore are excellent for writing down your transcriptions. Again, writing things down is optional when it comes to transcribing music.
  • Instrument: Finally, you’ll need a piano or your bass guitar to help you verify notes and chords.
Image of open-back headphones by Sennheiser
Image of open-back headphones by
Sennheiser

Listening to the Music (Your Favorite Songs)

Choose the Music

Select a piece of music that you want to transcribe (be sure to select music that you actually like, and not just music that someone says you “should” transcribe). It could be a song, an instrumental piece, or any musical composition. Start with shorter, simpler pieces if you are a beginner and gradually move to more complex works as you gain experience. If you like the music, and inspired by it, you’ll learn the material faster and retain the information longer.

Listen Actively

Active listening is crucial for accurate transcription. Listen to the piece multiple times, focusing on different elements each time. For example, in one pass, focus on the melody, in another, concentrate on the rhythm, and in another, pay attention to the harmony. Hone in on each individual instrument and listen to what that instrument is playing. Listen, listen, listen. Spend more time listening than being in a hurry to dive into the notes. This will help you internalize the sounds more effectively.

Slow Down the Music (Only if you really have to)

Slowing down the music from a recording can help you catch every note and rhythm. Most music playback software applications, like Audacity or Transcribe! (Seventh String Software), allows you to slow down the tempo of any section you want without changing the pitch. This feature is particularly useful for complex passages. However, try your very best to figure out the notes without slowing things down — even if it means having to start and stop the music one note at a time! It’s a lot of work to do it this way, but the results in the end will be well worth your effort.

Breaking Down the Music

Identify the Structure (A.K.A The Form)

Understanding the structure of the piece is essential. Identify sections such as the intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and outro. This is also known as the form of a song.

Breaking the music into manageable sections makes the transcription process more organized and less overwhelming. The form also helps you make sense as to why a musician made certain melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic decisions in their playing.

Transcribing the Melody

Start with the melody, as it is usually the most prominent and easiest to hear and identify. Play short sections of the music repeatedly and try to sing it first, then play what you’re hearing. Try to hear small phrases and emulate those phrases on your instrument. If you aren’t able to catch a small phrase, break it down to even smaller chunks.

I remember when my toddler first learned the what a firetruck was. She learned the overall concept of a firetruck before she even learned about the windows, doors, headlights, and hose. This approach is very similar when transcribing music. Instead of initially getting caught up in just figuring out individual notes, try your very best to catch phrases first.

Transcribing the Rhythm

Once the melody is transcribed, focus on the rhythm. Pay attention to the note values and rests, how often chords change (harmonic rhythm), what notes are sustained and emphasized, etc…

Transcribing the Harmony

Harmony can be more challenging to transcribe, especially if it involves complex chords. Listen for the bass line first, as it often outlines the chord progression. Once you have the bass line, work on identifying the chords and their inversions. More often than not, the bass note on beats 1 and 3 of a measure will be the root note of a chord. So, the bass note is a good place to start.

Adding Articulations and Dynamics

After transcribing the notes and rhythms, add articulations and dynamics to your transcription. These details include accents, staccatos, legatos, crescendos, and decrescendos. They are essential for capturing the expressiveness of the music.

Emulating a sound and understanding why something sounds the way it does is just as important as just figuring out the notes. After all, you’re transcribing something that inspired you and got you excited. And chances are that you were excited about a sound versus just a particular note.

Transcription Software

If you want to include writing things down into your workflow, here are some suggestions.

Using Notation Software

Notation software is an invaluable tool for music transcription. Programs like Sibelius, Finale, and MuseScore offer features that make the transcription process more efficient. You can input notes using a MIDI keyboard, playback your transcription, and easily make edits. I still know musicians that prefer good old paper and pencil. But, personally, I like everything to be digital, easily accessible, and easily editable!

Additional Software Tools

Other software tools can complement your notation software:

  • Audacity: An audio editing software that allows you to slow down music and loop sections.
  • Transcribe!: I mentioned this one earlier. It’s a specialized software for transcribing music. It can slow down music, change pitch, and mark sections. In my personal opinion, it’s the best one out there!
  • Chordify: An online tool that identifies chords in a song and provides chord diagrams.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to Make a Music Transcription?

To make a music transcription, follow these steps:

1. Choose the Music: Select a piece of music to transcribe.
2. Set Up Your Environment: Ensure you have the necessary tools and a quiet space.
3. Active Listening: Listen to the music multiple times, focusing on different elements.
4. Break Down the Music: Identify the structure and transcribe the melody, rhythm, and harmony.
5. Refine and Edit: Review your transcription, make corrections, and seek feedback.

What Software is Used to Transcribe Songs?

Several software programs are used for music transcription:

– Sibelius: A powerful notation software with extensive features.
– Finale: Another popular notation software for professional transcriptions.
– MuseScore: A free and open-source notation software.
– Audacity: An audio editor that helps slow down music for transcription.
– Transcribe!: Specialized software for transcribing music efficiently.

What are the Rules for Transcribing Music?

While there are no strict rules, here are some guidelines:

– Accuracy: Ensure your transcription accurately represents the music.
– Clarity: Write legibly and use proper notation symbols.
– Consistency: Maintain consistent formatting and style throughout your transcription.
– Detail: Include articulations, dynamics, and other expressive elements.
– Verification: Use an instrument to verify notes and chords.

Is There a Program to Transcribe Audio Recordings?

Yes, several programs can help transcribe audio recordings:

– Transcribe!: Allows you to slow down, change pitch, and mark sections of audio recordings.
– Chordify: Identifies chords in a song and provides chord diagrams.
– AnthemScore: An automatic music transcription software that converts audio files to sheet music.

Conclusion

Transcribing music is a rewarding and valuable skill that can easily take your musical understanding and abilities to the next level. By following this workflow and utilizing the right tools, you can improve your transcription accuracy and efficiency. Remember to be patient and persistent, as transcribing music takes practice and dedication. Happy transcribing!

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PosidoVega

Hi! I’m Posido Vega, a multi-passionate creative. I’m an artist, bass player, jazz theory enthusiast, children’s book author and illustrator, and SEO 😅.

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