What Does it Mean to Transcribe Music?

What I am talking about here is the process of working out how to play or write out a piece of music starting with just a recording of the piece.
You will also hear classical musicians speak of “transcribing” to mean adapting a piece of music written for one instrument to be played on another. Thus when John Williams plays Scarlatti sonatas (originally written for keyboard) on the guitar, these would be called “transcriptions” although he didn’t need to work them out from a recording because you can buy the published sheet music (for keyboard) in a shop.
The effort involved in transcribing music from recordings varies enormously depending on the complexity of the music, how good you ear is and how detailed you want your transcription to be. If you merely want to write down the chords to a very simple song then if your ear is good you may be able to scribble them down in real time while the music is playing. At the other side if you are attempting a detailed transcription of complex music then it can take hours to transcribe a single minute of music.

Why Transcribe Music?

Often, it’s because you want to play a tune but you don’t have the score for it, you only have a recording. Of course you might start by looking for the sheet music, but if you can’t find them what are you going to do? Also, even if you can find the score they will often be a disappointment when compared to the version you’ve been listening to and enjoying. Good players will usually make more out of a piece than the standard published scores will show, so you will have to listen to the recording to find out what they’re doing. I’m talking about reharmonisation, embellishing chords, added figures and riffs, good bass-line movement, voice leading, etc.
Jazz musicians regard transcribing as an important educational method. Jazz has a strong emphasis on listening and improvising. Transcribing other people’s improvised solos is good for improving your ear and also for gaining insight into the musical ideas they use.
There are also quite a number of professional transcribers around. For instance, if you buy the sheet music for a popular song then this music will often have been transcribed from the record by a professional who works for the publisher.

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