Transcription, in musical terms, formally refers to the process of writing musical notation based solely on a recording of the song. Recording artists are not in the habit of composing sheet music for all instrumental parts on a track, nor do contemporary musicians always play a song precisely how it was written. A transcriber can take a commercially released album or recording of a live performance and put written notes to each musical part. There are numerous motivations for commissioning a transcription, such as the sale and publication of sheet music for amateur musicians or as record of a copyrighted composition.
The transcriber is responsible for listening to a recorded performance and writing out the corresponding notes for each instrumental and vocal part on bars of sheet music. The effort involved varies considerably based on the complexity of the tune and number of instruments on the track. He or she must take into consideration the deteriorated quality of the physical recording due to age and the type of product it was recorded on. There are marked differences in pitch between a cassette tape, CD, vinyl, and digital file. Failing to consider these variables can lead the transcriber to produce notation that is in the wrong key or of the wrong chord. One of the first steps in transcription is mapping out the sections of a song, like the verse and chorus, and then listening to the song to pull out the prominent notes. Think of this stage as drawing a basic outline of the song including the parts that are easiest to hear and identify, then gradually building upon that foundation to notate complex chords and harmonies.
Practiced transcribers often use an instrument, like a guitar or piano, to help bang out notes and mimic sounds in an attempt to more accurately determine especially complex bars. Some transcribers elect to use transcription software that aids in automatically notating a song. The available commercial software runs the gamut from utterly cumbersome to impressively accurate, but no product can as precisely pinpoint a harmony or embellished chord as a finely tuned ear—the human factor is still necessary and irreplaceable. There may be a previously transcribed version of the same song that is available, and this, too, can assist the transcriber but is only used as a tool, not a crutch. When filling in the sheet music around the foundation, a trained musician can usually predict, or estimate, what the accompanying harmonies should be based on the information (notation) surrounding that section. Much like a puzzle, even if you do not know how all the pieces fit together right away, the more you work at it, the clearer the image becomes. The same is true for identifying notes in record music.
Skills & Education
A formal education in musicianship, composition, or similar field is necessary for a career as a transcriber. The ability to identify notes and harmonies by ear requires practice and training and can only be developed over time. Classes in music appreciation and music history are especially valuable, as the greater the ear’s range of experience, the more accurate it will become. Ability to play multiple instruments is beneficial, and the person in this position should be proficient on the piano and/or guitar. Equally important as a good ear and talent are the skills to read and write music. A transcriber should comprehend musical notation as effortlessly and fluently as he or she can speak a first language.
What to Expect
Transcribers have the ability to work as freelance contractors or full-time employees at a music publishing company or similar organization. With appropriate education and talent, this can be an entry-level position. To seek out employment, you can submit samples of your transcription work to a publishing company; these samples should include contemporary songs with corresponding lyrics. If your portfolio passes muster, you may be invited to audition by transcribing a current song selection from the company’s catalogue. You may also find success in forwarding your portfolio to a transcription service or veteran professional that could be interested in hiring an apprentice as an assistant. In the meantime, look for other available jobs with music publishing companies as a means of getting your foot in the door. Internships are an excellent route to permanent employment. To being preparing yourself for such a career, participation in school bands is beneficial, and you can begin to teach yourself to read and write music through books or tutorials readily available in print and online.
Have some feedback for our editors? Contact Us