Introduction

Lots of people want me to create extensive video tutorials on transcribing, but that’s not something I’m quite ready to do. Here are all the reasons you shouldn’t listen to me for advice on transcribing:

  • I’ve only been doing it for 2 years
  • I still make PLENTY of errors (especially note spelling…)
  • My highest music qualification is only high school music
  • I’m a hobbyist, not a professional transcriber
  • I am self taught and haven’t had any instruction

So, everything that I’m about to say is what I’ve learnt as a self-taught transcriber. The advice I give might not be the most effective or efficient, but it’s what works for me. It’s very possible that others might have completely different advice.

To manage expectations for those who have never transcribed before, I’ll also say that transcribing has no shortcuts. Those online auto-transcribing websites are virtually useless except in an extremely narrow set of contexts, and transcribing is a manual process that takes a lot of time. You can only get quicker by improving.

With caveats out the way, here’s my tutorial on learning to transcribe music.

Tools

You will need an audio manipulation software to change the tempo (and sometimes pitch) of the recording you are transcribing. They can also help with pitch identification using frequency spectrum analysis.

Transcription Aids

Transcribe!

Transcribe! by Seventh String is your best option. It costs $39 but you can use it for free for 30 days.

The features I use most are:

  • instant tempo change
  • pitch change (I pitch up an octave when transcribing bass notes because it can be easier to hear)
  • measure and beat marking
  • pitch identification

Audacity

The alternative is audacity. For my first (relatively terrible) transcriptions I used this and would manually tempo shift and pitch shift. It was slow. It was frustrating. Yes, Audacity is free, but if you’re transcribing something, save yourself the pain and use a dedicated transcription aid like Transcribe!.

Notation Software

You’ll also need notation software – this is what you’ll use to write down the notes and create a score.

MuseScore

MuseScore is an open-source, free option. I use it for most of my transcriptions. I find it efficient to use and its feature set is large enough that it is a solid tool for most scores.

Sibelius

Sibelius is a more powerful option (which is payware), but personally, I find it slow and clunky to use. I know, however, that Sibelius power-users will prefer it as they have mastered its intricacies. It is also more useful than MuseScore for complex transcriptions which require specific formatting, microtonal notation, and other non-standard transcriptions.

GuitarPro

Sibelius and MuseScore won’t get you far for guitar and bass transcriptions. You’ll need to use GuitarPro, the standard for guitar/bass scores and tabs. Sibelius/MuseScore are limited in their ability to create accurate tabs efficiently.

Alternatives

There are a handful of other tools like Noteflight and ScoreCloud that I haven’t used, but I have heard that their feature sets are limited. These are probably only best used for simple transcriptions.

My Advice

Make sure the piece you’ve chosen to transcribe is simple.

Start simple. You have your whole life ahead of you. If you pick an overly complex piece of music, you’ll become overwhelmed and give up at the first hurdle. Start with a monophonic instrument like voice, trumpet, or clarinet, preferably an instrument you play yourself. Pick a recording with good audio quality.

Mark out the measures and beats in your transcription software.

Using Transcribe!, play the recording and press M to mark the start of every measure, and B to mark the start of every beat. I do this for longer transcriptions, as having the measures marked makes audio navigation easier and you won’t lose your place. Having the beats marked allows you to actually see when notes are played so that it becomes easier to transcribe more complex rhythms.

Work out time signature, key signature, and tempo.

Time signature and tempo are generally straightforward. Use a metronome to tap the beats and work out the BPM. Identifying a time signature as 4/4, 3/4, 6/8 etc. should be straightforward. If you struggle with this, you will probably find transcribing hard and might explore tools like ToneGym to help with ear training.

Transcribe in concert pitch.

This one might be controversial – I’m not really sure. I always transcribe in concert pitch. For example, a trumpet is tuned to Bb. That means that when I play a C on the trumpet, it sounds the same as a Bb on the piano. That means that when I’m listening to the performance in software like Transcribe!, it will tell me the trumpet is Bb, when actually the performer is playing a C. By transcribing the trumpet as playing Bb, I can use transcription software and a piano keyboard to help identify notes, and just transpose everything up a whole step once I’m done.

Think about what the performer is hearing, not what you’re hearing.

Performers will have their own interpretation of a piece playing. In jazz music, a performer might play a little behind the beat to create a lazy feel. Sure, you could transcribe this exactly by offsetting each note from the beat by a tiny bit, but it’s much more likely that the performer ‘heard’ those notes as on the beat, and dragged them out as part of their interpretation. It might be wiser to transcribe them as on the beat, and write ‘behind’ or ‘laid back’ as expression text.

To transcribe or not to transcribe errors?

Sometimes, performers make mistakes. Do we transcribe them exactly as played or omit them/correct them in our transcription? Personally, I think they are best omitted or corrected but many will disagree with me. Transcribing a performer’s errors is unhelpful when trying to replicate or understand a performance. Others would say a transcription should be faithful to the original.

Don’t rely on frequency spectrum to identify pitches.

When transcribing polyphonic instruments like piano, it can be tempting to use the frequency spectrum graph created by Transcribe! to just identify notes. Don’t. Because ‘physics’, each note that is played is made up of a bunch of different frequencies. I could play a C4 on the piano and lines would show up at C5, G5, C6, E6 etc. Identify each note in a chord yourself, and use the frequency spectrum to suggest notes you might’ve missed. If you transcribe a chord and see that the spectrum shows a note you haven’t transcribed, try listening out for it closely – it might help you notice it. A lot of the time though, that note won’t be there at all as it’ll be a false positive.

Learn by doing.

The only way to improve at transcription is by doing it. There are no shortcuts. I am still far, far from perfect at transcription, but I have improved immensely. It requires time, dedication, and patience. However, whilst transcribing, you’ll notice things you never noticed before, and gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the music you listen to. Reading a transcription of a solo tells you what notes they played, but transcribing it yourself can help you understand the intricacies of why a performer used certain notes or techniques.

Conclusion

I cannot tell you exactly how to identify the notes in a chord or notate a certain rhythm. That is only possible with practice and ear training through transcribing. It does not matter if your first transcriptions are awful – mine were too – but they will get better every time.

More To Explore

How To Transcribe Music

I cannot tell you exactly how to identify the notes in a chord or notate a certain rhythm. That is only possible with practice and ear training through transcribing. It does not matter if your first transcriptions are awful – so were mine – but they will get better every time.

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