Music transcription – an introduction

Learn how to transcribe songs with our guide to music transcription, online and the old fashioned sheet music way!

What is music transcription? Transcription is when you listen to a recorded piece of music and notate it down by ear, in the form of sheet music, tablature such as guitar tabs, or whatever format you choose.

Transcription is a great way to work on your musical ear and get to know your instrument better. It can be a slog, but identifying exactly what notes are being played, including the key and rhythm, and writing it all down, means you can easily play the song again later or share it with other musicians.

Like so much music theory it gets much quicker with practise, but we’ve compiled some transcription tips for beginners to start you off.

How to get started transcribing

Go easy at first, as even the simplest song will be slow going. Build up your confidence before moving on to complex songs. Try starting with a 12-bar blues like “Without You” by Fleetwood Mac.

Find out the key first

First things first, figure out what key you’re in. Master your scales and chords so you can identify the key, making things a lot easier for yourself as you get going.

Most songs stay within the scale of whatever key they’re in, bar a few passing blue notes here and there. Chords can often be identified by the bass note on the first beat of a phrase, which will usually be the root of the chord.

Scales might not be the sexiest thing in the world, but transcription is a methodical task and practising scales is a good way to learn patience!

Slow it way down

Take the process as slow as you need. Even with the simplest melodies it can be hard to keep up with a recording, so don’t feel like you’re lagging behind.

Sick of constantly hitting the pause button? Use a program to loop sections and slow down the track. This is easy within your DAW, or apps like Amazing Slow Downer let you loop sections quickly with keyboard shortcuts.

Little by little

Take on the task phrase by phrase. Work out a few notes at a time rather than taking a large 30-second chunk and struggling to cope with the amount of notes. If you’re listening on YouTube, look into using a browser plugin for looping.

Software for music transcription

Your instrument, good old fashioned blank manuscript or tab paper, and a pencil is all you need; but there’s also software to make transcribing easier and quicker.

If you use a DAW the piano roll is a great resource for clicking in notes, and some DAWs feature built in sheet music editors.

For guitar tab, popular sites like Ultimate Guitar feature a tab editor. Sheet music editing software like Noteflight are another useful online resource for transcription.

Use EQ

Struggling to work out specific notes? Try using a high-pass or low-pass filter in your DAW to isolate the sound. This is especially useful for hearing bass notes better. Compressor plugins are also great for bringing out sounds so you don’t miss any notes.

Once you get going you’ll start recognising patterns and sequences, especially when copying down improvised solos. Just remember to take it slow, try not to get frustrated, and approach the transcription task in a methodical way.

I write about music for RouteNote, sharing fun stuff, news, and tips and tricks for musicians and producers. Also a saxophonist and hater of marmalade.

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