While most classical and jazz works are written down before they are performed, songs in other genres are often worked out through a series of improvisations in which each instrument develops their own part. Because of this, it can be difficult for the songwriter to go back and write out the song later on. This process is called transcribing; the finished product is called a transcription.
Why would songwriters want to write out their own songs once they’re finished? There are many great reasons, including:
- Memory guide. When you’ve got lots of music memorized and under your fingertips, it’s easy to get mixed up and forget the details of every song. Transcribing gives you a quick reference point if you’re drawing a blank before a gig or recording session.
- New band members. Does your band personnel change frequently? Are you a solo artist who hires musicians on a per-gig basis? You could waste valuable rehearsal or studio time teaching new players your songs, OR you could have transcriptions in hand for them to read from—better yet, email PDFs ahead of time so they come in prepared and ready to play!
- Auxiliary instruments. Haven’t you always really imagined that synth patch as a bunch of trumpets? Or the guitar line to be a violin section? Musicians from the classical and jazz worlds are used to reading their parts and would rather not have you teach them by rote while the clock is running. So, if you have a group of trumpet players ready to play that synth part, you need to have their music clearly notated.
- Pass it around. The best flattery a songwriter can receive is another musician wanting to play their music. Your music will get played more often, in farther locales, and with greater accuracy, if you take the time to transcribe and notate it. Services like Digital Print Publishing provide a forum for musicians around the world to easily share PDF transcriptions of their songs—and earn money doing it!
So, how do you transcribe your songs? There are many helpful resources, both electronic and interpersonal, but the best place to start is with your own ears and a piece of paper. Being able to pick out chords and melodies by ear is one of the strongest skills a musician can develop. What could be better than developing that skill than by practicing transcribing your own songs? Trial and error will teach you a lot, as will knowing a little music theory.
For example, knowing your song’s key will significantly reduce the number of possible notes it contains. It also helps to know some standard chord changes, such as I-vi-IV-V-I, or 12-bar blues (I-IV-I-V-I). If you know your song uses one of these, you have a quick and easy template to start with.
It’s often best to sketch out the form first, such as “Verse 1-Verse 2-Chorus-Verse 3-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus.” Use the lyrics as a guide if you’re not sure. Then figure out the bass line, which usually plays the root of each chord on the downbeat. Again, knowing a little music theory can be helpful. If you know what notes make up each chord, you can feel confident that the music focuses on those three or four pitches for the length of that chord.
If you find yourself getting stuck, there are several programs designed to help you out. Transcribe! is particularly great because it allows you to slow down a track without altering the pitch (though you can do that too). You can loop small or large sections and even view a “note guess” screen (this works best for isolated moments, too much distortion or unpitched percussion tends to muddy up the analysis).
Though not transcription-specific, Audacity is a free, open-source editor that also allows audio to be recorded and sequenced directly into the program. Like Transcribe!, speed and pitch can be adjusted, although the sound quality is not as good and the interface can be harder to navigate for transcription-specific needs.
Yet another option is Melodyne, an audio editing program which is used to correct pitches, phrasing, and dynamics in recordings (and, when pushed to its limits, gives the “auto-tune” effect). Because its pitch-analysis is so powerful, Melodyne can take apart your song in minutes and give you a clearer picture of what is happening—and an opportunity to fix some of those wrong notes!
If you don’t have the time, inclination, or ability to transcribe your music, there are plenty of people online willing to sell their services. Some price by the hour ($20-150, depending on the project), others by the measure. Every transcription is unique, so expect fluctuations in pricing and be wary of anyone who doesn’t ask what you’re looking for in your final product. Keep in mind that the more detail you want, and the more instruments involved, the longer it will take, so be upfront about your priorities and be prepared to pay more for a rush job.
Also, consider reaching out to music departments in your area. Music students are always looking for extra work and transcription services are right up their alley. Most young musicians are fluent with music “engraving” programs such as Finale and Sibelius that produce professional-looking scores in PDF format.
Remember, it’s YOUR music, so don’t let it stress you out. Transcribing can be a great way to get to know your music better and to improve your musical skills. Plus, who’s to say you can’t change it as you go along? Follow your ear, sing along, and have fun!