- Learn how to effortlessly transcribe music without any external tools
- Utilize advanced tips about music transcription to make the process quicker
- Find out what you need to know to start transcribing music
- While you’re here, check out our shootout of the best music notation software.
Transcribing music means transforming your tunes or song ideas into a readable format, such as writing it on paper or saving it as a text document on your PC. When you transcribe music, you enable other people to learn how to play it, whether it be your bandmates, friends, or fans/supporters.
Another important reason you should transcribe your music is that it enables you to dissect the song you’ve transcribed and explore the piece in detail.
Before we go any further, I’d like to point out that transcribing music is an intimate process. All people perceive music differently, and the methods by which it can be transcribed are many. There is a “schoolbook” method of learning how to transcribe a piece of music, but today, I want to teach you how to do it in a way that suits you best.
How to Transcribe Music By Ear
The first advice I got for music transcription was “listen to the piece until you get sick of it,” and I adhere to it to this day. But there’s more to this process than just listening. You’ll need to understand what you are listening to and, more importantly, learn to pay attention and even actively seek details and nuances that may be hidden underneath all those sonic layers.
You may want to broaden your understanding of music theory, although this will come naturally as you become better at transcribing music. This may sound counter-intuitive, but using programs for making music has taught me how to transcribe more complex pieces, so that’s always an option.
In the sections below, I’ll touch on the most important factors that can help you transcribe music by ear, so let’s dive in.
Start with the Music You Love
Transcribing music you’re not too fond of is a chore, so I recommend starting with the music of your favorite composers, bands, and artists. For me, it was transcribing “Love Gun” by Kiss, as that was one of the first songs I’ve played with a band.
Since I already adored this song, I was more than familiar with its parts, and figuring out the chords was significantly easier when you can make a difference between the pre-chorus, chorus, the bridge, and the solos.
Even more importantly, transcribing the music of your favorite artists gives you insight into their writing style. Nearly all musicians (aside from avant-garde virtuosos such as Frank Zappa or Steve Vai) tend to develop discernible writing patterns.
A great example is Iron Maiden, which essentially built a career on three chords and two scales while all of their songs feel and sound different.
Learning the Piece Inside Out
The main prerequisite of music transcription is to know the song or music piece by heart. You don’t have to focus on all the details yet.
By listening to one song a sufficient number of times, you will hear the connections between the instruments, separate leads from fillers, and spot where each hit on the drums was made.
Focus on one Instrument at a Time
Let’s say you’re into rock and metal and wanted to transcribe a pop R&B song, such as “Careless Whisper” by George Michael.
You probably wouldn’t notice the subtle guitar fills throughout the verses on your first listen. The bass is barely audible, so focus on listening when it transitions from full notes to eights and fours.
You can transcribe vocals on any other instrument – guitar, bass, piano, saxophone, or even harp. In the case of pop songs, vocals are dominant, so it will be good practice to try to figure out the melodies without singing them.
Learn the Basics of Music Notation
To be fair, I learned about music theory and notation when I began transcribing music, which hindered my progress in the long run. Many people today use transcription apps and digitized music-creator programs, which conveniently transcribe notes in numbers.
It may be easier to learn that “0” is an open note and “12” is the twelfth bar, but memorizing the names of the notes is a must when you want to transcribe music by ear; in short words, most beginners tend to get lost when they start associating sounds with numbers.
Music notation for drums is significantly different, but it’s equally rich as notation for guitars, basses, and other instruments.
Learn the Basic Chords
Music chords are groups of notes usually named after the first note in the sequence. Figuring them all out might take years since there are a whopping 4,017 possible combinations discovered so far, so you may want to learn the basic ones (A, C, D, E, G, and F Minor and Major variants).
There’s a reason most tablatures are expressed in chords; they’re convenient. It’s much easier to create a “sketch” of your transcription by separating the parts and describing them with chords. When you sit to analyze your current transcription, knowing which chord belongs where gives you a solid starting point.
Check Your Guesses by Humming or Playing
Until you’ve gained some experience in music transcription, you will have to guess the notes most of the time. Over time, your guesses will get closer and closer to the bullseye, but even after years, you probably won’t get 100% hits all the time, which is completely normal.
Before writing anything down, it would be smart to verify your assumptions. Grab a guitar, piano, or any other instrument you’re playing, and play the chord you think you’ve heard in the song you want to transcribe.
If you’re both a beginner player and a beginner in transcription, playing single notes is viable, too, although it will take considerably longer. Move around the fretboard (piano) until you’ve nailed the tone, then repeat until you’ve transcribed one section.
If you are not playing any instruments, humming works too. Singers make great transcribers, so if you can sing the note you want to transcribe, it will greatly help you with the other sections.
When transcribing drums, you’ll want to invent a range of grunts, thumps, and sounds that you’ll attribute to different drum noises. The thump of the bass drum should be different from the thump of tom-toms, while you’ll probably need the most time to find authentic sounds for cymbals.
Search for Hidden Details
By now, you should be able to transcribe a chord or two; if given enough time, you could transcribe the “bare bones” of an entire song. However, there are many details you may have missed while you were focused on finding the right notes.
These “hidden details” can be anything that does not concern the main melody you’ve transcribed. It could be harmony, a simple fill, or an accent on the drums you’ve missed.
Move away from transcribing for a few hours and return to listening to the song. Try to immerse yourself into it as much as possible, not focusing on any particular part. The sections you’ve transcribed will feel “revealed,” and you will gain a deeper understanding of how these parts work with everything else. Small details will then be much easier to notice.
Compare Your Results With Tabs
No matter how easy the song is, transcribing any music piece with 100% accuracy is extremely hard. That’s why comparing your results with other people’s tabs can help boost your confidence and analyze any errors you may have made.
You can find tabs for innumerable songs on various websites, such as Songster or Ultimate Guitar, although they’ll probably be in a different format. The key here is to find accurate information about the things you’ve missed or to verify that you’ve done a perfect job.
Is it hard to transcribe music?
For beginners, transcribing music can take a lot of work. The learning curve significantly drops with experience, especially if the transcriber has a good sense of hearing and plays at least one instrument (or sings).
Is there an app that will transcribe music?
Numerous music transcription programs exist, including Melody Scanner, MusicTrans Tool, Piano2Notes, and ScoreCloud. Check out our shootout of the best music notation software.
As you gain experience in transcribing music, you will start to see patterns that you can apply to all future works. Furthermore, your predictions will become more accurate, and the time you’ll need to transcribe simple pieces will be drastically reduced.
I should also point out that learning how to transcribe any instrument will help you transcribe other instruments, regardless of whether you know how to play them. A guitarist can be an amazing drums transcriber and vice versa.
Consistency is fairly important, mainly because when you enter the “transcribing mode,” you will alter your perception of music and start to hear notes, chords, and riffs where you usually listened to songs. Be persistent, and you will surely improve the more you do it.
If you enjoyed this check out our full review of PlayScore2: