How to Transcribe Music in 15 Easy Steps

closeup of conductor baton on sheet music
closeup of conductor baton on sheet music

By William Ridd

This article originally appeared on the Jellynote blog

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So you want to learn how to transcribe music? You’ve come to the right place. Here’s a 15-step programme to teach you how to transcribe music.

Step 1 – Choose a piece within your ability.

Reach for the stars, by all means, but also try to be realistic. If you’re a complete beginner, it’s probably not a good idea to throw yourself in the deep end by attempting to transcribe a piece with seven different instruments. For your first transcription, try a song with just a melody line and a guitar.

Step 2 – Listen to the piece.

It may sound obvious, but listen to the whole piece at least once through before starting to transcribe. Find a quiet room so you won’t be distracted and make sure you have a high quality recording of the piece you wish to transcribe.

Step 3 – Download an application.

You can try transcribing without the help of an application, but it definitely makes your job easier. Transcribe! (for Mac) or Audacity (on Mac or Windows) are very useful!

Step 4 – Work out the time signature.

After you’ve listened to the piece through, the next task is working out the time signature. First, mark all the bar lines on the music. Then, note the different sections of the song, by writing “verse”, “chorus”, “bridge” etc. This will help you divide it up into more manageable sections.

If you have trouble working out the time signature of the song, try “conducting it” as if you were a conductor. It also helps if you have a metronome at hand. Transcribe! actually has a metronome function to help you work out the time signature.

Step 5 – Slow the music down.

Slow down the piece of music you wish to transcribe — this is a feature on many transcription services. If you are beginner, decrease the speed to a level you feel comfortable with — maybe 50%, or even slower if you need. This is because when you slow the music down, you have more time to process what you’ve just heard.

Remember, changing the speed of the music won’t affect the pitch of the notes!

Transcribe app
There is a feature on Transcribe! that allows you to slow down the speed of the song.

Step 6 – Start with the bass line.

The bass line is usually the easiest line to pick out (as the music is usually built on top of it) so it’s a great place to start.

Most transcription services will have features that allow you to listen to certain parts of the music. On Transcribe!, you can use the EQ service which removes all the other frequencies, leaving you with just the bass line.

Transcribe app
Transcribe the bass line before attempting the other lines.

Step 7 – Listen to the line.

Yup. You guessed it. There’s a lot of listening involved in this process so get used to it!

Step 8 – Hum the line.

If you can hum the line, you’re more likely to be able to recognize it when you come to recreate it on your instrument.

Step 9 – Play it on the instrument.

Use your instrument to try to intimidate the sounds you hear. This is especially important if you’re a beginner or a musician who isn’t blessed with perfect pitch!

It’s helpful if you can use the same instrument when attempting to copy the sound. Of course, you can’t play all the instruments at the same time, but you could use a MIDI keyboard, which produces the sound of a variety of different instruments, thus allowing you to “play” them.

While you do need all the instruments that are in the piece, some musicians only use a piano. You could use a piano, but it’s easier if you can recreate the sound heard on the recording.

midi keyboard
A MIDI keyboard.

Step 10 –  Play and listen simultaneously.

Think you’ve got the first few notes? Try playing them on your instrument at the same time as listening to the song to check if they’re correct.

Step 11 – Note it down!

Got it right? Amazing! Congratulations! Now write it down! Either you can play it on a keyboard connected to the laptop or you can note it by hand. If you want to use a software to mark the notes, try Sibelius or Finale. Remember to note down everything you hear. If not, you’ll probably forget it.

Step 12 – Stuck on one of the notes?

Transcribe! has a feature that enables you to loop a certain section of music, meaning you can listen to it as many times as you need. You can try to find the note on the keyboard by continuously playing a different note until you find the right one.

Transcribe app
Transcribe! allows you to loop a section of music.

Step 13 – Transcribe the rest of the chord.

After writing out the bass line, you have to find the chords. Use the same method as before — loop the section you’re struggling with and slow it down as much as you need. While you could separate the chords into notes, it’s a lot easier to build a chord by hearing it all together.

Play that bass note on whatever instrument you’re using for transcription. Next you have to try to find the top note. You can usually try to guess it. Slow the recording to 50%. You should have enough time to imitate the original recording on the keyboard. When you have the melody, you can build a chord between the bass note and the top note.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to use the “trial and error” method to build the chords, whilst continuously checking it with the original audio.

Step 14– Transcribing the vocal line.

Luckily, you don’t have to speak the same language of the vocal line you’re transcribing. You can usually look the lyrics up online so you won’t have to transcribe them by ear. Sometimes, it’s more difficult to understand the vocal line when the speed is at 50% so he will increase it to 70%.

Helpful hint: The tone of a saxophone is closer to a human voice than the tone of the piano, so use a saxophone sound out of a VST synth for a more faithful recreation.

Logic screenshot
Use a saxophone to imitate the tone of a human voice.

Step 15 – Don’t give up!

There’s no trick to master this skill straightaway. Learning how to transcribe takes a long time. No matter how much of a beginner you are, you will improve if you practice often!

Good luck!

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