When you care about transcribing a piece of music, the best place to start is to do some listening to get a general “feel” for the music. Of course, many instructors do not require this step, and many students are busy enough that they may feel it necessary to jump right into the more technical processes outlined in later sections. But if you have time for this step, especially if you want to arrange a song for another ensemble, it can be really helpful.
These more general perspectives can inform all the technical elements we’ll go through in the coming sections. And of course, the more you’ve listened, the more familiar everything will be.
Goal: Gain a baseline understanding of a song that will prepare you to transcribe it
Before you start: Choose a song you’d like to transcribe! You may want to think about your goal. Is your end goal a transcription? an arrangement? a new understanding of a style or approach? These will affect exactly what you pay attention to.
- Come up with some general descriptions of the song. These could be a few sentences or merely a set of adjectives. These can be especially helpful if you’re going to arrange the song for a different ensemble, because they’ll let you focus on the general effect (which can hopefully be translated into whatever ensemble you’re going for) rather than the specific details (which may not translate well).
- Note the layers used in the song. Most songs have a melody and a bass line. Is everything else just supporting harmony? Are there prominent countermelody instruments? Is there a percussive line? And is there anywhere in the song where these change?
- Note the form, in whatever level of detail your knowledge will allow. For example, is there a prominent return to the opening melody? Are there contrasting sections?
- What is the “shape” of the song as a whole? Is there a climax?