Understanding the Process of Dictation Step-By-Step

In a previous chapter, we focused on the steps involved in transcribing music. Since dictation is a specialized form of transcription, the steps are much the same; we’ll just focus on a different part of the process. You may wish to review the transcription process here.

Like transcription, dictation involves several steps. If they’re already pretty automatic for you, that won’t be a problem; but for people who have to really work at any of these steps, putting them all together right away can be a problem. Fortunately, we can focus on them one by one to make them more manageable.

  1. On our first hearing, our primary goal is to set up the context: determine meter and key.
  2. On our second hearing, we focus on and memorize a bit of the music. If the music is short enough, maybe it will be the whole thing, but if not, we’ll have to focus on one portion at a time. This is a challenge for our focus and memory. It can help to set an intention before this second hearing, based on our first-hearing impression: for example, “I’m going to really focus on the first half this time.”
  3. After that second hearing, we have a short period (typically of relative silence) to analyze and notate the music we memorized. This is really two steps: analysis is figuring out what’s going on in the music, then notation is using our knowledge of how notation works to write it down.
  4. Depending on the length of the music and the number of times we get to hear it (which are hopefully related), we may repeat steps 2–3 a few more times, focusing on different portions of the music. Anecdotally, we believe it’s particularly common to receive 3–6 hearings for a typical dictation.
  5. Ideally, we will have the music mostly notated before our final time hearing the music; if so, we use the final hearing to double-check our answer and/or fill in any remaining gaps.

How is this different from transcription? Here are the most important new challenges:

  • Since we have a limited number of times to hear the music, there is greater pressure on our focus and memory. This is especially true if the music is long enough that we have to focus on one section at a time.
  • Since we have a limited amount of time between hearings, it can be tempting to leap right to notation without carefully thinking through the beats and scale degrees. This sometimes leads to errors.

Activity: Internalize the dictation process

Goal: Memorize a structure that will help you keep track of the steps involved in dictation, reducing the load on your working memory.

Instructions: Memorize the process described above. It may be useful to memorize it in short form: meter, key, memorize, analyze, notate (MKMAN). This may seem silly and unnecessary, but remember, dictation can be overwhelming. The more you feel you understand the process, the less stressed you’ll feel and the more efficiently you’ll be able to move through the steps.



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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