Understanding the Process of Transcription Step-by-Step

Now we’re ready to start on the technical elements that are necessary for notation!

But first, let’s talk through the process. Transcription involves several steps. If each one is 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 challenging. Fortunately, we can focus on them one by one to make them more manageable.

  1. We always start by setting up the context: determining meter and key. These help us set up the beginning of our notation and also provide measuring tools to figure out exactly what’s going on in pitch and rhythm.
  2. Next, we listen to and memorize a bit of the music. It’s theoretically possible to go note-by-note with trial-and-error at an instrument, but this can be painfully slow and not helpful for skill-building, so we typically work a phrase or half-phrase at a time. Plus, memorizing these fragments helps us continue to work on our focus and memory skills.
  3. Then we analyze the music. We should come up with rhythm information like “there are two equal notes in beat 1, then a note that lasts 3 beats, then a long-short rhythm across the next two beats,” etc. And we should come up with pitch information like “It goes scale degrees 1-3-5/do-mi-sol,” etc. It’s often useful to jot this information down in a “protonotation” or “shorthand” that efficiently records our understanding of what we hear without the complications of traditional notation.
  4. Then we take the music we’ve analyzed and use our understanding of notation to write it down. It can be tempting to do this at the same time as #3, and for some people that works well. But notation can have unexpected complications that distort our understanding, so it’s often useful to separate out the steps, especially at first.
  5. We repeat steps 2–4 as necessary to get through the whole piece!
  6. When transcribing bass lines or inner voices, we repeat steps 2–5 while focusing on the relevant lines. As we do so, there are some new challenges for our ability to perceive what’s going on, but we can also use whatever knowledge we may have about music theory and harmony to think about the relationships between the lines to help us figure them out.

Now, to be honest: it’s very difficult to keep these steps fully separate. For example, maybe some rhythm so strongly activates our understanding of rhythmic cells that we immediately picture what the notation would look like without memorizing and analyzing first. But it’s useful to separate them at first so that we can practice each on its own. As we get more and more used to the process, we can jump around more intuitively.


Activity: Internalize the transcription process

Goal: Memorize a structure that will help you keep track of the steps involved in transcription, 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, transcription 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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