What does a Music Transcriber do?

Mary McMahon

A music transcriber produces sheet music from music which is performed or recorded. The sheet music can be used to study the music, play it again in other venues, or to develop arrangements, in which the music is altered in some way. Music transcription requires an excellent ear, skill with musical instruments, and patience. These professionals can make varying amounts of money, depending on the type of music they handle and how many jobs they can do each year.

Historically, music copyists drew musical notes by hand.
Historically, music copyists drew musical notes by hand.

There are a number of settings in which the services of a music transcriber, also known as a music transcriptionist, might be needed. The classic example is when someone has a recording of a piece of music, but no sheet music to accompany it. The music could be something like an improvised jazz piece, recordings of traditional ethnic music, or even a recording of popular music for which no sheet music has been released. A music transcriber can listen to the piece of music and transcribe it in the form of sheet music which can be read by anyone who has the training to read music.

A music transcriber turns performed or recorded music into sheet music.
A music transcriber turns performed or recorded music into sheet music.

This takes time. The music transcriber usually listens to the piece all the way through at least once, and then begins stepping through it, using musical notation to translate what is being heard into something which can be read in the form of sheet music. The task can be especially complicated when the music includes more than one instrument, or utilizes chords, keys, and techniques which may not be familiar to the transcriber. Music transcribers tend to focus on a particular genre or area of interest so that they work with music with which they are familiar.

Transcribers can write out sheet music by hand, or use computer programs. They can also use technology in transcription, doing things like slowing the speed to hear the notes more easily. In addition, some programs have an autotranscribe function which is designed to generate sheet music automatically, although the reliability of such programs is not always the best.

Recording studios and archives sometimes use transcribers to produce sheet music when it is not available, as do individual musicians; not all musicians write and read sheet music, and a musician may opt to use a music transcriber to prepare sheet music of his or her work. This sheet music can be distributed to band members or sold to members of the public who would like to be able to play that musician's work.

It is important to distinguish between a transcriber and a copyist. A copyist is someone who copies sheet music. Historically, the only way to get reproductions of music was to use a copyist. Today, digitized sheet music has made the need for copyists less common. A transcriber is also not an arranger, although transcribists can do things like breaking up orchestra scores into their component parts and transcribing a piece of music designed for one instrument so that it can be used with another.

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Discussion Comments


A classic example of transcription can be found in gospel music. Let's say you have a piano player and a guitar player who want to play the same song. The problem is that piano players naturally stick with keys that seem somewhat foreign to guitar players. The easiest way to deal with that problem is through a capo -- a device that fits over the frets of a guitar neck and can let a guitarist play the chords with which he is familiar in keys which he is not.

Say, for example, you've got a song in the key of B-flat -- easy for a pianist but hard for a guitarist to follow due to some odd-shaped chords. Let's say the guitarist knows the song in the key of E. He or she can use a capo so that the chords played in the key of E will actually match up with the key of B-flat and both musicians are comfortable playing the song.

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