What Is a Piano Transcription?

Lee Johnson

A piano transcription is a piece of music which has been arranged and written out so that it can be played on a piano as opposed to the instrument it was originally written on. Piano transcriptions are generally written in standard musical notation, but often do not include a bass part. This is because most instruments do not allow the player to produce both bass and melody in the way a piano does. Some transcribers will include the chords which accompany the melody above the staff. Pianos are chromatic instruments, so piano transcription doesn’t usually require the song to be put into a different key.

A piano transcription has been arranged so it can be played on a piano.
A piano transcription has been arranged so it can be played on a piano.

Musical transcription is the process of arranging a piece of music so that it can be played on a different instrument. Piano transcription is therefore music originally written for other instruments that has been arranged so that it can be played on the piano. Musicians can use the original sheet music for the piano transcription, because most music uses the same notation system. Sometimes, pianists simply work out how to play a certain song or part on a piano and transcribe their version of it.

Transcribing music for a piano is usually easier than it is for other instruments.
Transcribing music for a piano is usually easier than it is for other instruments.

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The piano is a chromatic instrument, meaning that it is able to produce all of the notes in the chromatic scale. This basically means it can play any note, and therefore can play in any key. Transcribing for a piano is therefore easier than for some other instruments, because the songs don’t have to be transposed into a different key. This is different from an ordinary trumpet, for example, which can only play music in B flat.

Standard musical notation is the most common medium for piano transcription. This is the universal musical language, which features staffs with one of two clefs at the beginning and notes arranged at different points on it. Different types of notation indicate the length of time a note should be held for, and the position on the lines or spaces of the staff allows musicians to determine which note to play. Piano transcription can be done with no effort at all if the original piece of music is also written in standard musical notation.

Depending on the instrument played on the original version of the song, the piano transcription may or may not include a bass part. Instruments only capable of producing one note at a time, such as a trombone, cannot produce a melody and a bass part and are therefore transcribed as a melody line only. Other instruments, like harpsichords, can play both bass and melody parts, and can be transcribed along with the bass part. If there is no bass part for the particular instrument, some transcribers may include the chords played by the other instruments above the melody staff.

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Discussion Comments


One thing I've discovered about the piano transcriptions I've used is that the key is usually "guitar friendly". Guitarists and pianists have different keys they prefer, mostly because those chords are the easiest to play on their instruments. Guitarists usually like to play in the key of E or A or D, since guitars are naturally tuned to those chords. Pianists like to play in the key of C or F or Bb, since those chords are easier to form on the piano keys.

Whenever I get a piano transcription, it's almost always written in the original key of the recorded version or in those keys favored by guitarists. I don't mind it, because I know how hard it is for guitarists to play chords like C major and F major. I can always adjust my fingering to play in E or A or D, but other instruments may not be able to transpose keys like that.


I'm a musician and I can play about ten different instruments, including piano, saxophone and trumpet. One thing I've noticed about most piano transcriptions is that they can only approximate what the original instrumentalist played. Other instruments like saxophones and jazz flutes can bend notes and change dynamics and add quick grace notes. It's not something you can easily duplicate on a piano.

I appreciate having a piano transcription if I'm going to play a solo on the piano, but if I'm just providing a keyboard fill for a vocalist or band, I prefer to work out my own arrangements. I don't want to try a note-for-note piano version of a well-known sax solo. It just won't sound right.

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