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The art of transcription…

August 21st, 2006 | 2 Comments | Categories: Musing on Music |

Transcribing music is hard. Much harder than you’d imagine, if you’re trying to get it ‘right’.

TAB taken from the internet is, always, as you’d imagine, total shite. Without exception. It’s a limitation of the form – TAB just doesn’t contain most of the information needed to read a piece of music properly. It can show you roughly where on the fingerboard you can put your fingers to get sounds similar to the ones on a CD, but unless you’ve also got the CD and good enough ears to correct the handiwork of some inbred 12 year old from the mountains of Montana, y’all aren’t going to get very close to sounding like the record, and what’s worse, you’re screwed should anyone ask to play along and want some clues as to the key, the notes involved or any other actual musical information about it.

Sadly books often aren’t that much better. I’ve got a Jaco Pastorius transcription book. It’s rubbish. Total balls. lots of it isn’t even close. A student of mine brought round a Muse transcription book today. more nonsense. The notes were roughly right, but the TAB given for the tune we were doing (Hysteria) was utter nonsense, and would result in it sounding not much like the original, if you care about the feel of the tune. It only took me 30 seconds to confirm via YouTube that the bassist from Muse did indeed play this the way I thought he did and not the way it’s tabbed in the book.

And all over the country kids are parting with their hard earned pocket money for this crap.

See, the problem is that even if you get the notes right, there’s an easy way to write most things and a hard way – another student of mine has got a couple of transcription books of Jamiroquai stuff. There don’t seem to be many actual ‘inaccuracies’ in the book – a few minor discrepancies, but nothing beyond a reasonable margin of error. However, the way the stuff is written out is way way way more complex than it has to be. Staccato quavers written as alternate semi-quaver notes and rests rather than staccato dots being added to the notes. Rhythmic groupings within syncopated bars that make it tricky to read. Too much nonsense generated by Sibelius or whatever score-writing package is being used.

Look, if you’re doing transcriptions, the art is to make it so that the reader can read the music, not just to be ‘right’ but to be ‘good’. It’s all well and good telling me that ‘that’s what he played’ but is it what he intended, is it how he thought about it. those semi-quaver rests aren’t rests at all, they’re just the gaps between staccato notes. A very different thing, and the quavers are MUCH easier to read and understand, and make it easier to see what kind of groove it is at a glance.

It’s possible to over-transcribe too. when I was doing my transcription of Portrait Of Tracey for Total Guitar Magazine, I used a few different ones as source material. The one in the aforementioned Jaco book was nonsense, of course. The one in Bass Player magazine was so ‘right’ that is was impossible to interpret – bars of 11/4 and 13/8 where all that was happening was a ‘gap’ between the phrases. Was Jaco counting 11 beats, or whatever? Doesn’t sound like it to me. So put in one of those little hat things that mean ‘pause’ over the last note, and let people ‘feel’ the space and get on with actually playing music.

Transcribing should be totally accurate, but not pedantic. It’s a hard line to tread, and one where you have to keep in mind what is going to lead to the reader getting to the music accurately and painlessly? That’s why Sibelius or whatever is only ever as good as the person using it. It always needs correcting away from whatever it defaults to.

As a rule, Bass Player Magazine has the best transcriptions – they’re always worth a look, occasional attacks of gruesome pedantry notwithstanding. The ones in ‘Standing In The Shadows Of Motown’ are great too. fab stuff. Watch out for the dodgy ones, they’ll take you longer to suss out the lines on than it would to work it out from the CD…

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Mike

    AAAAAAaaargh! You’ve just hit the “transcriptions” button for me. I get *SO* annoyed playing in church because 90% of the music is really HORRIBLY transcribed. I chatted to somebody from a publishing house about this and the problem is that Worship Leader A, let’s call him Tim, writes a tune on his guitar (chords and lyrics), sends a demo to publishing house who transcribe it. In the meantime Tim is playing his new song a fair amount and refining it. Since Tim can’t read music (“You don’t have to be able to read music” says Tim at a big Christian conference) he doesn’t check the transcription of the tune is correct, just the chords. Then Tim records his tune for a CD. Later he plays it at a conference. We now have at least 4 different ways of playing that song in church: 1/ What’s written; 2/ What’s played on the CD; 3/ What was heard at the conference; 4/ The way the congregation sing it.

    It drives me MENTAL!!! I guess one answer is never to buy transcription books or at least not to treat them as “gospel” truth of how to play anything.

    Bah!

  • Steve Lawson

    the other answer is to avoid songs by people called Tim…

    The promotion of musical illiteracy is such a pain – it’s not that there aren’t great musicians that don’t read music, it’s just that even they can’t explain properly what they are doing, and so are stunted in their interaction with other musicians. If you build into your musical life a safety-net, whereby you avoid such encounters, of course you’re going to swan through life thinking that any musician can get by without reading music. However, for the rest of us, it doesn’t work like that.

    And FFS, it doesn’t take long to learn to read music – it’s only a graph after all!