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Tutorial: Musical Structure aka Parts of a Song

Today I want to talk about planning out your transcription process. Admittedly, I probably should’ve written this tutorial first. But I think it’s better that you develop some theory and dictation basics before we start to throw in strategy. You can’t exactly decide what order to do your steps in if you don’t know what they are, can you? So now that you know what it takes to transcribe a line of music, you need to decide the best order to transcribe your voices in. A lot of this is going to boil down to personal preference and what is easiest for you and your ears. Here, I plan to offer some guidelines you can follow to map out your project. First, what are the elements of a transcription? In no particular order:

  • Melody- If you’re humming a familiar tune to yourself, this is most likely the part that you’re humming.
  • Harmony- Rhythmically similar to the melody, but using different, complementary pitches.
  • Bass line- The lowest voice, usually providing a tonal center and foundation for the other voices above it.
  • Percussion- Percussion instruments have a notation system all their own a lot of the time, It is worth getting familiar with if you are not a percussionist but you want to do complete arrangements.
  • Fill ins- Unlike the harmony, what I’m calling “fill-ins” do not resemble the melody at all. They are the little in-between elements and riffs that you hear in a song. The backup singer voices, if you will. If you have a call and response style going on, this may be the response.
  • Dynamics & Articulation- Is the music played loud or soft? Are the notes short? Strong? Connected? This element is key to having musicians interpret your transcription the way you intended.
  • Musical structure – What pattern does the song follow? Do sections repeat? Is there a coda?
  • Key signature- You should already know what this is.
  • Time signature- You should already know this one too.
  • Tempos- How many beats per minute? Is the song fast or slow?
  • Scoring/Instrumentation- Not just what instruments are in the original example, but also, what instruments are you writing for?

I think that about covers all the basic elements/steps of writing a transcription. Now you need to decide what order to execute them in. Take into consideration which steps are dependent on other steps. It’s pointless to try and do articulations before you dictate the notes, right? I offer you my usual plan of attack along with my reasoning:

  1. Scoring/Instrumentation- Maybe I want to arrange a piece for marching band. Or jazz band. Or piano. Usually this decision happens on its own. Like “Wow. This song would sound awesome played by a marching band! Time to open MuseScore.”
  2. Time Signature- This is just the easiest thing to figure out to me. I also feel like almost everything else depends on knowing this bit of information first.
  3. Melody- I can hear this voice the clearest, so I transcribe it first.
  4. Key Signature- Once I have the melody, I can usually figure this out. The sooner the better.
  5. Roadmap- Also fairly easy to determine once the melody is written. Introductions and repeats are pretty obvious. And I can now break the song down into convenient sections for future work.
  6. Bass Line- This is the foundation, and I find it easier to predict the harmony lines once I have the tonal centers in place. It’s usually repetitive, so it’s not that difficult.
  7. Harmony- I wait until after the top (melody) and bottom (bass) voices are in place, because I can predict the chords easier this way. If there are multiple harmonic lines, I usually start with the highest one.
  8. Fill-ins- These are the last melodic line purely so they do not distract my ears from the melody, harmony, and bass line.
  9. Percussion- I also don’t want to be distracted by a drum set when I’m trying to here pitch.
  10. Dynamics/ Articulation- These usually apply to more than one voice at a time, so I like to have all my notes in place first.
  11. Tempo- I save this for last because regardless of how slow or fast the song actually goes, I always do my arranging at a slow tempo so that I can hear everything clearly. This ensures better pitch and rhythmic accuracy. Once I’m sure this is all correct, I adjust the tempo to match the actual song.

And after all this, my transcription or arrangement is complete! YAY! You don’t have to follow my map, but it’s somewhere to start if you haven’t quite figured out yours yet. What’s your roadmap? Get your geek on!

What about you?