Once you have the melody and the bass lines in place, it’s time to figure out the harmonic voices that fill out your chords. This can be challenging, and depends as much on your music theory knowledge as it does on your ear. Rhythmically, the harmony often copies the melody voice or the bass line so most of that is work you have already done. You’re just filling in the chords. I’m not planning to explain chords to you today, because you should already have a working knowledge if you’re taking on this kind of project. (See this link to learn the basics)I just want to remind you of some key things to keep in mind. Like:
- Predictable chord progressions- don’t make this harder than it is. 80% of music follows one of only a handful of chord progressions. Standards, if you will. Start with one of these to make an educated guess and then modify it to fit your music.
- Inversions- just because it’s in the bass, doesn’t mean it’s the root of the chord. Consider a I6 or I6/4 inversion.
- Modulations happen- I like to think of these as temporary key changes. Don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself using a new accidental for a few measures. You will probably hear it in the music, so don’t let it confuse you on paper.
- Start simple- rhythm can be a distraction when it comes to melodic dictation. If the harmony is presenting a challenge, simplify the rhythm. Use whole notes (or half notes if the chords change that fast) until you’re sure that you have chosen the correct pitches. Then go back and adjust the rhythm accordingly.
By the time you have filled in your harmony parts, your song should sound nearly complete. Everything else is just the icing on the cake. Congratulations! Your arrangement is almost done!
Filings are what I call the voices that don’t follow the melody. They usually just offer short riffs that fill in the gaps in the melody. In a song with vocals they might be the backup singers. Classic example:
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Any musical work can be broken down into sections. There is often a recognizable pattern to and within these sections. (I think as a species we are just drawn to patterns). You can identify this pattern and label your sections accordingly. This is the time to indicate things like rehearsal markers, repeats, and codas. Or you may prefer using terms like chorus, verse, and bridge. You’ve got options! So what are you looking for?:
- Dal Segno/Capo
- Multiple endings
Count out your measures and split the song into sections on your score. You may want to indicate this with double bar lines and/or lettered rehearsal markers. Most sections will be an even number of measures, like 4, 8, or 16.
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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- Melody- I can hear this voice the clearest, so I transcribe it first.
- Key Signature- Once I have the melody, I can usually figure this out. The sooner the better.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Fill-ins- These are the last melodic line purely so they do not distract my ears from the melody, harmony, and bass line.
- Percussion- I also don’t want to be distracted by a drum set when I’m trying to here pitch.
- Dynamics/ Articulation- These usually apply to more than one voice at a time, so I like to have all my notes in place first.
- 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!
It’s time to put some of that theory knowledge to good use. You have your time signature, you have some melody, it’s time to figure out the key signature of this song. You need a healthy knowledge of scales for this. Being familiar with the Circle of 5ths would also be incredibly helpful. You will need several measures of dictation already done to determine a key signature.
- Take a note, which accidentals (sharps or flats) keep popping up in your melody? An accidental that only occurs once can probably be ignored, but if you see Ab over and over, it’s probably in your key signature. Casino Night Zone includes Eb, Gb, Ab, and Bb. The Gb and Eb happen pretty rarely, so we can probably ignore them.
- Now compare this to the Order of sharps (F# C# G# D# E# A# B#) or Order of flats (Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb). You will never have both sharps AND flats in the same key signature, so you may have to use enharmonic spellings to make sure all your accidentals are either one or the other. (Rather than Ab and D#, use Ab and Eb, or G# and D#.)
- When a song has flats, I move back one flat in the order of flats to determine my key signature. One flat before Ab is Eb, so the song would be in the key signature of Eb. Sharps work a little differently. For sharps, the key signature is a half-step above the last sharp in your order of sharps. ( eg.: A half step above C# is D.)
- Add the key signature to the beginning of your notation. Now you don’t have to add in every single accidental, because most of them should be automatically indicated by the key signature.
- If you are having trouble pinpointing the key signature, feel free to leave the arrangement in C major (no sharps or flats). You will just have to mark every single accidental until you identify the key signature. This is the option I’m using for Casino Night Zone, because the accidentals are not consistent enough to indicate a signature. (It sounds like it’s using a blues scale, but I’m not taking the time to figure that out today. I should’ve picked a better example. :-/)
Ahh… melodic dictation, the crux of what we’re doing here today. Have no fear. If you can sing it, you can dictate it. It’s time to discern the pitch of that rhythm you counted out in the last tutorial. There are tools and apps that can help you out here, but I think training your ear is key. Therefore, we’re going to use our ears and a handy dandy keyboard (or keyboard app). If you’re using notation software, it most likely plays the note through your speaker when you click on the staff. This can easily work as your keyboard.
- Sing the first note of your melodic line. Now play a note on your keyboard. Is it higher or lower than the note you’re singing? This gives you an indication of which direction to move (unless you hit your note dead on, in which case GO YOU!).
- Move higher or lower until you are matching pitch with the keyboard. Ta-da! You’ve found your first note! The hard part is officially over! Move your notation to indicate the correct pitch.
- Now that you have a starting point, it should get easier to find each subsequent note. Is it higher or lower than the note that came before? Maybe a short sequence of notes repeats itself. You can always default to singing each individual note and finding it on the keyboard.
- It goes without saying, but listen to your source recording often. Every few measures, listen to your notation and gauge your progress. Is the rhythm still accurate? Are the notes right? Did you get that accidental?
- Tackle your one melodic line chunk by chunk until it is complete. Congratulations! In my opinion, it only gets easier from here.
I like to do my melodic dictation in steps, and my first step is rhythmic dictation. This is where I determine the rhythm of a melodic line while disregarding pitch.
I usually start with whichever voice is carrying the melody, since this will give me the most information for determining key signature later. Another good option is to start with whichever voice you hear at the beginning of the song.
Many songs have an introduction of accompaniment before the melody voice starts. In many cases, this will be a repetitive baseline. Once you’ve transcribed it, a large chunk of the song is already done.
Now, if I’m doing my rhythmic dictation handwritten on a piece of paper, I will just draw note stems that indicate the rhythm. If I’m doing it on the computer, I will pick a note, like bottom space f or middle line b (in treble clef), and I’ll write the whole rhythm out all on one pitch. So pick your note and let’s get started! As a reminder, Casino Night Zone is in 4/4 time.
- Decide if there’s a pickup note. Listen to the music. Tap your feet to the beat and count out a few measures. You are trying to determine where beat one is. Beat one would, in most cases, be stressed some how. It may be accented, or look for the beginning of a repeating rhythm. Now, go back to the beginning of the music. Are there beats that happen before the first beat one? If so, you’ve got a pick up measure.
- Listen to your music again, phrase by phrase. Distinguish note values by counting and subdividing the beats. Notate each measure, focusing solely on getting accurate rhythms.
- Repeat this process section by section for the remainder of the song. Don’t forget useful notation shortcuts like repeat signs and codas.
So I’ve had a bit of a break away from MuseScore, and when I opened it tonight I needed a refresher course in how to get around the program. Enter Google. I came across this incredible website called MuseScoreTips!!!
Whether you just need a refresher, like myself, or you’re learning the program for the first time, this site is definitely worth a bookmark! I was able to find step by step tutorials with screenshots for every function in MuseScore.
I understand that her ebook is also incredibly helpful, but honestly, I haven’t read it myself to verify that. Link below!:
MuseScoreTips – Easy-to-follow MuseScore music notation how-to articles, tips and tutorials.
*** For the purposes of this tutorial series, I will be arranging Casino Night Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. ***
Time signature is usually the first thing you need to determine about a song you want to transcribe. The time signature answers two questions: 1. How many beats are in each measure? and 2. What kind of beats are they? Luckily, this is rarely a difficult thing to find.
Determining Key Signature
- Listen to the song. Tap your feet as if you’re walking along with the steady beat of the music. Make sure you’re finding the BEAT (steady and consistent) and not the Rhythm.
- Narrow it down and focus on one voice/instrument, preferably one that is doing something repetitive. Some good examples would be drums, piano, or bass. Count how many beats it takes before the rhythm repeats itself. You will most likely come up with a number between 3 and 8. Congratulations! You have now answered question number 1.
- Now zero in on the individual beats (the space between each toe tap). How are they split up? Commonly, you will hear 1-4 individual notes inside each beat. This helps you answer question 2. If you counted 1, 2, or 4; then your music probably uses quarter notes as the base. If you counted 3; it uses eighth notes.
- At the beginning of your music staff, the time signature will look like 2 numbers stacked on top of each other. The top number should be whatever you got in step 2. The bottom number is either a 4 or an 8 depending on your base note value (step 3). Quarter note base means use a 4, eighth note base means to use an 8. For Casino Night Zone, the time signature is 4/4.
As a reference note, the 3 most common time signatures are 4/4, 6/8, and 3/4. If you come up with something like 8/4, you probably mean 4/4 and the rhythm was just 2 measures long. There are always exceptions to these guidelines, but the process outlined above will still work. If you’re getting into more complex and uneven metered works, you probably don’t need my tutorial. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you leave in the comments section below.
I was a music major in college. (Go Chants!) I spent a lot of time crossing my inner band nerd with my inner gaming blerd to create sheet music on my computer. At the time, everybody used either Cakewalk or Finale to do our arrangements. Both are incredible programs and are well worth the investment if you work with music on a daily basis, like a band director or a composer.
I am no longer a band director, so it’s honestly not worth my money to stay up-to-date with the latest in notation software. BUT I still like to dabble from time to time. I’m 2 or 3 laptops removed from college, so I no longer have access to a legit copy of Finale.
Below, you will find a link to MuseScore, the FREE notation software that I now use to make my arrangements. The learning curve may be a little steep at first, but that won’t last long. Give it a try! Maybe soon I’ll start sharing my arrangements!
MuseScore | Free music composition and notation software
Update: I have now found an awesome website full of tutorials for using MuseScore. Whenever I have a question I go right over there and it’s answered. Bookmark it!