How to transcribe music from other instruments?

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Charlie Schultz
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How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by Charlie Schultz » Fri Jan 29, 2010 1:41 pm

Any suggestions (e.g. books) on learning how to do this (and what kind of background might be beneficial/required)? Specifically I'm interested in keyboard to guitar. I imagine it's as much art as science, but I'd like to know what the basics are.

I googled a bit, but most of the hits seem to talk about transcribing by ear (which seems to me to be much more difficult).

Thanks,
Charlie

Brent Hutto

Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by Brent Hutto » Fri Jan 29, 2010 1:52 pm

Why not start by just playing the piano music on your guitar? Play the melody first and then see how the bass line and then the inner voice(s) fall under your fingers while you're playing the melody. Then either move the melody to other strings/registers or else pick and choose your accompaniment notes to be playable and sound good on the guitar.

The advantage to this method is you'll by definition end up with something you can play on the guitar. Nothing worse than a "transcription" that's only playable by a prodigy with monkey-fingers! Of course if you're like me the result might be the melody plus every other bass note and that's it...

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Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by Jeremiah Lawson » Fri Jan 29, 2010 2:07 pm

I have found a few principles useful in transcribing keyboard literature. I haven't done a lot of it but I have worked over the years on arranging Hindemith's piano and viola music for guitar, and have been looking into cross-pollinating fugues for keyboard and guitar. For what it's worth I have a modicum of experience with this, at the risk of tooting my own horn.

For keyboard literature the first and simplest rule is to take whatever is in the treble clef and bump it down an octave. If you try to play the melody at pitch it can quickly get beyond the practical range of the guitar or, barring that problem, it gets beyond the range of the guitar where you also have any chance of preserving accompaniment figuration.

The second rule is merely an extension of the first, transposition into the easiest key possible to preserve the key melodic and harmonic points is always good. A piece in D flat major can be dropped to C. A piece in E flat major can be raised to E. B flat can be raised to B major or lowered to A major depending on what becomes easier.

In harmonic adaptation favor the notes that do not appear in the melodic line. This helps convey the impression of fuller harmonies where the full chordal and melodic texture is impractical. For instance, if you're in the key of C and the melody has the tonic then you can include E and G in the accompaniment. If, on the other hand, you're melody has C but the harmony is a C major 7th chord you'll have to judge what the linear considerations of the accompaniment are and favor the notes that most define and imply the harmony rather than attempting to preserve everything. At this point the fifth of the chord might become the least important element compared to the third and seventh chord factors.

This may seem obvious or awkward but with keyboard literature it frequently helps to be able to play through the piece at the keyboard before you seriously consider adapting the work to one or two guitars. It will give you a stronger sense of what is musically necessary or unnecessary in an adaptation. This becomes more important with 20th century repertoire. If I hadn't played through any Hindemith at the keyboard I don't think I would have been equipped with the experience and insight into his music necessary to adapt his work to the guitar.

You may want to try an intermediate path to keyboard transcription, transcriptions of choral works cast in a keyboard format. Chorales by Bach, for instance, can be obtained in grand staff and are simple enough that you can learn how to preserve and eliminate essential musical elements and work your way to keyboard repertoire with more contrapuntal or harmonic density later.

Of course last but not least you may find that the best way to adapt a keyboard piece is to arrange it for two guitars. I'm in the process of adapting a ragtime I wrote for the piano in C minor into a duet for guitars in E minor. I imagine there must be books on adapting keyboard repertoire to solo guitar but I don't know the names or titles.

ksjazzguitar

Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by ksjazzguitar » Fri Jan 29, 2010 4:07 pm

You might check out some books on general book son orchestration and books on piano reduction. Both of these helped me understand how to figure out what was important and what wasn't. Also, you can study actual guitar reductions, compare them to the originals and see what the arranger has chosen to leave out, and try to understand why.

Often, the choice to leave something out in favor of something else can be very subjective. Sometimes, when I've been working from an arrangement by a respected guitar player, I have decided to leave something out or add something back in, from their arrangement - I just had a different idea about what was more important.

Also, keep in mind that sometimes you end up adding something in. Consider the triplets in Leyenda (Asturias). They are not in the original, but they certainly do help get the "mood" of the piece. Consider the Bach Sarabande (BWV1002). Those low F#s and Es, of course they don't exist on the violin. But they do help support the piece. And often the low F# in measure 9 (the 2nd ending of the A section) accenting the string beat 2 of the Sarabande figure. This is something a Baroque violinist would instinctively "pulse", but of course we could never do on guitar. We can occasionally hint at it. Even Bach would change and add/subtract things as he arranged for other instruments. Of course, when people like Busoni and Brahms arranged Bach's Chaconne for piano, they often added a lot of stuff.

And ultimately realize that it is your arrangement. No one says it has to be a perfect transcription - it can simply be your interpretation. As long as it sounds good, that is the most important thing.

My $.02,

Peace,
Kevin

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Les Backshall
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Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by Les Backshall » Fri Jan 29, 2010 4:55 pm

Very much as Wenatchee TheHatchet said. By far the easiest way of actually doing it is to get some notation software (musescore is free) and input the piece as written. You can then transpose and play around with keys etc... all you want. It's very useful to be able to test out different keys; for instance the well known Weiss Fantasia is often played in either D-minor or E-minor.

Les
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Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by slidika » Sat Jan 30, 2010 10:08 am

I use Tabledit as my music editor, and I found out very quickly that just putting notes in an arrangement (for clawhammer banjo, which I learned prior to classical guitar) does not impede the MIDI playback -- but may be well-nigh impossible for a human to play.
Whenever I am not ready for my music lesson, I call it 'facing the music'.

flameproof

Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by flameproof » Sat Jan 30, 2010 11:49 am

Les Backshall wrote:Very much as Wenatchee TheHatchet said. By far the easiest way of actually doing it is to get some notation software (musescore is free) and input the piece as written. You can then transpose and play around with keys etc... all you want. It's very useful to be able to test out different keys; for instance the well known Weiss Fantasia is often played in either D-minor or E-minor.
MuseScore is a notation tool, and is singularly unsuitable as a composition tool (not least because it is still quite flaky). (I like MuseScore, it's what I've used for all the scores I have uploaded here.)

I have always used CakeWalk -- notes can be dropped/dragged/cut/pasted/lengthened/shortened/copied (superimposed) into existing tracks etc., with great ease.

I recently started playing with Wilhelmj's piano/violin reduction of Bach's Air -- having entered the whole score* I copied and pasted all the parts into a single new track, and transposed everything by appropriate octaves (I eventually settled on a transposition into C). By having everything in a single track the process is greatly simplified -- notes that are unreachably low or overly busy chords are immediately apparent, and I direct my attention to those first. It took about 15 minutes to achieve a workable solo arrangement (which I will admit could still do with some tweaking).



*years ago I arranged it for guitar trio, so I had the score already in appropriate format

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Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by pogmoor » Sat Jan 30, 2010 8:15 pm

I usually scan music with PhotoScore, then send it to Sibelius for arranging. Sibelius (as discussed elsewhere) is very expensive, but first class for doing arrangements. If I'm transcribing lute tablature, now I've got Sibelius 6 I use the on-screen fretboard (which can be set up for different tunings) to enter the music on a tablature stave. I then paste into a notation stave, transpose if necessary, and separate out and edit the voices.
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Jeremiah Lawson
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Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by Jeremiah Lawson » Sat Jan 30, 2010 9:43 pm

I know folks seek out the cheap or free software for developing a score but if you're serious about transcribing or arranging piano repertoire seriously consider picking up either Sibelius or Finale. The second you start looking into seriously adapting more than one non-guitar work for guitar is the moment when you have to at least consider getting one of the not-free and not-cheap programs. The initial investment is steep but the lifetime discount you get on subsequent upgrades that you can get every other year or not as finances permit is still worth it.

Depending on how experienced you are in score reading you may want to do a lot of the work by hand or in your head. I used Finale 2008 for my Byrd arrangement but a lot of the real work was done sitting down with the score for the Mass in 5 voices and just looking through the lines to identify the melodic interests. It's preferable to be intimately acquainted with the score you're adapting so that the bulk of the time you spend with scoring software is adding left and right hand instructions so that after the iron is not quite so hot you struck at a point where you could remember the fingerings for your piece. It's embarrassing to work out a piece that you KNOW you can play but to discover that because you didn't write out notes about left and right hands that you don't remember HOW you played the piece ... but that's not really on topic anymore.

ksjazzguitar

Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by ksjazzguitar » Sun Jan 31, 2010 12:25 am

WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:I know folks seek out the cheap or free software for developing a score but if you're serious about transcribing or arranging piano repertoire seriously consider picking up either Sibelius or Finale. ...
Definitely. If you're serious, you need the right tools. If you get a student discount, it ain't too bad. I had a friend who signed up for classes, got the software, and then dropped the classes.

WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:... Depending on how experienced you are in score reading you may want to do a lot of the work by hand or in your head. ... It's preferable to be intimately acquainted with the score you're adapting ...
I like the sound of that too. One thing that struck me in reading these posts (and in other threads) is how dependent we have become on software. There are people actually advocating using them as transposition tools or even to do the actual arranging. Why have guitar players become so lazy? (Depending on tab, not wanting to arrange, not even wanting to tie their strings, etc.) I assume that we can all agree that the vast majority of great music was written without Finale or Sibelius. Most of it was written in the head, at the piano, or at the appropriate instrument. These software are just tools to make the scores faster to produce, easier to manage, more legible and easier to edit. Most of the great composers that I have had the privilege of meeting do not do their writing at the computer. The only ones that come to mind are kids in college and even they usually grow out of that phase.

I know that learning to read, transpose, arrange, understand what notes are important and what notes aren't, learning to write it all down correctly - I know these are difficult things, but they are what have been making great musicians for more than a thousand years. If you can't do those things, then it won't really matter how great your scoring software is. Can we really say that Finale and Sibelius have improved the quality of music being put out?

Just my humble opinion.

Peace,
Kevin

flameproof

Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by flameproof » Sun Jan 31, 2010 10:37 am

ksjazzguitar wrote:... how dependent we have become on software. There are people actually advocating using them as transposition tools or even to do the actual arranging.
Well I do exactly that. Admittedly I mix work with my guitar in-hand with whatever tool I am using. I don't understand your objection, that it makes things easier?

I rarely compose away from the guitar, but composition and arranging are different things, and I think more fluidly with my guitar.
we can all agree that the vast majority of great music was written without Finale or Sibelius. Most of it was written in the head, at the piano, or at the appropriate instrument. These software are just tools to make the scores faster to produce, easier to manage, more legible and easier to edit.

a) most great guitar works were written on guitars with gut-strings, I am guessing you wouldn't advocate a return to gut-strings

b) you said it yourself, "These software are just tools to make the scores faster to produce, easier to manage, more legible and easier to edit" -- are those not sufficient reasons in themselves?
I know that learning to read, transpose, arrange, understand what notes are important and what notes aren't, learning to write it all down correctly - I know these are difficult things, but they are what have been making great musicians for more than a thousand years. If you can't do those things, then it won't really matter how great your scoring software is.
I'm not sure I get your point -- you seem to be saying that in order to use these tools effectively one must have a personal understanding of some technical issues -- I think I agree. So what? One can't really use a pocket calculator in a meaningful way if one doesn't understand the meaning of the operations add, multiply etc.
Can we really say that Finale and Sibelius have improved the quality of music being put out?
Just as the word-processor hasn't improved the quality of prose, or internet arguments, I don't suppose Finale et al have done anything other than make score-writing faster, more convenient, more accurate, more accessible and generally better-looking.

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Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by Tonyyyyy » Sun Jan 31, 2010 11:35 am

I know that learning to read, transpose, arrange, understand what notes are important and what notes aren't, learning to write it all down correctly - I know these are difficult things, but they are what have been making great musicians for more than a thousand years. If you can't do those things, then it won't really matter how great your scoring software is. Can we really say that Finale and Sibelius have improved the quality of music being put out?
kevin

Very true. We couldnt get far with scoreing software without a good grounding in the basics . For me Sibelius takes out a lot of the drudgery and potential errors. More energy can gointo the creative side. And the reader wont have to struggle with my occasionally unclear musical handwriting. I do still like pencil and paper though. Sitting with an instrument in front of a computer screen doesnt seem quite how things ought to be :?

ksjazzguitar

Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by ksjazzguitar » Wed Feb 03, 2010 2:36 pm

a) most great guitar works were written on guitars with gut-strings, I am guessing you wouldn't advocate a return to gut-strings
I don't see that as relevant. I'm talking about things that affect the writing process, and more importantly, affect the learning process. (I'm not aware that choice of string material affects the learning process.) Most of these writers were uncircumcised but that is not relevant either. Most of them didn't speak English or drink Coca-cola, but those aren't relative either. But how they learned and related to music, that is relevant. They could read music. They could play other instruments. They could sit down with a pen and paper and write music. I think that that is relevant because it was part of their learning process.
b) you said it yourself, "These software are just tools to make the scores faster to produce, easier to manage, more legible and easier to edit" -- are those not sufficient reasons in themselves?
That depends on what your purpose is. If your goal is to do things as easily as possible, then you are right. If your goal is to learn as much as possible and to get as deep of an understanding as possible, then I think that learning to read and think away from the guitar is useful.
I'm not sure I get your point -- you seem to be saying that in order to use these tools effectively one must have a personal understanding of some technical issues -- I think I agree. So what? One can't really use a pocket calculator in a meaningful way if one doesn't understand the meaning of the operations add, multiply etc.
Yes, that is my point. But I think that sometimes these tools are as ways to avoid learning the "old-fashioned way." I could give you several anecdotes to make my point, but I gotta leave for the uni soon and I'd just bore you anyway. Suffice it to say, it is my experience that computers are increasingly being used to avoid doing things the "hard" (IMHO, sometimes the better) way. It is often an excuse not to read, transpose, learn to write, and think in purely musical terms. I think that that is relevant.

I know that it won't be popular, but it's my observation that guitar players are the worst offenders of constantly searching for the "easy way." I don't want to get into a flame war, I just wanted to voice a dissenting opinion that sometimes the easy way is not the good way. I think there is a depth of learning that is gained from learning it the hard way, sometimes. I know some will disagree.

Gotta go,

Peace,
Kevin
Last edited by ksjazzguitar on Thu Feb 04, 2010 7:08 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by gringo » Wed Feb 03, 2010 3:11 pm

Richard Yates wrote a book called The Transciber's Art. Perhaps it would be helpful. http://www.yatesguitar.com/publish/

flameproof

Re: How to transcribe music from other instruments?

Post by flameproof » Wed Feb 03, 2010 5:07 pm

ksjazzguitar wrote:I'm talking about things that affect the writing process, and more importantly, affect the learning process.
Perhaps you are. Now. But in the post that I addressed, you were talking about an imagined dependence on software, the putative laziness of guitar players, and the bizarre criticism that software makes some tasks too easy.

No worries, I can be flexible. So, you believe that a person would learn faster or better if they were to eschew these software tools, and scribble out their arrangements/transpositions/compositions on manuscript paper (quill optional)?

I don't see it that way. But as you don't present any reasoning to support your assertions that the ability to use pen-and=paper is useful to the learning process, or that "old-fashioned learning" is a much better way to learn, or that the hard way is the better way, there's little to argue against.

I suppose if one were interested to learn how to transpose a score that loading an existing score into a piece of software and clicking on Transpose All -- and job-done, calling it a day -- might not be the best way to go about it. But transposition is a trivial task, and understanding it in its entirety takes nothing more than a couple of moments of reflection. Having once achieved the lofty heights of understanding what transposition is I don't see how using software to automate the process is, in itself, undesirable.
ksjazzguitar wrote:I don't want to get into a flame war
I apologise if you think the tone of my post amounted to "flaming" (though I singularly fail to see how you could feel that way -- disagreeing with someone, or asking them to justify their assertions hardly amounts to flaming).

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