A big reason why I learned how to transcribe is so that I can write out charts for myself, and other musicians I’m playing with. It seems like there’s always new repertoire for everyone to learn, members to add/replace or a sub to train, and the reality is that not everybody does their homework. There’s not always time, and you don’t always have the $$ to pay somebody who’s willing or able to put in the work and accurately learn/memorize a part.
My first experience getting paid for a transcription was when I was playing cello in a rather bizarre ‘funk band’ that played in-between boxing matches at a local fitness club. Occasionally we had accompanimental pole dancers (to be fair they probably saw us at accompanying them) and one time our sound guy was in a boxing match and got pummeled so bad he couldn’t mix us for the rest of the night. The name of our band was Funktasia – here’s one of our <old set lists> to give you an idea.
So the first difficult transcription I did for Funktasia was when the band leader wanted to sing Late in the Evening by Paul Simon and we needed horn charts for the trumpet, alto, and tenor players. This is the first stuff I wrote when I sat down to transcribe it:
All I set out to do was write down the rhythm of the horn line, which is all that gibberish directly underneath the title, Late in the Evening, which I underlined so emphatically. Here’s sound files of these sections:
1st Horn Break:
2nd Horn Break – starting after (perc. solo)
In my experience, transcribing the rhythm before plugging in the pitches makes for a much more efficient and accurate process, and it’s really manageable to do the first step by hand because you don’t even need staff paper. When I try to transcribe pitch and rhythm all in one pass, it can be overwhelming, especially with fast arpeggiated passages. But once the rhythm is all squared away, it’s just a matter of plugging in the pitches, which is so damn satisfying to do.
‘Plugging in the pitches’ can be done by hand, or I really like to do it using music notation software, which in my case is Finale. For a little mini-finale tutorial on ‘plugging in the pitches’ <click here>.
And actually, before I even start entering any notes in Finale, I get the general structure all squared away. First off, make sure you have the right number of measures by listening through the tune once or twice while counting the number of measures in each distinct section. You can see I’ve written that down at the bottom-left corner of the page above. Here’s how my chart might have looked before I entered any notes (probably not this pretty):
For the sake of fitting it all in one page I condensed the rests, but everything else is a great idea to have before entering notes. One really great technique is putting double barlines between phrases, even when using multimeasure rests as shown above. This way, when the trumpet player is counting out 14 bars of rest during the verse, he/she’ll be more likely to hear the two 5-bar antecedent phrases plus a 4-bar consequent phrase, and know exactly where they are all the time. It’s also great to have a name for each section, even if you don’t know exactly what to call it. What I call the ‘chorus’ is really more of an instrumental bridge, maybe? I dunno, but as long as it’s consistent, it’s useful.
Here’s what the trumpet chart ended up looking like:
(The recording ends with a sweet fade out, but we decided to add those last three notes just like the 1st horn section and end the tune that way)
I notated one more thing by hand that I haven’t mentioned yet, and that was a distillation of the rhythm Steve Gadd (drummer) is playing over the whole tune. What a sick rhythm! You can tell I got a little obsessed with it because it’s notated 3 diff. ways in 4 places on the page…haha. The two rhythms Gadd is superimposing over each other are rather difficult to learn to play simultaneously, but once they’re written down you can see how they nest together and it’s much easier to learn. Try it!