Could I Work as a Transcriptionist?

Q: I have a question and was wondering if you could point me in the right direction. Lately I’ve been thinking about a career change. Quick background: I graduated from Missouri State University two and a half years ago with a Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing. I’m not happy at my current job, and a part of me has always regretted not pursuing music as a career. Lately I’ve been playing around with the idea of becoming a music transcriptionist – if not full time, then at least doing it on the side on a freelance basis in addition to my current full time job. Even though I haven’t really transcribed much, I feel like my music theory knowledge and play-by-ear abilities could make me capable of doing this kind of work. Any advice on how to start? What type of resources to utilize, musical notation software, etc?

A: There is always work for a good transcriptionist! Partially because you can provide many different services as a transcriptionist, i.e. lifting arrangements from songs from recordings for bands.

I’ve played in many a salsa band where the piano player made some good dough on the side lifting live arrangements for the band. This usually also entails tailoring the arrangements for the proper number of horns, etc. Because of this, it’d be a good idea to have some arranging chops or think about taking some classes so you know how to write for different instruments and how to best and creatively work horn arrangements. Cover bands with a rotating cast of musicians will sometimes hire a transcriptionist to make solid charts for all of the tunes in order to make it easier for any subs that do the gig (it also gives them no excuses for mistakes beyond a lack of preparation).

There’s also an opportunity to create lead sheets from demo recordings. A lot of songwriters will hire someone to create quality charts for their songs before a recording session.

Performance transcription could be for use in someone’s book, as well.

Making engravement quality charts from handwritten charts is another. I’ve personally made a little extra on the side just simply making better looking charts for a songwriter before a recording session, simply because I have notation software and know how to use it.

I’m sure there are many more examples, but you get the picture. Here are some things that you will need, should have or might want to consider:

  1. Quality notation software. While there are many choices out there, there are really only two solid choices for powerful, flexible notation with an aesthetically pleasing end result: Finale or Sibelius. I find Sibelius much more intuitive but Finale is usually used in collegiate settings and has become the industry standard. The software is expensive (usually around $600 unless you choose a monthly subscription fee, which seems to be the new business model with software). Both programs have fairly steep learning curves, but I’ve found Sibelius to be far more intuitive, and I’ve managed to figure it out pretty well on my own.
  2. Input device. Pianists have it made here. Personally, I have to enter every note manually using my computer keyboard, but I’ve gotten pretty quick at it. My speed pails in comparison to a pianist using a USB keyboard to input the notes and chord-voicings. If you have any piano chops at all, I’d recommend getting a controller and practice playing the music into your program and then tweaking it from there. Also consider this: time is money and the longer it takes you to make a chart, the less you are making for your time. Learn to do it well but also learn to do it efficiently.
  3. Arranging chops. You’ll need to know how to write for horns, guitar, piano, etc., as well as be versed in what is expected in your notation depending on the style of music. Jazz guys have different expectations than classical musicians, for example. It’s just a good idea to know music and have a lot of experience with notation, in general.
  4. Good intuition. In my experience, good and informative notation takes intuition. You have to decide what to include with regard to dynamics, articulation, expression, chord symbols, etc. That means making the chart informative but not overloaded with information. It needs to be readable and intuitive while still giving the player everything they need to properly interpret the music.

I would consider taking a class or two. Think about arranging and possibly even a class on the notation software of your choice. That will also expose you what goes into making quality lead sheets.

If you want to test the waters, I would pick out a handful of tracks to transcribe and notate.

Maybe pick a jazz solo to notate and then grab a salsa or big band recording and try and transcribe/notate that as well. You don’t really know what obstacles or mental blocks you’ll run into until you start doing it. You never know… you might be good at it, you might absolutely hate the process, it might come easily, it might be fun. Likely, it’ll be a little bit of all of that but, if you get fast at it, you might at least enjoy it way more than your marketing gig.

I’ll include a few charts here out of my archives:

Blackbird (Download chart)

  1. This was from a salsa band doing a Beatles tribute night. There are a few things that I like about this chart:
  2. I like that I was given the 4 bar horn intro at the top (notice how the notes are smaller? That’s how I knew that it was a melodic reference and not something that I was to play. well… that, and the text saying “horn intro”). This helps me to know what to expect and when to come in.
  3. I like that the bass line was written where it needed to be specific but left open where it was ok to interpret for myself. Personally, I would’ve used slashes without the stems as it would be a little less cluttered. Often, latin charts will have a written tumbao bass line and then just use slashes; this gives me the feel and type of line and then let’s me use my own ears and musicality to take it from there. It takes the handcuffs off of the player and let’s them play.
  4. Chord symbols are simplistic in nature. You’ll notice about my song as well, when you look at that. I prefer to let the musician interpret the chord how they like unless it’s absolutely necessary to play a certain voicing or include/exclude certain notes.

Begin Within (Download chart)
This is one of my tunes. I just wanted to give an example of how simple I tend to keep things unless absolutely necessary. The melody is written simply and not overloaded with dynamics and phrasing markings. The chords are basic. This frees up the chordal and melodic instruments to interpret and play how they hear the piece. I find that, the better the player, the less I need to tell him or her. I prefer to trust those around me to listen and react musically.

In the Middle of Nowhere (Download chart)
This was from a jazz-fusion recording session I did with Jan Sturiale a few years ago. This chart is a nice example of a do-it-all lead sheet for everybody in the band (as opposed to making separate lead sheets for each instrument). It’s got specific voicing for the chords, when necessary, written melody line (which I like having for reference) as well as the bass line. The chords are not overly specific but also let you know exactly what is expected, harmonically. Again, one preference I would have is to not use whole-note rests as placeholders in a bar. If I’m to play and be open to interpret, use slashes or just erase the rest and leave the bar wide open. There is the possibility of getting thrown off the first time through a chart when just leaving the rest there, simply because there is no notation.

The “Blackbird” chart was the only example there actually done by a copiest but those charts will give readers a little idea of what is involved with notating for a gig or session (or what to expect to receive on a reading gig or session, for that matter).

I’ve not done much copy work at all but I hope I’ve given you some idea of what to expect, given from the perspective of one who receives quite a bit of notated music from people.

If any of you readers have any experience here, please jump in the conversation in the comments below!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Hugo

    I use Lilypond. It can be very verbose in the beginning, but once you get used to it, it becomes very easy to work with. It is free and you can do anything with it. You should also try it.

  2. Ryan T.

    Thanks so much for your response, Damian! Sincerely appreciate the advice.