If you’re learning an instrument (the lifelong condition of any musician), learning how to transcribe music is an essential skill and valuable educational tool.
Here’s how we do it at Arranger for Hire –
- Audacity, the open-source free music app* – or any DAW such as Garage Band, Cubase, Pro Tools. Logic, etc
- A sample player or keyboard app (not needed with Garage Band and other DAWs)
- A midi keyboard with a built-in midi interface (we use an Oxygen 25)
- A music notebook
- A fine-point pencil and an eraser.
If you’re experienced with notation software to the point where data entry doesn’t slow you down too much, you can transcribe directly into Finale (or other notation software), toggling back and forth between your playback app (Audacity) and Finale (or other notation software).
Some passages may require transcription with pencil and paper prior to entry in Finale. Often, we’ll do most of the score straight in, but some passages with pencil and paper first.
Midi-to-audio conversion usually creates results that require so much editing that transcription by ear is quicker. This is usually the case with midi exported from a DAW, especially if it was entered without a tempo map or click track.
With Audacity and other DAWs, there are tools for navigating your sound file, ways to repeat sections, and slow sections down without changing pitch, making it relatively straightforward to identify pitches. Polyphonic sounds such as chords and voicings can be more challenging, but it’s possible to get very close using loop playback and comparison with your keyboard.
Rhythmic notation can be much more difficult. One technique we use is get the pitches down and give them stems – then add flags in the last step, once you see how many notes you need to rationalize in the bar.
Transcription tools in Audacity
Effects Menu>Change Tempo allows slowing down material without changing pitch
Make Selection>Shift/Spacebar plays selection in a loop, allowing note comparison for voicings.
Command-B (Control-B, Windows) allows insertion of a Bookmark for a bar # or section name
Option-right arrow jumps to next bookmark
Option-left arrow jumps to previous bookmark
Command-X stops play at playhead position
Spacebar stops and returns playhead to previous play position
Learning and using these shortcuts makes transcription go quicker.
All DAWs have equivalent shortcuts, though not all have the Change Tempo plugin.
Audacity tends to be easier to use because of this, play/stop options, and Bookmark navigation shortcuts.
To open Audacity in MacOS Catalina, open Terminal, then enter
After Audacity is open, use its File menu to open documents.