Learning composition by transcribing music?
August 26, 2013 10:17 AM   Subscribe

I have read that John Zorn and Unsuk Chin, among others, learned music composition by transcribing music. Am I correct in thinking that this means copying an existing score? Is this a good way to learn music composition (and are there any others)? Does one copy the piece verbatim, or is there a strategy for targeting significant parts?
posted by myitkyina to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Transcribing music isn't just copying existing scores. Its rewriting scores for different instruments, (like writing a trumpet piece for a piano), or on a much larger scale like arranging a score intended for a 5 piece chamber orchestra for a full symphony. But , less frequently, the term is also used for writing scores for music that's never been written down, like improvisational tracks.
posted by FirstMateKate at 10:25 AM on August 26, 2013

Response by poster: I'll expand my question then: what good ways are there to teach oneself music composition? (I am aware of some resources, just wanted to see what MeFi could come up with.)
posted by myitkyina at 11:25 AM on August 26, 2013

Best answer: For me as a musician and a linguist, 'transcription' would most commonly mean producing a score or transcript respectively for an audio recording. I did check the dictionary's definition, actually, and American Heritage does give several meanings:
3. Music
a. To adapt or arrange (a composition) for a voice or instrument other than the original.
b. To translate (a composition) from one notational system to another.
c. To reduce (live or recorded music) to notation.
So to expand on c. above, transcribing music - making a transcription - usually means listening to a piece and reproducing it completely and accurately in written form. A specific term for making a simplified transcription of, for example, an orchestral piece to be played by different instruments e.g. piano, piano duet, wind band etc is arranging (writing an arrangement).

I don't know your level of skill and experience, but first of all grab yourself a selection of music theory books at the approprate level(s) to build your vocabulary in Western music notation. This will be what you need both to read scores and to write them.

To be good at transcription you need to be able to verify what you've written down, and modern music notation software makes this very easy - the ability to press 'play' on your work-in-progress is an extremely handy shortcut which means you don't have to be able to play through your score yourself at the piano (or whatever) to check for accuracy.

If a score's available for a piece you like and you're just starting out in developing your transcription skills, I think the most interesting and fruitful thing to do would be to get hold of the score and a recording, and mark it up. Highlight interesting chords, melodies, patterns you see or hear, different sections which repeat or are altered, which sections make the piece feel 'whole' to your ears - anything you enjoy or could use. It's a way to get to know the piece more and how it's made, and it's basically how music students are taught to analyse pieces.

One principle to help structure your listening and experimenting is to think about vertical vs horizontal listening, which makes sense once you start looking at scores - horizontal is how the music changes as time passes, the progression of chords, the moving eye of the players as they read from left to right. Vertical is how individual notes line up to make chords and harmony, and vertical is the thing that first sprang to mind when I read your question - if you transcribe a piece you get to know how to reproduce any moment of it that you particularly love, and you'll spot how certain harmonies are used for certain effects, and what those look like and are called. Horizontal structure is important too, and you'll notice patterns, tendencies and small- and large-scale structures in how pieces are made up and put together. Both together make up how you hear (and construct) a piece of music.

Another particular reason for which I can imagine transcription being ideal for developing compositional skills is that by transcribing complex music you don't know you're pushing your own skill level in music notation, learning how to write different things (what key am I in? What on earth instrument is that? How exactly does that rhythm go and how can I write it down?) and not just sticking with what you might know already. Once you have an extended vocabulary at your fingertips you then have more inspiration and more material to work from in composing your own material, which you'll be able to write down accurately, and develop.

Depending on what you're interested in, you can also mine guitar tab sites for chords, or popular songbooks or lead sheets, which give you similar material to analyse, just at a different level of detail.

It's like language learning: you've got core skills of listening, reading, writing and speaking/using. You can definitely learn to compose by just experimenting on your chosen instruments and recording the results however you like, but the idea of using transcription as a tool is intriguing and wide-ranging, I agree. Good luck and happy composing!
posted by lokta at 11:36 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great answer -- thanks! Can you recommend any music theory books?
posted by myitkyina at 11:39 AM on August 26, 2013

Transcribing ususally refers to notating, by ear, what you're hearing -- in other words, not copying a score and not arranging music for other instruments. In the context of self-education, we can assume those composers were referring to notating by ear what they were hearing.

So, good fluency with music notation is what you need in order to do transcription -- I highly recommend musictheory.net for free self-training in notation and music structure.

For us to advise you re. self-training in composition, can you give us a little more info? (Have you studied music at all? What do you want to get out of the study? / What are your eventual [broad] goals?)
posted by kalapierson at 11:39 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I have studied piano for a while, but I have only just started to study music theory (beyond reading music). I am interested in post-tonal music -- Ligeti, Boulez, Xenakis, Schoenberg, etc. -- and would like to compose some of my own.
posted by myitkyina at 11:42 AM on August 26, 2013

ALso, Unsuk Chin did lots of traditional music and composition study, so I think your source is incomplete or simplifying things. I don't think it could be argued that either of those composers "learned music composition by transcribing music"; however, transcribing is a great tool for all composers and John Zorn, so strongly connected with jazz, probably learned a huge amount of 'what he knows' from transcribing.
posted by kalapierson at 11:43 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nthing that transcribing is notating by ear. Especially useful when studying jazz, and most academic jazz programs require transcriptions of solos as a regular exercise.

Why is this helpful? Because composition is transcription. You are simply transcribing the music in your head onto paper. Coming up with music in your head is extremely easy. Recording it in such as way that is reproducable by others is extremely difficult.

The best composition books are by far still Hindemith's Craft of Musical Composition Books I&II.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:45 AM on August 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

As a side note: Zorn is famously kind of an asshole about his eclectic music education, which was ostensibly far from traditional study. If you read his concert bio it mostly talks about learning to make music out of garbage on the streets of New York and such. It's hard to know exactly what his musical education entailed, but considering that he clearly has a mastery of traditional techniques and mechanics, it's safe to say that it was robust in the typical ways.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:46 AM on August 26, 2013

Eclectic and extra-musical influences aren't just fashionable in bios now -- I'd say they're the most meaningful part of a composer's development. Certainly the most meaningful ingredient in having interesting things to say compositionally. (There's a reason my fancy training and teachers don't show up til about 75% through my concert bio -- other influences ARE more important, not to mention way more interesting to the reader. :))

So to the poster, I'd say the theory and notation study is your groundwork, but your inspirations will come from listening and absorbing as broadly as possible -- both listening to notated pieces with the score in front of you (free scores at imslp.org, through 1923; search youtube for many videos of pieces "with score"; google for PDFs of pieces that excite you; get free score+audio pairs at many living composers' websites) and listen to non-western musics as broadly as you can, finding some types that excite you there too....
posted by kalapierson at 12:31 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

To get started--Rutgers once published a thing called the Rutgers University Music Dictation Series, twelve vinyl LPs for you to listen to and write down in notation, with answers. It had tracks starting basically at the "twinkle twinkle little star" level on the first disk and progressing to pretty complex two-part contrapuntal selections on the last. Music Minus One has re-released it on 7 CDs. Available on amazon and elsewhere.
posted by jfuller at 3:16 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

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