How to transcribe music

Recently, someone emailed me asking for some pointers on how to approach the "B" section of "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" (the "Nashville to Norway" part).

I responded to his email with a lengthy explanation of my thought process when I transcribe in general. I thought I'd share the contents of that email (with notes that pertain specifically to the Rockapella song). I know some you already transcribe (and quite well, much better than me), so for those of you who have been curious yet timid might find my approach useful. Below, I've included song-specific notes in italics.

Here's a breakdown of the approach, which you requested earlier. The trick to transcribing it is a mix of awareness of the individual and awareness of the ensemble. The process starts off with the picture, then divide & conquer, and finally bring it back together.

Transcription Skill #1
First, you need to listen through as a whole and identify chords - their types (e.g. triads, tetrads, major, minor) and relationships (e.g. functional, predominant, dominant). It's all relative here so don't worry about precisely giving it a name (though it sure helps if you know when you have a tonic triad since that's the home base). You luck out here because it's just parallel triads (mostly major) without a true chord progression (but still trying to find their way back to the home Bb chord). Frequently you'll usually find some tetrads (e.g. seventh and ninth chords) and the ever-popular V-I movement (e.g. G7 to C chord).

Transcription Skill #2
Before you can tackle individual notes, remember that they won't be helpful useful unless you know when the chords change, chord progression or not. When you listen, I'm sure you recognize that despite the frequent motion, the chords are basically set for every two beats (i.e. each set of three notes) except for a few instances of chromatic ascension, and the bassline clearly support this. It's not always that easy, but generally this harmonic rhythm is consistent for popular songs.

Transcription Skill #3
With the general scheme mapped out, it's type to break it down and observe the nuances. During the "B" section, the top three parts follow the words, while the bass has this "dmm dmm" part that lines up with the words but doesn't follow the exact same jumps between notes. So you definitely want to figure out the bass since the harmonies are based upon it . Well, the bass notes are: Bb (3x) - A (3x) - Ab (3x) - G Ab A - Bb (3x) - C (3x) - Db (2x) - "and back!"

Transcription Skill #4
With the lowest line set, you need to map out the chords above it, with the awareness that whenever you have a triad (i.e. all of the chords), you can bet that on each chord you can expect another part to share the bass on each chord. If we refer to the parts in order of descending range as "high tenor", "tenor", and "baritone", then you'll observe that in those sets of three (I'd refrain from calling them "triplets", since their rhythm is actually dotted-eighth, dotted-eighth, eighth and not a quarter note triplet), the baritone aligns on notes #1 and #3, with the tenor aligning on #2. It just keeps going back and forth except for the chromatic ascent, when the baritone moves in parallel octaves with the bass.

Transcription Skill #5
Once you've mapped out critical bassline, and identified the overlapping notes, you can listen for individual parts with respect to the entire chord to determine which direction they move between notes/words. In general, during the initial listening, I like to write arrows in place of notes to assess their vertical placement as the song moves forward horizontally. Then I go back and deductively fill in the notes for the other parts. I think of this as bringing it all together, since they have to make sense with respect to the ensemble.

A Key Thing To Remember
There have been many times with more difficult music when I was convinced that a part moved by, say, a whole step, but the new note didn't fit with the next chord and in actuality it moved by a minor third. What this all boils down to is trust your instincts. When you're writing the line for a specific voice besides the melody, you might want it to move in a certain way, but it turns out that another voice has claimed the note you expected because the music demands it. Voices can cross with small groups, especially if the melody jumps around (i.e. the tenor isn't always above the lead and the baritone isn't always below). While listening for the parts, remember that you want to fill in notes that make sense with what you decided earlier (chords) and not what you want to hear now (single line).

I'm sure some of you might disagree or have your own approaches. Feel free to share them for the benefit of anyone who reads.

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