A Big Reason Why I Have a Career as a Music Transcriber

I was browsing through my Facebook page when I found this string of comments from a Steve Stine post:

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One of the guys who commented on the new GuitarZoom “Guitarists of the 80s” course said, “Hey buddy! Are you reading the music to these leads as you play??”

Steve replied, “Tom, just wrote them out in my head and played them…”

Most of the time (myself included), many musicians write out their music inside their heads and just go out to play them. Another thing is that most of these musicians don’t have the time (or patience!) to write them out on paper for themselves. Let’s face it. The fact still stands that music transcription requires time, effort, and heaps of patience. These musical geniuses (like my buddy Steve Stine) give folks like me some kind of employment, and I am very thankful for that. Such musicians provide one big reason why I have a career as a music transcriber.

Perhaps there will come a time that the compositions inside my head will bring me great financial reward to the extent that I’ll just hit “record”, start playing, and then I could never be bothered to write them out on paper for myself. That would be a time that I will probably hire someone just like me to write them all out.

Until then, I’m the one being hired to do that sort of documentation. I really got nothing to complain about.

Play Blues Now: New Steve Stine Course @ GuitarZoom


A few days prior to Christmas 2013, I was working long hours to complete transcribing the sheet music for this course while juggling other important tasks such as our church’s Christmas concert rehearsals, finishing my composition for the said concert, working on other projects, being a parent and homeschool teacher, graduate school stuff, and others. It was a tough time, and though I’m able to relax for now I do have other things that I have to complete. Anyway, going back to the course, this is a beginner blues course for guitar by none other than in-demand modern guitar pedagogue, Steve Stine.

To cut things short, this is an excellent course (in my biased opinion) for anyone who wants to know the nitty-gritty on the Blues. It covers the essentials of the Blues from the rhythm up to improvisation and soloing, making it a very complete course that will enable you to do what it says: Play Blues Now!

If you want to purchase the DVD and book, please click on the image above. Sheet music transcription by none other but yours truly.

Firestorm Guitar: New GuitarZoom Course by Steve Stine

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Because of the great interest in learning how to play lead in an effort to be the next Yngwie Malmsteen or the next darling of Shrapnel Records or what have you, education regarding rhythm guitar playing is usually underrated or neglected. In many occasions, we often fail to realize that rhythm is the bedrock in which all genres and styles of music settle in. Well, this is no longer the case. Steve Stine addresses this concern with his new course called “Firestorm Guitar”, a very comprehensive rhythm guitar course. As usual, sheet music transcription and engraving was done by none other than yours truly.

Some of the interesting things that Steve teaches in this course include how closely related rhythm guitar playing is to playing hand percussion like maracas, the “ocean effect” or “organic strumming”, and figuring out appropriate rhythm patterns for any song. And so, if you’ve always wondered how you could become a better rhythm guitar player and you want to push your skills up to the next level, I highly recommend going to the GuitarZoom website and clicking on the graphic above to check out Firestorm Guitar.

Steve Stine’s Songfire Now Available


GuitarZoom, one of my long-term employers, has another very useful course for anybody who’s interested in learning new songs on the guitar in a fast and intelligent way. This new course is called Songfire. Written by GuitarZoom’s guitarist-in-residence and professor of modern guitar at North Dakota State University, Steve Stine, This new course offers a no-nonsense approach that could enable any guitar beginner into hearing how most songs work and then eventually learn them in the process.

Now, for those who think they can become instant virtuoso players with this course, you are mistaken. This course is NOT about gaining virtuoso technique in an instant (it takes years of hard work and practice to gain that). This course is more about being able to play many of the songs you hear and enjoy on your guitar in a fast way. This course is not about being able to play your favorite songs note by note, but it is more about being able to understand the underlying harmonic structure (chord progressions, etc.) based on what you hear. Upon finishing the course, you’d be able to listen actively to many pop and rock songs and be able to play through its chord progression in a matter of minutes.

Okay, maybe some will be disappointed that virtuoso guitarist Steve Stine released a non-virtuoso course. Well, that is not the point of Songfire. Songfire’s intent is to give learners the ability to hear music as a whole and be able to at least play a semblance of it, following along the chord progression WITHOUT reading notation or tab. B ear in mind that seemingly simple, sort of entry-level topics like those in Songfire could easily lead any beginning guitarist to be stimulated into getting deeper into the workings of music, eventually figuring out what most of us would consider virtuoso technique. The positive and pleasurable effects of being to successfully learn a new song can always lead to bigger things, musically speaking.

If you want to get access to the course, just click on the Songfire image above. As usual, sheet music and text by none other than yours truly.

Kidoteca’s “Magical Music Box” to be Released on Apple’s AppStore Tomorrow

About a few weeks ago, I was working with Kidoteca, a publisher and developer of iOS and Android apps aimed at children, on a project called the “Magical Music Box”. My job consisted of arrangement and transcription of various pieces of music from standard notation or audio and into a special worksheet that Stanislas Hauptmann (one of the top guys at Kidoteca) and his crew developed. I can’t wait to be able to try out on the iPad and hear for myself the results of my work.

To give more details about my experiences while working on this project, Mr. Hauptmann provided me with a list of various pieces of music that he wanted for the app to run. The challenge for me was to rearrange a variety of music with varying complexity into versions that would work for an instrument with barely 3 octaves in range (C3 to C6). This component of the job is indeed challenging, especially when I had to slim down complex pieces like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Act 1 Finale and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 into simple 1-minute pieces with a maximum of just 2 parts. It’s hard to do justice to such classics with those conditions, but I’m guessing I was able to pull that off.

The second challenge of the job was that I had to convert what I hear in my piano and read in the sheet music into Mr. Hauptmann’s specific code. He supplied me with a worksheet that essentially became a vertical step sequencer. I had to input notes according to scientific pitch notation, set a tempo and set a note value per beat. Seems easy on first look. The difficult part, however, was that I had no way of verifying by audio the results of my coding unless Kidoteca renders the worksheets as MP3s. I had to kiss the expectation of working like I do with FLStudio or Sibelius goodbye and instead try my best to accurately write down on the worksheet what I was hearing whenever I sight read or listen to the pieces that are assigned to me.

The third challenge was to curb my urge towards making complex arrangements. Complex arrangements do not work well most of the time when writing for the Magical Music Box as the notes tend to get muddy. There is a great emphasis on making the melody prominent and writing a simple yet driving bass line. There are at times when Mr. Hauptmann and I had a few differences over how the arrangements should go. Fortunately, we were able to settle things and figure out what works.

I also had the opportunity of writing descriptions for the pieces of music I arranged. It’s kind of like writing program notes for a recital except that this time it’s for an iOS app.

It seems to me that things are working out well as we’re going to see the release of Kidoteca’s “Magical Music Box” tomorrow. I just watched the YouTube promo video and it seems to have a really stunning interface. Of course, the music is *ahem* wonderful as well. Do check out the “Magical Music Box” by Kidoteca at the AppStore and Google Play. Turn your iOS and Android devices into a lullaby station or a mesmerizing kid’s music machine.

P.S. With this music box, you never have to wind it up to start playing plus it’s always at a constant tempo so the music doesn’t die down slowly.

The iPad as an Amazing Musical Tool

Just last week, my wife and I bought a new iPad from one of the shops at the SM Mall of Asia. I had been contemplating about getting a tablet computer or e-book reader for years given the advantages they have. I always thought that I could at the very least have one as a library or sheet music stack on the go. Upon getting an iPad, it opened up a whole new world to me.

The first thing about the iPad that was obvious to me was that I can use it as a musical instrument. This is due to Jordan Rudess’s influence, having seen him on many Dream Theater videos that feature the iPhone and then the iPad as an alternative to his Haken Continuum. Taking cue from that influence, my first app purchase was Wizdom Music’s Tachyon and MorphWiz. These two apps simply blew my mind away as it transformed my iPad into a new musical instrument, sort of like a fretless instrument with more controls. More toys for me to make a noise with then.

The second obvious application for the iPad was as a sheet music reader. I have plenty of sheet music in PDF format and so I got Adobe Acrobat Reader installed in the tablet, loaded up some of my sheet music in it, and there I go. I now have most of my sheet music with me in just a small package. No more folders or extra envelopes to bring with me then.

Reading all over the web, I realized that I can do more with it that those things I’ve mentioned. I have GarageBand in my iPad so theoretically I can perform multitrack audio and MIDI recordings with it. I have most of the things required to make that happen such as a couple of keyboards (from the massive Kurzweil PC88 to the Korg Nanokey), my trusty Technics digital piano, some guitars, and my Zoom H4n recorder. All I lack now is the digital camera connection kit for the iPad (essentially an iPad port to USB adapter). Since the Zoom H4n and the Korg Nanokey has been confirmed to work with the iPad, if I get that connector then boom! A recording studio on the go that’s more mobile than my laptop rig.

Since I’m a music transcriber, I’ve also thought about how the iPad would work as a scorewriter. It’s unfortunate that Sibelius for iPad hasn’t been written yet. However, there’s Symphony Pro and Notion for iPad. Since I’ve been reading reports about how both iPad scorewriters are prone to crashing, I held off the decision to purchase one or the other.

The iPad’s WiFi connectivity can turn it into a remote control surface for DAWs like Sonar, Logic Pro, Cubase, etc. This I haven’t tried yet but I’m assuming that it would be a good alternative to getting an actual control surface. I would have to admit though that nothing beats the actual hardware. But if you’ve got an iPad, it maybe worth trying out.

Having spent only a few days with the iPad, I now have an understanding of why a number of musicians prefer to use the iPad, iPhone, Mac Books and other Apple products for their music production needs. It’s easy to use, and it’s already optimized. I didn’t need to do any tweaks of sort to get things like MorphWiz running. With my PC-based music production gear, I had to spend hours tweaking various aspects of it to get them running smoothly. The big turn off for Apple products is the price. The iPad is not cheap, though I got mine lower since the New iPad just got released and I got the iPad 2. If I’ve already seen that much from just spending a few days with the iPad, I suppose there’s still a lot of exciting things for me to look forward to as this new device helps me in creating new music.

The Qualifications of a Music Transcriber

Since music transcription is a very exciting field, there are those who ask what are the qualifications of a music transcriber. If you haven’t had the opportunity to understand how that works out based on my previous entries, this entry will tell what I think are the qualifications for a freelancing music transcriber.

If you’re expecting to say that you need a music degree to be a music transcriber, then I will tell you that I am living proof that you don’t have to have one. I certainly didn’t attend a conservatory, and all the knowledge that I gained in music transcription and music in general is through practical means. However, let me say that in all sorts of jobs in the music industry, having a music degree is an advantage but it does not guarantee that you’ll be a pro at music transcription or any music job. So, if you’re planning to take up music in college or are already taking up music, by all means try your best to complete your degree. Again, it’s definitely an advantage but it’s not required.

Now, in any sort of job or occupation, the most important thing is that you can demonstrate that you can do the job well. Unlike in the healthcare sector where having a license is necessary, music jobs in general do not require that. It all boils down to whether you can do the job or not. One of the best ways of demonstrating that is having a portfolio of your works. Now, the question would be, “What if I don’t have a portfolio?” You can always try to transcribe some samples on your own first, save them as PDF files and then you can use them as samples when you try to hunt for music transcription jobs.

Another qualification you’ll need is good working knowledge of music theory. You have to understand how standard notation is written down. You have to be able to read standard notation. This is absolutely necessary as a music transcriber. When you jot down notes onto piece of manuscript paper or input them in a program like Sibelius, you have to be able to produce sheet music that’s neat and very easy to read. No matter how complicated the music might be, the simplest manner by which you can interpret musical ideas into paper is the best way, and you certainly need to be grounded on music theory for that.

If you can already transcribe music and have a portfolio, it’s already enough evidence that you have a good ear for music. Most people offering transcription jobs would be convinced that you can handle it. There are also those clients or employers who want to make sure that you can really pull it off, and so you will be subjected to a transcription test. A transcription test is something you shouldn’t be afraid of. By all means, go for it. If you already have a portfolio and enough chops to produce a quality transcript, then I’m sure you can tackle such tests.

If you plan on being a music transcriber, have a good understanding of how music is arranged and played. You should be able to at least sing in tune and play an instrument, preferably a keyboard instrument. The more you know about how instruments work, the better you can become a music transcriber. Other than trying to learn how to play musical instruments, listen to a variety of music. It will definitely help you become familiar with all the sorts of genres you might have to transcribe.

So to sum it all up, your qualifications as a music transcriber are the following:

  1. A portfolio
  2. A good ear for music
  3. Good working knowledge of music theory
  4. Knowledge of musical instruments and various genres of music

As long as you can demonstrate that you have all the qualities of a good music transcriber, I don’t see why you can’t get a music transcription job if you don’t have a music degree.

How to Become a Music Transcriber

There probably is no single way about how to become a music transcriber.

One would say that every serious musician in the planet has had to do some music transcription in one way or another. A good examples would be one of my guitar heroes, Steve Vai, former music transcriber for Frank Zappa. Jazz musicians have been known to do this in order to figure out the improvisation methods of their influences. It’s easy then to say that to be a music transcriber one should start by having great love and dedication for music.

Let me tell you a little story about how I became a music transcriber. As far as growing up as a musician, I had limited access to sheet music and so it was helpful that I relied on my ears to learn new songs. What I would consider my first entry into music transcription would be jotting down chords of various songs I wanted to play while I listened to my cassette tapes. Being able to transcribe music came out of necessity. I am not very good at memorizing pieces (I must have some sort of memory deficit) and so transcriptions of music became great memory tools for me. That was the start of being a music transcriber, the desire to learn new songs.

When my playing skills and my knowledge of music theory further improved, I transitioned from just jotting down chords to actually transcribing songs, whether it be in MIDI or in a scorewriter such as Sibelius. Sometimes, I still do it by hand, especially when an idea for a composition starts popping into my head.

Going back to the topic “how to become a music transcriber”, one may be able to simplify it in a few steps:

  1. Learn and practice how to play a musical instrument – Before you can transcribe, you will need some basic knowledge about how to play a musical instrument or be able to sing in tune. If you are confident in being able to discern that you can follow rhythm and melody, that is a start. You will also need to constantly practice how to play your instrument. You need to develop considerable technique that will make you understand how songs are composed and how they are arranged.
  2. Learn and study music theory – By studying music theory, you get to have a better understanding of what exactly is you are playing or what you are hearing. Studying music theory also helps a lot in how to jot down your transcripts to paper or an application like Sibelius properly.
  3. Start transcribing – Once you have some skill on musical instruments and have a good working knowledge of music theory, you can now begin to transcribe. Start out with transcribing the rhythms of the piece, and then followed by the bass line (to have a good understanding of the piece’s harmonic structure as well as provide a “skeleton”) and the melody.
  4. Practice transcribing – Practice always makes perfect, and so just like playing an instrument, music transcription requires practice.
  5. Keep a portfolio – If you want to earn some money from music transcription, you need a portfolio. Try to select the very best from your  collection. This portfolio would serve as a great way to prove that you can do it.
  6. Be patient – Any aspiring transcriber has to be patient. Imagine having to listen to the same song over again for more than 20 times. I can tire out your ears but it really is part of music transcription.

There’s not a lot of steps, but just as I said in my previous piece about music transcription, it takes a great deal of patience.  If you have a music degree or currently studying in a conservatory, music transcription will always help as an additional skill. If you do not have a music degree, don’t fret. I don’t have one but I sure can transcribe music and play an instrument relatively well. Whether your goal is to be able to study and analyze your favorite artist or composer’s works or to become a professional sheet music provider, the knowledge of music transcription will always be helpful.

So, why are you still reading this? Prepare your manuscript paper or your scorewriter and start walking the path on how to become a music transcriber.

What It Takes to be a Music Transcriber

Music transcribers may be some of the most patient people in the world. Although I cannot say that I have such patience, I believe I have enough that turned me into one. How does one really go about becoming a music transcriber? There are many approaches and certain qualifications to become one.

First off, a music transcriber should have really good knowledge of music theory. A music transcriber needs to be able to interpret what is heard and turn it into standard written notation. As there are many ways of interpreting a piece of music onto paper, a music transcriber should be able to determine the best way of writing down music that would make it easy for any sight-reading musician to accurately reproduce.

I believe that a music transcriber should also be a musician. It’s not just about jotting down notes into Sibelius or Finale. I think that in music transcription, a transcriber should try to play himself or herself the music with his/her instrument of choice. In many cases this could be a piano, but a few people like myself use other instruments like a guitar, sax or any other instrument. Not only does trying to play the music help the transcriber understand what’s happening to the music, it also improves the transcriber’s musical ear. It also happens to be a fun activity too. If you want evidence of that, take a look at serious jazz musicians who have been transcribing the solos of their heroes, a task called “woodshedding”.

A music transcriber should have a good sense of rhythm. Every note in any kind of music follows a certain time frame, hence following that time frame by being able to follow the rhythm is actually one of the first steps of being able to reproduce what is heard into what is written.

Music transcribers should love all kinds of music. It helps to listen to all styles and genres be it classical, jazz, metal, rock, pop, polka or what have you. An open musical mind leads to being able to enjoy the arduous task of music transcription.

The last (and probably the most important) thing allows a person to be a good music transcriber is patience. Imagine having to listen to one song over and over again, bar by bar, part by part, riff by riff, lick by lick, and then writing them all down into paper (or Sibelius/Finale). It is tedious, stressful work that can be very frustrating a lot of times. Like medical and general transcriptionists, music transcribers experience “ear fatigue”. However, the rewards of such diligence are great.

If you happen to possess such qualifications, you could possibly be a music transcriber. It’s also one way of improving your musical skills. Just listen to people like Steve Vai and Franz Liszt, music transcribers themselves, and you would have clues as to what made them who they are as musicians.