Transcribing music for piano – Q & A’s

I’ve been asked many times, for advice and hints on transcribing music. Here are some Q & A’s first. I’m thinking about doing a step-by-step pictorial someday on that…Meanwhile, hope this helps. Please feel free to post more questions here ok? 🙂

Q: I’m thinking of doing some transcribing. Can you give me some hints on how to start please?

A: Ok…simple transcribing, which I will call Stage 1. Listen to the song with earphones, while sitting at your piano or keyboard. Stop and rewind as often as you need while you write down what you hear, starting with the melody. If you are using a manuscript sheet, write the notes of the melody as just black noteheads, without any rhythm. If you want to just use letternames on an exercise paper, write the melody notes in lower case, not capital letters. Then, go through it again, listening for the lowest note in each chord. Write the chord changes at exactly  the correct note, above the melody notes. Chord names should be in capital letters. Here’s a picture of a simple ‘transcription’ I did for my student:

This should be enough for you to refer to while you play by ear, if you can remember how the  song sounds  🙂 Writing the notes out properly is pretty hard to do, unless you know your theory and harmony quite well. That is stage 3 haha!  Stage 2 is improving on a cover that is done by ear, and that’s dealt with below. I hope to put up Stage 3 hints sometime soon….

Q: I’d love to know where to improve on in transcribing songs.

A: Ok…this is Stage 2 –  If you’d like to know more about transcribing, you can try seeing how I transcribed Dazzling Girl and any of my other covers that you fancy. Look at my scores while you listen to the original music video. Most of the time,I try to follow as close as I can to the original. I checked out your covers. Congrats  🙂 Good job playing those 2 covers by ear! You don’t have a problem making out the melody and chords and that’s a very good start!

Now, try varying the left hand accompaniment style. Right now you’re using all block chords yes? Ok…that’s good for some parts, but sometimes, you can use broken chords or arpeggios, or even just change the rhythm of the block chords and alternate with single notes. You’ll see me using different accompaniment patterns in all my transcriptions. Go ahead and download as many as you want, if you want examples of the various patterns….I won’t mind at all  🙂

Also, quite often, I play my right hand an octave higher than the pitch it is sung, so that left hand won’t have to play the block chords an octave LOWER than in the original. Playing block chords too low down in the piano range makes them sound too heavy and grumpy. Play a low bass note or an octave, then come up to around middle C for the block chords. So right hand will need to be an octave higher.

Lastly, try to play with more expression. Play more softly and vary the dynamics according to the feeling of the song. A lot of pop songs sound just loud and louder haha! But on the piano, you have to make some softer parts, especially at the verses….otherwise it sounds rough and harsh, especially on an acoustic piano. Digital pianos are easier to control when recording.  🙂

Hope this helps. No offence is meant, ok? And don’t feel discouraged or anything….you’re doing well and will do greater soon!

Q: Hi! I would like to ask, how do you come up with the left hand part? Cause when I listened to the actual song, I can’t hear the rhythm of the left hand in it…of course a song on the piano always sounds nice with a good left hand! Haha so how do you like come up with the rhythm for the left hand? Do you actually find it from the song or do you just conjure it up yourself? And how do you know when to put it sharps and flats in your left hand?

A: Ok…Sharps and flats depend on the chords that you choose to go with the melody. For example, a D chord must have DF#A, so if you play F natural, it will sound wrong. Most of the time, the accidentals follow the key signature of the piece, unless it is modulating (changing key) at that point. I guess, you have to judge by how it sounds.

The rhythm of the left hand is often determined by the drums, bass guitar and rhythm guitar parts. I often follow the bass guitar rhythm with my lowest finger, then see how I can fit in the chords to suit the style that is played by the other harmony instruments. Do check out my transcriptions and compare them with the originals and you’ll see what I mean… 🙂

Hope this helps.

To continue….generally, if the rhythm of the accompaniment in the original is very fast/active, I use more notes in my left hand too. Maybe by using arpeggios or by repeating the chords more often. When the original is more still/quiet, I use less notes or play more quietly.

Q: Wow okay thx!! One last thing, you know the bridge is usually the highest climax? And usually the chorus that follows it? Yea, how do you like build up to the climax and make it sound like the most ‘loud’ and big part?

A: Ok…building up to a climax. You’re exactly right that it’s loud and big 🙂 Play more loudly, provide more notes in your accompaniment (which can be in both hands, not just left hand), a more active rhythm (quavers or semiquavers doing arpeggios), more octave chords in left hand, starting the the low range then getting higher up. Right hand also playing chords in the upper ranges of the piano. Slow down and get louder (allargando) just before the climax, then after that, play softly and delicately in the following section. Hope this helps!

Q: Oh! Then how about violin parts? Sometimes I try to include it in right hand but doesnt go…:(

A: Yea…me too! I love the violin parts, but unfortunately, have managed to include them only very rarely, when there’s a break between melody notes. I think there was once I played the melody in the left while my right played the violin part. Doesn’t work everywhere obviously 😛

Q: Hi~! Sry to keep asking stuff, but how do you find chords? As in, for the left hand, how do you find the appropriate chord?

A: No problem..I’m always happy to share what I know 🙂 Finding the appropriate chord for an existing song starts with finding the key of the piece. The final chord in the song is usually the tonic (keynote). The first chord often is also, but because it sometimes ISN’T, you have to check the rest of the piece. Once you get the correct key, you can assume that you will be using mostly chords II, IV and V7. Write those chords down somewhere, along with the notes that make up the chord. Eg, in C major key, II = Dm = DFA; IV = F = FAC; V7 = G7 = GBDF.

After you’ve written down the notes of the melody of the song, start listening to the bass line (the lowest note). Chances are, that’s the root of the chord. Eg, if the lowest note is F, try playing FAC in the left hand while playing the melody in the right. If it doesn’t sound right, it could be Dm/F, which is Dm chord with F in the bass. Or it could even be G7/F you have to try until it sounds right. The melody notes also help you to decide. If it contains G,B and F, then it most likely is G7.

You need to prepare yourself by knowing what kinds of chords there are. Eg. Dim7, 9ths, augmented chords, added 2nds and 6ths etc. Google jazz chords and you’ll get a whole bunch haha! The thing about pop songs is that the chord progressions are used over and over again. Sometimes throughout the piece, except maybe at the bridge 🙂 So once you get the first 4 or 8 bars, the rest of the piece should be easy!

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Posted on February 28, 2013, in About writing/reading/playing music and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Hello, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but are there ways to improve on ear training? I’ve been playing piano for ten years, but my ear really isn’t that good, and I want to improve on that and try playing music by ear. Can you give me some tips? Thank you!

    • Start by memorizing easy pieces then harder ones. This is to develop your recognition of where sounds are, on the piano. Also practise transposing them into other keys. You can also start ‘taking dictation’ – write down simple tunes. Basically, you have to make yourself let go of your scores, if you want to play by ear 🙂 It was hard for me to do, even when I had finished all my levels of piano exams..i was totally dependent on scores. Took me a while to have confidence to play by ear and improvise on chords. 🙂 Actually, even now, my memory isn’t good enough to play all my songs without scores! But at least, my ears are fine hehe!

    • Oh…to add to what I said before, you need to learn to identify and play CHORDS. Go online for some lessons. That’s probably the most useful thing a pianist can learn!

  2. hi! I’m only 16 and i really wish i can play as awesome as you! But, tere’s one thing that really annoys me which i want to ask help from you..well, how can i improve more on my techniques in left hand chords melody?

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