Careers in Music Transcription

Some pieces of music, particularly jazz improvisations, are written down initially by a transcriptionist.
Some pieces of music, particularly jazz improvisations, are written down initially by a transcriptionist. (Image: Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images)

Music artists are typically skilled in a single instrument, and they don't always know how to write down the music they develop. It is the job of a transcriptionist to put music to paper from recordings or to write out parts for a different instrument than the artist originally used. Starting a career as a transcriptionist usually requires formal music training. You may work as a freelancer or for a publisher once established.

What Music Transcriptionists Do

Regardless of who employs you, as a music transcriptionist, you first listen to a recording of the piece you want to transcribe. Alternately, you may refer to a printed version of the music you already have but does not work for the instrument you want to use. If you listen to a recording, you must determine the key, meter and form of the piece before beginning the transcription. The next step is to work phrase by phrase, writing out the notes and rhythm. Once you have all the notes written down, you have to go back and check that for notation accuracy. Lastly, you add in the dynamics, articulations and other notations that are necessary, such as the title, tempo and composer. If you have sheet music you can refer to, your job is much easier, but you still must check that you transposed the music properly and formatted the transcription for readability.

Freelance Transcription

Freelance transcription jobs usually are how most transcriptionists start out. These jobs come from individuals looking for specific transcriptions of songs they like. For instance, a bride may want you to transcribe Johann Pachebel's Canon in D, a piece originally for strings, for the members of a woodwind quintet she knows. These types of jobs often let you work from home, have flexible scheduling and let you set your own rates. However, they are often inconsistent; you must search for these jobs often or start your own website to earn enough to to sustain a living.

Company Transcription

Every music publisher has professional transcribers it uses to produce different written versions of the same recording. These are usually salaried positions that are much more stable than freelancing. In this transcription career, you must learn the specific transcription style your company uses. If you transcribed as a freelancer before, you can use your transcriptions as part of your portfolio when you apply. Some companies allow you to transcribe from home, since you can send the documents electronically; usually, however, transcribers who work in companies usually work on site.


A formal music degree is not necessary to start a music transcription career. However, you must understand the fundamentals of music and have an ear for music. Transcribers often are former composition and music theory majors. Producing quality transcriptions also can be expensive. You must have a computer, as handwritten transcriptions are not acceptable. You must also have computer software that can produce sheet music. The most notable are Finale and Sibelius, which are industry standards, at the time of publication. Major companies and composers use these programs for both composition and transcription. For example, Hollywood composer James Horner used Sibelius to create his "Avatar" soundtrack. If you want to produce recordings of the transcriptions for your clients, you'll need more mixing and audio hardware and software. Transcriptionists must take into account any copyright issues involved in transcription work and always get permission from publishers and artists when necessary.

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