The Big Think

January 13, 2010


Filed under: Music — jasony @ 9:04 am

I will occasionally get calls to do transcriptions of CD’s for musicals or other types of live performances. I got one not long ago for a high school musical program. The group is doing a big number from Guys and Dolls but the score they have from the publisher doesn’t have a big dance section that’s on the live musical CD, so the choir director hired me to listen to the CD and transcribe/arrange the section for the orchestral forces he’s using.

It’s a ton of fun, and I’ve been at it since about 3am (another insomniac night, fortunately not wasted). What I do is that I listen very closely to the original CD and figure out what’s going on in the orchestra. Who is playing (tenor or alto sax, clarinet, trumpets, etc)? How many parts are there? What are the harmonies? I pick out all these parts by ear and then slowly build the score. I have to alter things as I go since the orchestra I’m writing for isn’t necessarily the one that’s on the CD (for instance, the one I’m writing for doesn’t have a baritone saxophone even though it’s on the CD). So there’s a fair bit of rearranging and recontextualizing parts. I have to make decisions on who gets what notes and how the different parts fit together. I also have to pull out the vocal parts and make a piano reduction of everything that makes sense so the choir director can rehearse with the choir when the orchestra isn’t there.

Hundreds of years ago, trainee musicians used to copy the scores of the masters to learn how to write music. What instruments did they write for? What were the common doublings (having, say, a flute and oboe play an octave apart)? What were the normal and out-of-bounds ranges on all the instruments? This was great training for when young musicians started writing their own stuff. What I’m doing is the modern equivalent but with a hefty dose of ear training built in: take a CD and break it down into component parts and recreate it in score form. There’s also the aforementioned decision making process of readapting what’s on the CD to the limited or different orchestral pallet. It’s a fun challenge that I really enjoy.

Next time you listen to a movie score or radio song, concentrate on what’s going on in the background. What instruments are playing? When do they play? When do they drop out? Are there patterns? Try to hum the main melody (easy). Now try to hum any countermelody (harder). Now try to hum what are called non-diatonic notes- the passing tones that don’t strictly belong to the key, but they’re in there anyway. Now write it down in musical notation so that other musicians can recreate it seamlessly. Fun, right?

It takes patience and time (In the last 5 hours I’ve managed to create 37 measures with a medium sized orchestra- about 45 seconds), not to mention a hefty dose of music theory and years of intent listening, but in the end it’s very rewarding to be able to recreate a full score from a recording. I’ve been doing it for so long I can pretty much recreate anything that I can hear. What a fun skill!

And this is what I do.

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