Monthly Archives: February 2015

How to transcribe from audio to piano score: technologies and process


Transcribing music from audio to score is something I’ve done for as long as I can remember, if you count those music dictation tests we had to do at school. I’m lucky that I’ve got perfect pitch so the actual transcribing is fairly easy: what’s difficult when you’re using a computer is the mechanics of rewinding, stopping and starting while you’re trying to do the transcription.  However, the technology I’ve got at the moment is the best I’ve ever had, so I thought I’d share the process in case you’re struggling needlessly. The same technology would also be pretty good if you’re having to go through video clips (dance notators, maybe?).


That’s the kit above – no real surprises: a MIDI keyboard, a laptop, headphones. I use an external keyboard with a numeric keypad on it, because it makes step-input in Sibelius so much easier and quicker). Transcribing is also one of the rare activities where I find a mouse is useful rather than a trackpad.

USB footpedals: the secret to transcribing music from audio to score painlessly

The Infinity USB Foot Control

The Infinity USB Foot Control

The killer tool though, is the USB footpedal under the table (which means that I also needed to get a USB hub to accommodate the extra USB input).  I’ve already posted about this in relation to transcribing text interviews, but at the time I wrote that, I hadn’t yet used the set up for transcribing music.

The process is simple: ExpressScribe is a free programme for transcribing audio (there’s a paid version, but even though I’ve got it, I can’t see the point). You load the audio (music) file in just as you would if you were going to type up an interview (except this is music) and you use the footpedal to play, rewind and fastforward the audio, leaving your hands free to use the MIDI and computer keyboards. You can set the footpedal to automatically rewind let’s say half a second or a second when you lift your foot off the “play” bit, so that when you press it again, you’ve already rewound to the bit that you are trying to check or remember.

You can also get ExpressScribe to play slower without altering pitch – brilliant when you’re transcribing a stream of semiquavers, for example. If you’re lucky, and the recording is relatively clear and the music simple, you can get the speed just right, so that you can actually input with your left hand (in my set up at least) at the same speed as the music is playing.

Now meet TRANSCRIBE! (application) 

I have used ExpressScribe for nearly five years, but for some reason, just recently the program has begun to lose focus intermittently while I’m transcribing. You have to go into ExpressScribe and click to make it register the pedal messages. It only takes a split second (alt-TAB into the programme and click the screen, then alt-TAB back to Sibelius), but it’s really annoying, and so the other day, I went on the hunt for another programme, and found this: Transcribe! I’ve used it for a few days, and I’m blown away by it.  It has all the tools that ExpressScribe has, except – sorry old friend – it works better. It doesn’t lose focus, and it displays the audio file, allows you to enter text at key points (with one-letter key commands to enter hitpoints and text). It also has a guess at chords and notes in your file, and presents you with a piano roll, and a keyboard (if you want to see it) with those guesses on. That’s far more than I need, and doesn’t really help the way I work (which is by ear, rather than using the technology to “hear” for me), but it’s bloody clever, all the same, and it’s fairly accurate. I love it. It’s $39 US, but with a fully functioning 30-day free trial. OK, it’s not free like ExpressScribe, but I reckon it’s worth it.

The screen looks complex, but you don’t even need to see it, if, like me, you just want Transcribe to work as a tape-control in the background, operated by your footpedal.


The Transcribe window- you can have as much or as little of this as you need.

Transcribing from video

If you want to transcribe from a Youtube video, then just download the video first using an extension or add-on for your browser, and import the video clip into Transcribe. You get a little video screen that shows the video in realtime as you play: handy if you want to put cues in a score, and of course, since the screen has a text area, you could write those cues into Transcribe! itself.

minuetvideoAnd although I don’t need to see the screen at all (since I’m using the footpedal to control it, and can hear where I am) there are times when it’s handy to have both on at once.



Don’t be put off by the screens and the software: the magic in all this is the footpedal. It’s like having an extra pair of hands, so to speak, and when you go back to trying to operate the transport controls and Sibelius with the same pair of hands, you realise what a waste of time that is.


A year of ballet playing cards #45: A country wedding (polka) from Má Vlast (6d)

First line of the polka by Smetana

Click to download this polka by Smetana from Ma Vlast

How this polka fell into my hands, and why I love it

A friend and I were talking the other day about how even something as apparently soulless as a bit of computer code (try telling that to a programmer like him) can have a history to it that marks it emotionally.  Every time you use that useful, remarkable snippet of code, you think fondly of when you learned it, and from whom, and how you felt about them and the job at the time. I think of a particular musical theatre conductor every time I sellotape photocopies together, because he showed me how to do it in a way that’s easy and works perfectly, and I’m grateful to him for teaching me whenever I have to prepare a score.

Likewise, a lot, maybe even most of the things I play for class have the feel of a handshake about them: they are things handed on by others, liked by others, mentioned by others, or offered to others in tribute. What I like about this method of collecting music is that the repertoire comes pre-loved, so to speak, so you have to try and work out what it is that made it appeal to the person who recommended it to you. Even if you are wrong, you’ve made the effort to get inside the piece with good intentions and a positive frame of mind, and you end up loving it yourself.

A dancer friend told me a few years ago that this “Country Wedding” scene in Smetana’s Má Vlast was one of the pieces he’d love to hear for class. I don’t think I’d ever concentrated enough during Má Vlast to notice it (that’s my fault for being a very distractible listener, nothing to do with the music, which I like). What an odd piece of music to like that much, I thought, and vowed that I’d learn it one day, even though the chances of anyone else except him recognising it or wanting it for class are fairly slim. [Starts at 4.38 – should begin automatically by clicking on the link below]

Arranging the polka dots: problems of transcription and reduction

I thought it was going to be an easy job – just copying someone else’s (public domain, before you ask) piano reduction. But I couldn’t leave it alone. The piano reduction I found was a mess, and even left out my favourite bit, which is where the violins go up to the top D (5:08″-5:09″, or bar 20 in my score) because it transcribed the woodwind instead of the string parts at that point. So I got the orchestral score and started again. It took me ages.  Although it sounds like a simple piece, the simplicity is achieved by elaborate means – there’s something happening on every semiquaver, and in all kinds of registers, in parallel and contrary motion, in thirds, sixths and octaves, and it’s impossible to transcribe for the piano in a way which conveys this richness. I’ve done my best, but it doesn’t lie that easily under the fingers.


Where that tree is in front of the cream-coloured building on the left is the café/bar we called “Smetana’s Arse” because there’s a larger-than-life statue of a seated Smetana there, outside the Smetana museum. The willow tree used to be one of the most distinctive features of this bit of Prague and of that bar, but it was uprooted in the floods of 2002, and what you see is the newly planted one, not a patch on the old one yet.

In this respect, it’s rather similar to Jaromír Weinberger’s score for the polka from Schwanda the Bagpiper. It sounds like a simple tune, but the orchestration consists of multiple streams of non-stop chromatic semiquavers cascading over the tune in a sea of black beams. When a colleague of mine first saw the score, he couldn’t quite believe his eyes, and said he wasn’t sure he’d like to play it if he saw it on the stand.  But the effect is nice: what goes on between the notes of the tune happens so thick and fast that it’s affected you before you’ve had a chance to hear what it is properly.

This would be really handy for the kind of exercise that needs rhythm but not sharpness. All that movement, all those suspensions and appogiaturas give it a tender  kind of accent, like a tenuto plus a staccato plus a marcato in brackets.

I also couldn’t help wondering whether there’s more than a family resemblance between the rest of Vltava and the opening of Act II of the Nutcracker: same key, same time signature, same evocation of a journey by water.

A year of ballet playing cards #14: A small, medium and large waltz by Adam (Ah)

Ballet music waltz by Adolphe Adam - picture of piano score

Click to download the score of Adam’s “ballet music waltz”

“Do you have anything smaller?” Music, meter and small change

Even though I haven’t used a laundrette in years, I can’t get out of the habit of holding on to 20p pieces for the dryer, just in case. Likewise, when I’m in Prague, my heart sinks when I realise that I’ve just taken out 2,000 Czech crowns at the ATM, because you’ll get a 2000 note, which is currently about £50. Try buying a bus ticket from the airport with that.

change-boxSome ballet exercises, particularly those in a medium waltz tempo, are like a launderette where you need a whole bag full of assorted change for the various machines. It needs to be lyrical (notes), then accented (pound coins) then some detail for smaller movements (20p pieces), then some 50p pieces for the bit that’s strong and lyrical, but not so lyrical as the bit you paid for with a tenner, and then lyrical again, but with a strong beat. In other words, whatever accompaniment, dynamic or articulation worked for one bit of the exercise won’t work for all of it, and it’s never quite one thing or another, and you need to be able to keep it all going just under the surface, in case you need to accentuate a different level of the music suddenly.

The “ballet music waltz”

I’m calling this piece from Le diable à quatre a “little waltz,” or a “ballet music waltz” because that term is usually a sign that you need to get your laundrette money out: a waltz is just a waltz, a big waltz kind of plays itself, but a little waltz, or a “ballet music waltz” is like an overweight dachsund that you have to cajole, but not so much that it drags it’s tummy along the ground. I apologise in arrears for all the metaphors, but that’s the nature of the problem – this kind of music isn’t anything in particular, it’s a lot of things at once, and it doesn’t have a name, just a capability.

It starts at 11:09 in the clip above (it should start there automatically). 

This little ballet music waltz has got it all: it’s lyrical, with the possibility of long phrases. it’s sometimes in 6, sometimes in 3 (which is a big deal: see my earlier post on the rarity of truly triple metre) sometimes subdivided, sometimes not, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud. What’s more, you can play it several different ways without sucking the life out of it.

As if that weren’t enough reasons to include in my year of ballet playing cards, I love the fact that you can hear echos of Giselle’s opening Act 1 solo (the G major 6/8 one) in this.

See also


A year of ballet playing cards #44: A long, jolly polka/galop from Le Diable à quatre (5d)

galop for ballet class by Adam

Click to download the score of this galop for ballet class (pdf)

Something about this galop for ballet class is so similar to a piece by Shostakovich (I think it’s in Moskva Cheremushki) that if I’d heard snatches of this on the radio, I would have sworn it was by him, not Adam. That sold it to me, because sometimes you need something long and jolly for those fast exercises at the barre, and to be honest, nothing beats an accented  G flat in the middle of a sea of B flat major: it’s the musical equivalent of a whoopee cushion, and I expect composers will still be doing it a hundred years from now when they want a laugh at the Proms. In the clip below, it begins at 51:00 – clicking on it should take you there automatically, but if it doesn’t, drag the slider to that time.

Recipe for a galop for ballet class: 95% diatonic blandness, and 5% fun

To me this is a text-book example of how to be cheeky, funny, good-humoured, or call it what you will, in music. It requires 95% diatonic blandness spiked by the occasional funny face poking out from behind a doorway (accented wrong notes, or syncopations), sudden changes of direction (key or dynamics, but not at the same time  – less is more), mock-seriousness (minor keys), sleight of hand (repeating the same thing so many times you know what’s coming next – and then changing the ending), and then – how can I put this? – there even seems to be a little bit of national stereotyping going on, when a krakowiak suddenly appears just when you thought the whole world was a galop. This music has to be at a silly tempo – not show-off speed, but just slightly too fast.  I reckon about 121 bpm should do it. Too slow and it’ll sound leaden, too fast and it’ll just sound like showing off. Fast is rarely funny, unless it’s this kind of fast (thank you Gavin Sutherland for drawing my attention to it), the Circus Galop by Marc André Hamelin for player piano:

A year of ballet playing cards #27: A big polonaise by Glazunov (Ac)

Polonaise by Glazunov, piano score

Click on the picture to download the score

In an earlier post on polonaises in ballet class, I mentioned how difficult it is to find a Tchaikovsky polonaise that you can actually use in class – they sound regular but they aren’t. Here’s a polonaise by Glazunov from Scènes de Ballet that would be useful for an exercise that’s slower than you’d like it to be. I wouldn’t play the introduction that’s written, but I  thought I’d put it in there (it’s what’s in the score immediately before the tune comes in) in case you ever used this for an assessment class or something where the class had a chance to learn how it goes.

If you think this doesn’t fall under the fingers easily, don’t blame me: Glazunov’s music has a way of just not translating well on to the keyboard. In fact, this is really awful writing, with the tune running up and down and around three octaves like a dog in a park. It  looks like the writing of someone who didn’t try it out at the piano. But that’s what makes it sound rather exciting if you can be bothered to get your hands round it, because it’s clearly not something that you could just make up on the spot. Nonetheless, I think there’s a way of simplifying it and keeping the tessitura in an easier range, and I’ll probably do a second edition of this in a week or two.

Whether it was conscious or not, it’s suspiciously like the Chopin A Major polonaise, which of course Glazunov had orchestrated for Chopiniana. 

Poor Glazunov. According to the Wikipedia page, his death came as a shock to many people, but not for the reason you were probably thinking as you read that, but because they “had long associated Glazunov with the music of the past rather than of the present, so they thought he had already been  dead for many years.” I think he would probably have taken that in his stride however:  Jack Lanchbery told me once that in a dress rehearsal with orchestra in Russia, a ballerina (a very famous one, shame I can’t remember who) stopped dancing and shouted something to Glazunov about being a “third-rate conductor.” He replied:  “I’m most disappointed to hear that. I knew I was a third-rate composer, but I had always hoped I was a second-rate conductor.”