The Perils of Transcription

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In 1963 the Society for Ethnomusicology sponsored an experiment testing the reliability of transporting musical sounds onto the written page. Four prominent scholars, Willard Rhodes, Mieczyslaw Kolinski, Robert Garfias, and George List, were asked to notate a recording of a Hukwe Bushman song performed with a musical bow. Given the difficulty of translating an African oral tradition into European notation, the results were predictably varied. For instance, the musical bow produces two simultaneous pitches: a fundamental and an overtone. Kolisnki and Rhodes accounted for both pitches, while List and Garfias just transcribed the overtone. List included two forms of the vocal line, one attentive to the voice itself and the other correlating the vocal melody with that of the musical bow.

In the decades since the experiment, ethnomusicology has shifted focus away from transcriptions. While musicological analysis is still valued, comparative studies—which emphasize notes on the page—have been pushed aside in favor of inclusive, in-depth studies of music and culture. The transition owed partly to problems inherent to musical transcription. In addition to the inadequacy of applying Western tools to non-Western music, the act of writing often clashes with the essence of the song being notated. Oral transmission, an active process that values spontaneity, is confined to a written document, a fixed object that is set in ink. This is particularly problematic in a culture such as ours, which views published sheet music as “correct” and “definitive.” The printed page is habitually mistaken for the music itself.

This is not just an inter-cultural issue. Much of the music in our own society is created and transmitted independent of notation. Some of our most celebrated songwriters cannot read music, and it is a jazz imperative to journey away from the score. During the recent plagiarism case involving the hit song “Blurred Lines,” producer-songwriter Pharrell Williams was exposed as a non-music reader, despite his claims to the contrary. This is not to suggest that music readers have special advantages over non-readers. Anyone who makes this claim should note that Irving Berlin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles are among the illiterati. What it does reveal is the clumsiness of committing experientially constructed songs to writing.

This is apparent when reviewing song transcriptions in fake books and similar anthologies. Very rarely does a song appear with identical notation in two or more books. The transcribers, usually working from audio recordings, do their best to capture the durations, phrasing, vocal inflections, and other peculiarities. However, in the process, they adjust syncopations, imprecisions, and rough executions to fit the song within rigid bar lines. Thus, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is printed without the (unintended?) meter switches, and pop ballads appear without hard-to-render melismas. Because there are many ways of handling such peculiarities, the finished products tend to be diverse—a phenomenon comparable to the Bushman experiment.

Still, musical transcription does play important roles. There are cases in which transcriptions of folk songs, imperfect though they may be, are all that remains of a music-culture. Abraham Idelsohn’s monumental Thesaurus of Hebrew-Oriental Melodies (1914-32) is a prime example, both for its imperfections and for its preservation of melodies from extinct communities. More generally, sheet music aids musicians other than the original performers in playing the songs. It is, then, appropriate to treat transcriptions as useful approximations, just not as authoritative monuments.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.


10 thoughts on “The Perils of Transcription

  1. Nicholas

    Dear Jonathan,

    If you have the time I would appreciate your thoughts on this topic.

    I have met musicologists who’ve tried to argue that music is for music theorists, that only people with advanced training understand music. I’ve also met musicians who were very emphatic in saying that musical background matters and that…. “basic aural skills, the ability to read music, and time spent playing in ensembles drastically alters one’s experience of music”


    I just don’t understand where they get these ideas…. First of all, the difficulty with music is that it does not essentially exist in an intellectual construct. True, music has form and that can be analyzed with logic and music has harmony and that, also, can be analyzed within a logic construct but the intellectual analysis of music is most unimportant when compared to the effect music has on our deep emotions. Analysis of emotional content is not unusual but it, ultimately, is little more than the water running off the leaves of trees during a rain; it has little effect on the leaves and it is not a primary source of nourishment for the tree. Putting a name to something may make it easier to spot and recognize (the musicologist’s point of view), but it does not mean that it suddenly CHANGES whatever it was before you could describe it. Sometimes yes it can help to speed up the process but it does not mean that things like bias disappear. Musicians and musicologists can be just as biased and short-sighted as “lay-listeners”. Also, knowledge of music theory or the ‘instruction book’ is not the basis for aesthetic experience. What it describes is, but theory is the description, not the object. We still have the object without the technical data. We still have ears and we are still fully equipped to hear it. I don’t think it deepens understanding of what the music expresses on its own terms which is greater than its own formal content.

    Music affects us much as the sense of smell influences us. It speaks directly to the emotional content of our lives. It is the art the does not require any understanding, explanation, nor analysis. All of these things can add to the art of music but, ultimately, they are little more than rain on the leaves.

    Just to be clear: Nobody is dismissing the value of studying the theory, the technique, the style, the history of a work, the context but…. the aesthetic appreciation (experience) is completely a different thing. Now of course I agree that… “time spent playing in ensembles drastically alters your experience of music”… because if you do that you’re listening, and you have to really pay attention to all the details. But to then go one step further and claim (as many academics do) that… “the ability to read music improves one’s LISTENING abilities”…. ??

    No, I am sorry. To me this is completely false. An individual absorbs and makes sense of a piece of music through repeated, patient and contemplative listenings. The structure is then subconsciously apprehended.

    Nobody requires another human being to help them feel the beauty and perceive the nuances in a musical composition. Introspection and personal study are everything. We already know from research that a brain network linked to solitary introspection gets switched on when we encounter particularly moving artworks. Once I feel that initial ‘stab of communication’ I am on my way to further passionate exploration and the last thing I’d care about are someone else’s observations. The interest in other people’s thoughts or analysis would come much later at the end but solely as a type of DIVERSION to see if their enthusiasms about the work match your own.

    People can read up on music all they want but unless they bother listening closely they won’t get to love it. Altering one’s own brain does take some personal effort, but piggybacking on others won’t get you very far. And it seems that many intentionally confuse listening appreciation with learning technical aspects for performance. Yes, people are very copycat like that even when maybe they should put in some of their own initiative, one of the weaker aspects of the species arguably. The taboo actually seems to be someone saying that if you put in your own effort you can appreciate much of music at a very deep level without needing to be a musician or great technical expert and paying someone to achieve that…. (Let’s remember also that music happened BEFORE musicologists)

    In his last book Charles Rosen wrote:

    “One brute fact often overlooked needs to be forced upon our consideration: most works of art are more or less intelligible and give pleasure without any kind of historical, biographical, or structural analysis. […..] In the end we must affirm that no single system of interpretation will ever be able to give us an exhaustive or definitive understanding of why a work of music can hold an enduring interest for us, explain its charm, account for its seduction and our admiration [….] Listening with intensity for pleasure is the one critical activity that can never be dispensed with or superseded”

    I’d appreciate your thoughts on any of this.



  2. jlfriedmann Post author


    Very well stated. I happen to agree with everything you’ve written. Music has (as far as we can tell) existed for the duration of human history. Only in the last few hundred years have theoretical systems been developed. Even today, most cultures have oral musical traditions. It is also true that musical styles tend to predate theory — that is, the music-makers create the raw material from which theory is derived. You might resonate with the observation of Vladimir Jankélévitch, a French philosopher and musicologist, who argued that talking adds nothing to the music. (In other words, music is meant to be experienced.)

    In an older post, I suggested that non-musically educated people have some advantages over the trained listener, in that they can experience music on a purer and less judgmental level:

    Theory has its place, but it’s not as central as theorists contend.


  3. Jen_45

    Nicholas and Jonathan,

    I have to disagree with both of you.

    I DO believe that “basic aural skills, the ability to read music, and time spent playing in ensembles DRASTICALLY alters one’s experience of music”

    This is incontrovertible.

    It can be directly likened to being a passenger in a car who has no knowledge or experience in driving a vehicle, or being the driver, the most apt connection to the above would be someone who knows how to drive the vehicle, has experience doing so, but is at least for some moments a passenger.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Nicholas and I, too, agree with the statement: “time spent playing in ensembles drastically alters your experience of music” (see above). Being the music maker is very different from being an auditor.

      The issue, as Nicholas points out, is the assumption that “the ability to read music improves one’s listening abilities.” This is the idea that analytical knowledge makes you a better listener. There are several problems with this very common claim: (1) It has a Western (classical) bias. I’m sure you’ve had incredible experiences listening to music of another culture that differs drastically from Western conventions, and is the product of an oral tradition — that is, it is not (and perhaps cannot be) notated. (2) Knowing music theory can turn one into a harsh critic, e.g., you used to like a piece of music until your theoretical knowledge taught you how simple or unoriginal it is. (3) Virtually every human being appreciates virtuosity, which has an evolutionary basis (we admire the fitness of the player/composer). (4) Thinking too much about the technical aspect of a performance can distract one from the moment of perception. (5) Fixation on notation can leave the impression that music is a fixed object, rather than an unfolding process with room for spontaneity.

      That being said, for me there is one situation in which the ability to read music certainly improves the musical experience. It happens each time I’m in the orchestra for a Mahler symphony or some other drawn-out piece. As a passive audience member, sitting through such a thing is unbearable for me. But being a member of the orchestra, actively contributing to the sound, makes it a little more tolerable.

      1. Jen_45


        It’s fine for you to speak for yourself, but you’re assuming that everything you say is universal. It’s not.

        Yep, my ability to read music (and scores) DOES, in fact, make me a better listener, by associating technical aspects of how music is put together with what I’m hearing.


  4. jlfriedmann Post author

    I really don’t think we’re in disagreement here. The issue hinges on what we each mean by “better.” I support your view that understanding music can and does enhance technical appreciation; but that is not always “better” when it comes to the overall experience of music. I often have a hard time listening to music because I know too much. My emotional involvement is hampered by my brain. I realize this is not universal, but many (almost all) of my musician friends have voiced similar frustrations.

  5. Nicholas


    Ok, yes, the more one learns, the more one is able to TALK about music but does it really ENHANCE one’s aesthetic pleasure.

    Does it really?

    Let me give you an example: One of my ‘musical lodestars’ during my teenage years was Debussy’s
    Prelude to “The Afternoon of A Faun”. I absolutely worshipped this piece. Many years later I had a musician friend explain to me the basics about its construction: (i.e. the emphasis of the tritone, the non-functional triadic harmony, the liquid qualities of the rhythm, the avoidance of a strong pulse, etc.)… But was my appreciation enhanced by cognizance of its form and structure? Did I love it more after that basic study
    than when I was 15?

    No, absolutely not!

  6. Nicholas


    One more thing:

    A while back Bernard Holland wrote about a similar topic:

    The leap from “understand” to “appreciate” is long and blind. Respectful cognizance and enlightenment through diligent listening tell me that Ralph Shapey was a brilliant composer, but at the end of a long day, how many of us take home his string quartets to cuddle with affection?


    The word “understand” remains elusive. I don’t understand an elm tree, but give me the right one, and I like to sit under it. Knowing its biology may help, but the heart is not a biologist. An implicit contract has been signed but is not necessarily being honored. It states that if I understand a piece of music, I’m likely to like it, too. This is not true. No amount of experience and analysis can by itself induce the stab of communication between art and its beholder.


    The downside of music education is not only that it confuses understanding with love; it threatens an arrogance that classical music can ill afford.

    You can read the whole thing here:…ted=all&src=pm

  7. Carey

    It’s always seemed obvious to me that the capacity to enjoy / appreciate (yes, all senses) / understand music in no way depends upon its technicalities, or even ability to read its notation. If music could only be apprehended by its experts, its appeal wld be tiny.

    Its communication is affective, physical, sensory….

  8. Carey

    I find this whole discussion a bit strange.

    It’s always seemed obvious to me that the capacity to enjoy / appreciate (yes, all senses) / understand music in NO WAY depends upon its technicalities, or even ability to read its notation. If music could only be apprehended by its experts, its appeal wld be tiny.

    Its communication is affective, physical, sensory….


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