Tag Archives: Jazz Improvisation

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. Kolinski 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.