The Art of Transcription

Arrangement vs. Transcription

Strictly defined, a transcription is an exact note for note rendition of a piece of music written for one instrument and played on another (i.e. guitar to piano).  Literal (or note for note) transcriptions are rare.  More common is a rendition that seeks to retain the character of the original while making some accommodations for capabilities and limitations of the instrument upon which the music will be performed.  While this rendition may still be called a “transcription”, it is more accurately an “arrangement”.  Certain parts of the music have been “arranged” to work better on the non-native instrument.

The approach employed in an arrangement will vary depending on the style of music being arranged.  In the classical idiom it is considered arrogant to “fix” or “rewrite” the music of brilliant composers such as Bach or Mozart.  In this instance, the most acceptable arrangement would be one of adaptation, with as little alteration as possible.   In pop music, however, it would be okay or even preferable, to stylize yet another version of “Yesterday”.  In this case it would be expected that the arranger may re-work chords, add notes and melodies, and change the form.

One example in popular music of the reorganized and rewritten arrangement rising to the realm of art is in the “big Band’ jazz style, where the skill and imagination of the arranger is central to the success of the resulting arrangement.  These versions are often more technically demanding than the original and blur the line between arrangement and composition. In the classical world, Ravel’s famous arrangement of “Pictures at an Exhibition“ from a piano solo to an orchestral piece demonstrates great imagination and creativity and is also a good example of the “art of transcription”. 

In the classical guitar world arrangements/transcriptions are played all the time.  Segovia was famous for his arrangements as were Tarrega, Llobet and others.  These arrangements intended to keep the character of the composer’s original composition while adapting the music to the guitar’s idiosyncrasies.  A good example of this would be the music of J.S. Bach. He never wrote a note for the instrument, yet we hear beautiful transcriptions played on the guitar often.

Transcription for Guitar

The art of the transcription comes in the choices made in the adaptation to the instrument; in our case, the guitar. The Tule Fog Catalog consists of transcriptions/arrangements taken mainly from orchestra scores and in a few instances, piano works. Literal or even close to literal transcriptions in these instances usually are impossible.  Changes and alterations are necessary for this type of music to be effective on the guitar.  Areas that are adapted include:  Range of the instrument, tone color on the instrument, chord voicing and texture.  Let’s take an in-depth look at each of these parameters.

Range:  The guitar has roughly a three octave range at best.  This is quite a reduction from the orchestra or even the piano.  Usually there will have to be some compression of ranges, possibly a key change and in many cases, a bouncing of octaves to voice the music effectively on the guitar.

Chord Voicing:  The tuning of the guitar makes certain types of chord voicings common to the piano and other instruments difficult, if not impossible, to play (stacked 2nds, for example).  These voicings will have to be modified to work on the guitar.

Tone color:  Certain ranges of the guitar can be too muddy or too bright for certain melodies and can obscure the intended musical effect of the original.  These sections will often need to be re-voiced in a transcription.  Certain music that takes advantage of an instrument’s tone color may not work well enough on the guitar.  For example Chopin is beautiful on the piano but the tonal character of the writing is so piano specific that it doesn’t come off well in transcription to the guitar (or other instruments).

Texture:  Orchestra music takes advantage of the different timbres of its instruments to create interest and depth.  When one removes these different timbres and reduces the number of instruments to a few or even a single instrument, things that work well because of this timbral variation can become repetitive and in some cases boring.  In certain instances arrangers will remove sections that repeat with different timbres in the orchestra score when making an arrangement for another instrument to avoid having the piece become monotonous.

Reductions:  When one makes an arrangement of an orchestra piece for single instrument or a much smaller group it is called an “orchestral reduction”.  The ratios in terms of sheer numbers of instruments make it necessary to cut out large numbers of notes while still retaining the as much of the essence of the original as possible.

The imagination, knowledge and skill of the arranger/transcriber in effectively manipulating these parameters are collectively known as the “Art of Transcription”.

Our Philosophy

As the arranger/transcriber at Tule Fog music, I have made many choices in these areas based on several factors:  Maintaining the essence of the original music, textural and tonal characteristics of the guitar and of the guitar ensemble, and a focus on making arrangements that sound good on guitars.  In addition to these parameters I have added one other factor: the skill level of my intended or “target” user group.

My intended user group:  Community guitar players, students, guitar players from other styles, guitarists starting out their musical journey, and university guitar majors looking to improve their reading skills.  Throughout my teaching career I have found that while I occasionally come across very advanced individuals, most guitarists are not as skilled as guitar majors at conservatories and universities.  I knew I would have to re-adjust my thinking in terms of difficulty if I wanted to include these guitar players of more modest ability.  I also noticed that people will stretch to learn something that is difficult for them if they like the music.  These realizations affected how I wrote my arrangements in a couple of ways:  I wanted to write arrangements so that guitarists of differing ability levels could play together and I wanted to arrange well known and well liked pieces.  

In order for guitarists of different ability levels to play together, I had to split the parts up in terms of difficulty.  In other words, part one gets all the hard lines, part three is always the easy line.  Most arrangements are written for guitarists of similar abilities. To keep all parts interesting, these arrangements usually share the difficult passages.  Tule Fog arrangements do not do this nearly as much.

In my arrangements parts one and two have the difficult lines that are in the higher ranges, guitar three is the easy line and guitar four is usually of moderate difficulty being the bass line.  This was done on purpose to keep things playable for the guitarists of lesser skill levels who would like to play with others.  In addition, I have avoided pieces that require virtuoso technique or go at very fast tempos. 

To appeal to the community, I chose to arrange the “popular classics”.  My choice to arrange selections from the “Nutcracker Suite” is a good example of this. Other instrumentalists are tired of these pieces by they time they reach college age because they have played them so many times.  However, guitar players never get to play any of them, so some of us have a different attitude about this music.  Over the years the “Nutcracker” arrangements have been very popular with students and have sold very well.

The arrangements in the catalog hit all of these parameters with varying degrees of success.  Some are harder than others, some lean more towards more of an “arrangement” point of view etc…..Below is a link to a chart to help you select pieces to suit your needs.

Choosing an Arrangement
All arrangements and content within this site are property of Guy Cantwell and Tule Fog Music

2009 Tule Fog Music