To Transcribe Music or Not

Published: 18th May 2012
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Believe it or not, transcription can ruin a composition. Though primarily applicable to classical music, this can apply to most any other genre. One should know that when a composer writes a piece, it is intended for a particular instrument or set of instruments or even voice. Some performances might even sound good to the ear. However, the character of the piece is lost because the integrity has been tampered with. In classical music competitions, transcribed pieces are not permitted for that very reason.

A good analogy, for example, is if you had a particular family recipe that had been perfected and traditionally maintained for many generations. Let's say one day someone found it and altered it and attributed the changed version to your family's name. However, when you tasted it, it was not what it was meant to be. Whether the taste was ruined or not, it's altered, which is the point, and has thus lost its character.

Let's take an example in music. During Mozart's time, woodwinds were not so much in use like they are now. He composed a certain piece for string instruments. I heard a performance of that piece done on woodwinds. It was immaculately done. However, the character of that work was completely lost. It was something else.

Why must this aspect be adhered to by musicians? Because music is more than just melody, harmony and rhythm. It has a deeper, aesthetic message behind it (which has been covered more extensively in a previous article). That is the language where this communication occurs. When those instruments were chosen by the composer for his or her work, it was done for a reason.

Here is an actual example. A renowned composer was inspired one time when he woke up early in the morning and heard a songbird chirping outside of his window. He created the melody line and chose the flute for it. He did that very specifically because that was his creative vision. Now, to substitute that melody with a violin, though it can have a similar range, would lose the actual essence.

You can never change the essence of something. You can only bring it out.

Have you ever seen a person who looked or acted very similar to someone you were very close to? Did you have the exact same feeling for that person as you do for the one you know? Most likely, your answer is "no". Notice the difference? They're not the same spirit; they're two different essences, and you can perceive that.

Transcribing compositions, however, is common. So is covering a song. Such is done with popular music all over the charts. You have often heard that imitation is the best form of flattery. It is a normal human behavioral aspect to interpret the works of others, to mimic them or to show appreciation or whatever the case may be. However, the liability in this is that the character of one's original creative vision can be lost, which means the value of the art is diminished.

There is a bit of an exception to this rule, however. Folk music is not an individual creative endeavor. It is a social vehicle come to us, generation by generation. It reflects what is going on in a certain group or nation, all the social aspects like problems, lifestyles, joys, sorrows, shared by all, not just by one.

by Evelyn Simonian
© 2012. Evelyn Simonian

Evelyn Simonian is a pianist and music teacher who applies “music with movement” to her students. She has been featured in televised interviews as well as several magazine and newspaper articles.

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