Like most musicians, sometimes I sit down and listen to a song, and attempt to "reverse engineer" what the notes and chords and so on might be.

Is there a widely understood term for that?

  • Do you mean sort of "picking out the melody"?
    – Fattie
    Nov 19, 2020 at 18:22

2 Answers 2


Transcription: Is the process of listening to a piece of music and "reverse engineering" it. It can also mean just the process of writing down a piece of music.

You'll find a number of questions on this site related to transcription. As a starting point, just search for the word "transcribe" or for the tag.

EDIT: Transcription is different from copying, as pointed out by Dekkadeci in the comments. "Copying" is the act of literally transferring one sheet of notated music to another. "Transcribing" requires writing down a sound that was not previously written: from a recording, from nature, by re-writing notated music for one or more instruments other than in the given notation.

  • @Tom Funny you mention that. I first encountered the term studying jazz, and it was just used to mean learning from a recording. Writing it down wasn't mentioned. I used to get quite confused when I read of early Classical musicians "transcribing" music.
    – Aaron
    Nov 18, 2020 at 18:53
  • Interesting. I would have thought "transcription" just means copying something from one sheet of paper to another... Nov 19, 2020 at 10:02
  • @MathematicalOrchid Historically (and literally), it does. But, at least in jazz circles, it has come to mean "learning from the [sound-] recording".
    – Aaron
    Nov 19, 2020 at 11:49
  • 1
    @MathematicalOrchid - As far as I've learned, copying music straight from one sheet of paper to another is called copying, and someone who does this is called a copyist. Transcribers at least either have to figure out music from audio or change the instrumentation.
    – Dekkadeci
    Nov 19, 2020 at 12:17

Transcribing would be the act of sitting down and writing the notes and rhythms you hear, This is a pretty standard practice and how we learn songs. This can get difficult to do with a completed piece of recorded music as parts bleed together and effects can obfuscate notes. It is a little different if you want to "reverse engineer" the engineering and production of the finished piece. At the end of the day the starting point is your ear, a well trained ear could determine if there is chorus, delay, etc added to the instruments.

In addition to your ear there are software packages that apply signal processing techniques to try and separate the individual notes in a small time window of the entire piece of music. This can be a helpful aid if you cannot figure something out but it's still transcribing.

  • Do you have any names for these packages, or at least a search term? They sound interesting. Nov 19, 2020 at 12:48
  • One is transcribe. I tried it many years ago and it was only 30$ at the time. It lays an fft spectrum over a keyboard and you have to pick what you think is reasonable. At the time there was no side lobe suppression so you need to understand what you are looking at. I think there are commercial packages that cost $1000's but attempt to convert recordings to scores. I could be wrong and have never tried anything that expensive
    – user50691
    Nov 19, 2020 at 15:05

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