Suppose you're in a coffee shop without any instrument. In your hands are just your cell phone, headphones, a pencil and paper. Are there any technique or tool that can help transcribe a melody (eg guitar solo) in this context?

It's easy to use the phone to listen to music. But without being with a musical instrument, it is difficult to have a reference of the notes and chords. Is there anything that can facilitate this work?

  • 3
    I take great exception to your claim that "without ..musical instrument, it is difficult..." That's a personal limitation, and many experienced musicians can transcribe directly. Nov 17, 2015 at 12:24
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    Friend of mine used to start with some scoring paper, sellotaped together to be 'number of instruments deep' - listen to a bar or two [from a piano-key cassette machine worth about $2.50] pause the tape, write out the parts down the page from top to bottom - pop tune or Stravinsky, made no difference. Play next bar, repeat. I've never seen anything like it, before or since. If it took him more than a couple of plays for one section, he would look embarrassed - like someone was going to take his job ;) [he used to score the TOTP in-house band in the 70's]
    – Tetsujin
    Nov 17, 2015 at 18:05
  • Besides the apps mentioned below, an easy solution for the "without an instrument" part is a virtual piano app (simply search that). Most are free and there's nothing simpler. The others named below that provide transcription features can even make the phone an asset. Oh, and finally, something I often do on the road is open a free voice recording app and whistle or sing the melody, tapping a beat, to transcribe later. Lots of options. Dec 27, 2018 at 3:51

9 Answers 9


The best way, at least I think so, is to have a good sense of relative pitch. One can then heart the pitch sequence of phrases in the piece one wants to transcribe. I just use paper (either manuscript paper or just some line drawn on a blank paper) and put down the outline of the intervals; usually in C because I don't have perfect pitch. If possible, I put down the lyrics too to help when I revise my transcription. I do jot down the chords (not too much detail, just major, minor or seventh generally). The I have a pretty good outline of the piece, fragments of melody, a chord progression, and some lyrics. Listening to a piece about 4 or 5 times was usually enough back in the day I did this regularly.

It takes practice. I was lucky to get started about age 4 or 5. It also helps to know a bit about the structures of the music you want to transcribe.


Here is how to transcribe a recorded melody. First, you have to find the tonic (some people call it "do"). That's usually easiest by singing the ending. Now use a trick from sightsinging training: sing the tonic arpeggio: going up, 5 1 3 5 1 and now going down, 5 3 1 5 and finally going back up, 1. Now figure out which degree of the scale the tune starts on.

Now that you've got your starting note in your key, just go along by intervals. If your rhythmic transcriptions skills are not strong, just put notes without values at first, with the words of the song underneath, so you know where you are.

You can notate the whole thing in C major (or A minor) initially, if you're lazy about putting sharps or flats in the key signature.

When you're done, you can go back and copy the notes over again, but this time with quarter notes, half notes, ties, etc., etc.

It helps to listen through the whole piece while conducting. This will show you where 1 is for each measure.


You mentioned using your phone to listen to music. So I assume you have some type of smart phone. And you want to create and transcribe music without an instrument.

There are apps for smartphone that will allow you to create music using virtual instruments that you can play on the screen.

If you happen to have an i-phone, you can download the GarageBand App for $4.99 US from the Apple App Store. This app contains virtual instruments you can play manually and it will convert the songs you record to midi which will enable you to transcribe the notes. You may have to export the file from your phone to another program (such as Garage Band) and use your computer to print the transcript.

Here is a link to more information about this app - Apple GarageBand App

Good luck!


A tuning fork will help you establish the key. Ear training (relative pitch) will make possible the transcription without any other reference. That, and lots of practice. That is really all there is to it.


I'd start with some empty bars in the paper. Four per line works well. No particular key matters, although C/Am obviates the need for sharps or flats. Write the first note for each bar, as it's sung/played. Either on a stave, or by name. This will give a sort of skeleton on which to hang the other notes. Four bars is generally one line of music, so there is some stability.

Obviously, as stated in other answers, a sense of relative pitch is needed - absolute pitch, absolutely not. Start with simple songs, Happy B'day, etc. Bear in mind that not all songs will start on the first beat of the first bar. I would also tend to note down what chord is played in each bar, as that gives a direct indication as to what notes will be in the melody.

Timing can come later, as you now have the notes used in each bar in place, so the crotchets, etc., will fit in more of a mathematical way, assuming you've worked out the time sig.


Step one to transcriptions doesn't require an instrument anyway! Make sure you can sing the song you're transcribing cold. Once you can sing it (and really make sure you aren't faking through the hard passages) figuring out the intervals is trivial, though time consuming at first. If your ear isn't really sharp and you can't hear the intervals straight away use scales to help. The point to making sure you can sing the song first is that once you can do that you can take as long as you need to figure out each step in the music.


Try Symphony Pro for iPhone, iPod, iPad. Scores music ,lyrics, chords etc. on the app store. I forget how much.

  • Can you provide any more details? Have you used it before? Does it work well? Are there any tricks for making it work better? Nov 17, 2015 at 12:44

Shameless plug (but possibly relevant to the question).

I have an iPhone/iPad app in the iOS App store specifically designed to help (just an assist, not to do fully automatically) transcribe musical sound in real-time from microphone input. You can hum into your phone, etc. The HotPaw Music Spectrograph app plots the sound spectrum against a piano keyboard graphic to help determine notes and chords. (It also plots a lot of overtones and harmonics, so one has to learn which parts of the spectrum to ignore.)

My Sing inTuna iOS app can also help with transcription for monophonic singing voice input.


I agree that relative pitch is necessary for music transcription. However, without knowing the starting pitch, relative pitch is useless.

What you can do is download a tuner on your phone that also plays the pitches - such as INSTuner for the Iphone. This will help you establish the starting pitch and be extremely useful in identifying notes that you are having difficulty in identifying.

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