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Introduction

I've become frustrated with the lack of reasonable piano transcriptions available or in print from reliable publishers or online communities alike. Transcriptions of music in Piano-Voice-Guitar (PVG) format is bewilderingly common, despite the fact that the arrangements are just that - arrangements, which can bare little resemblance to the recorded piano part. Playing piano for popular songs containing piano and keyboard (Todd Rundgren, The Doors, Billy Joel, Elton John, The Beatles, infinitely more...) requires one-on-one instruction, playing by ear, interpretation of an arrangement, or manual transcription. Keyboards play a crucial role in modern music as well as classic rock and similar genres.


Motivation

The desire to play as part of a band is strong, and in order to understand the method of playing keyboard in a group, it is incredibly useful to play transcriptions. Interpreting from PVG, playing by ear, getting a personal tutor, these things are not accessible to many people who want to learn keyboard. The songs themselves are not difficult, but there is a huge barrier to entry for learning. As evidence of the use of transcriptions, look at the thriving guitar community, with millions of people able to play transcriptions of popular songs to varying degrees of accuracy, all while being properly licensed and easily accessible (e.g. Hal Leonard books or Ultimate-Guitar.com).

I am not the first person to ask this question, but the responses I have seen (on other websites albeit) range from unhepful to elitist and rude. Music is supposed to be shared, everyone can agree with that, so why are piano transcriptions exceedingly uncommon for modern music?

Transcription books (note-for-note as they say) do exist, e.g. for The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Elton John, and others. But I have only seen 1 (The Beatles book) in a music store, and only rarely. I don't mean to get up on my high horse and preach about how cold and elite the piano community is, because that's not true. But I need to understand!


The Question

Why is finding piano transcriptions so difficult?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Todd Wilcox, David Bowling, Carl Witthoft, ttw, MattPutnam Sep 3 '18 at 16:19

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Because you have to pay for a good transcription since it's a skill that takes time to learn and use. Almost any song can be found on a site like musicnotes. For example, the first doors song that popped into my head was "Riders of the Storm" and here it is: musicnotes.com/sheetmusic/mtd.asp?ppn=MN0072701 – Dom Aug 29 '18 at 20:21
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    I think there's a disconnect here. They do exist and transcription is a skill that requires a lot of practice to master. A decent degree isn't the same as getting it right which again take a while to learn and a decent transcription is miles away from being exact. Looking at most tabs should show you that as most tabs have many mistakes and the notation isn't refined enough to convey a lot of nuances. Here is a transcription of the Current top 2 song on the charts musicnotes.com/sheetmusic/mtd.asp?ppn=MN0179628, so I'm still confused why you think they aren't out there. – Dom Aug 29 '18 at 20:41
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    Exactly, that sheet is completely inaccurate, its not even close to anything played on the record or live. – Sam Gallagher Aug 29 '18 at 20:50
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    I'm away from an instrument right now, but the feel and the idea is there. It might be in a different key than the original, but that's typical for transcriptions and unless you are notating all the instruments it's going to be an arrangement that you have to pick and choose what to put in. You're also contradicting yourself. "Perfection is not the name of the game, its availability of transcriptions." here is one that is available, it might not be to your standards, but it's there. In most Jazz music you'll get a lead sheet that offers less information. – Dom Aug 29 '18 at 21:00
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    I'm confused. If transcription is not a difficult job that requires years of practice and experience, then why not simply do all of your own transcriptions and not worry about finding anyone else's? – Todd Wilcox Aug 29 '18 at 21:02
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Probably because the market is small. The number of players out there who regularly play from sheet music and also want to play exact piano parts of pop songs is relatively small, so there's not really any money in selling the transcriptions.

I could be wrong about this, because this is just my personal experience, but in my experience of working musicians playing in cover bands, most pianists in that context find playing by ear less of a chore than playing from sheet music, and so even if sheet music was available they probably wouldn't bother. And most of the ones that can and do read music pick up pop music by ear quickly and easy enough that it's not worth the effort of acquiring it. And even of those working musicians who would be interested in an exact written transcription (which is really not that many players), how many of them would be willing enough to pay for it?

Most piano players who are buying written music are either classical musicians (who if they're playing pop music at all, aren't that interested in playing an exact part, just something that sounds close enough for them to sing along or play as a solo arrangement) or amateurs not looking to play in a band, but to play something that's not too difficult, and allows them to "sound like the song" well enough to be recognisable and enjoyable.

Tl;dr Piano players who even want to play an exact part from a pop record are very much a minority of players, and of that small subsection, most of them are people who play by ear and rarely use dots at all.

The exception here is generally 2 things:

1. Musicians/bands who are "significant" enough to be a subject of academic study (e.g. the Beatles)

2. Musicians who are specifically famous for their piano/keyboard parts (Stevie wonder, Billy Joel) and so the "mainstream" audience of piano hobbyists are likely to be interesting in learning the music note for note. And broadly, that's what you see in the market.

(3) I can't think any examples of this off the top of my head, but musicians that have either have a crossover appeal with classical musicians (like how I bet ludvico einaudi or that music from the Amelie soundtrack are probably big sellers) or perhaps a musically complex band with a dedicated fanbase of players who would be a demographic for sales of exact transcriptions (can't think of one off the top of my head, but there might be one)

  • I appreciate this answer, but it's forgetting about the target market, people learning piano. It takes no time at all for me to learn a song on guitar, I can pick it out quickly and play along. This goes for the majority of more or less experienced guitarists. Sure, solos and voicings can be tricky, but by and large it's straightforward. And yet, guitar tabs are the most popular form of "educational music content" produced, with millions(?) of tabs available. People want to play the song the way it was recorded, especially if they're learning. The same goes for piano, I'm confident. – Sam Gallagher Aug 30 '18 at 1:01
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    @SamGallagher I would not call tabs "educational music content". A lot of tabs have glaring errors that make them next to useless and very few have any rhythmic information which means they are incomplete in terms of a transcription. I also definitely would say they are not for people who wan to "play the song the way it was recorded" for the previous reasons. – Dom Aug 30 '18 at 1:38
  • can't really agree with you there @Dom, lack of rhythmic information isn't really an impediment to people playing music with reference to a record; the point of tabs isn't to give you all the information required to play a piece of music, but as a cheat sheet to tell you how to play something when you already know how it should sound. I agree with you about accuracy problems though. – Some_Guy Aug 30 '18 at 1:52
  • @SamGallagher perhaps that's the case, but I think there are a great number of people (especially beginners) who would be satisfied with a recognisable but not exact transcription (and maybe even prefer it, if it makes it easier to play or more viable as a solo arrangement without a band). I'm not sure how much overlap there is between people discerning enough to want the exact part unmodified, but not advanced enough to not need the sheet music in the first place. Perhaps there is a market for it, in which case it's maybe just that publishers are lazy and trust that consumers won't (cont.) – Some_Guy Aug 30 '18 at 2:26
  • (cont.) be able to to tell the difference, or won't care. I also notice that a lot of these (terrible) arrangements for piano often include the melody in the right hand, maybe with some idea that that's useful for singalongs? Or maybe people buying the music just expect the melody to be present, and would be disappointed if it wasn't? Or publishers think that to be the case... I'm just guessing here, but I agree that the quality of arrangements of pop songs is and always has been completely dire, I generally just go off my ears and/or chord sheets, and I think I'm the norm in that regard. – Some_Guy Aug 30 '18 at 2:36

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