Transcribe, transcribe, transcribe!

My whole career, my whole life, has been shaped by a single, simple passion. At 20 years old, I was a bebop trumpet player and I knew nothing of the music business. I knew enough to be in Los Angeles, because that’s where a lot of jazz musicians were playing and there were a lot of jazz clubs and jam sessions. I was obsessed with the trumpet playing of Clifford Brown; curious about how he could weave such beautiful lines through the chord progressions, even at fast tempos. So I started to transcribe his solos.

It was tedious at first, but with patience and practice I was able to get the notes down. (Yes, in those days the media was LP records!) I learned to do this without a piano, just my trumpet to get started in the right key. That was fortunate because now I appreciate the benefits of transcribing without a keyboard or other instrument — it is much faster, which is important if you’re working as a composer, orchestrator or arranger. After transcribing solos of Clifford and other musicians whom I admired for about two years, I had inadvertently trained my “ear” or, more correctly, my perception.

A few years later, when I found myself married with babies, it was time to get serious about working. I started copying (with pen and ink in those days) for record sessions and tv shows. There were only three of us working together in a house. One day, my employer got a phone call from Herb Alpert, who had just had his first hit record. Herb said, “Can you come over and write down some music for me?” My friend said, “No, but there’s a guy here who can.” That was the beginning of a 25-year relationship with Herb. I transcribed, copied, orchestrated and attended recording sessions of the Tijuana Brass and his other projects.

Being at A&M Records almost every day, I met a lot of singers, songwriters and musicians. During the 70s, that was a hot spot in the world of pop music. Joe Cocker and Cat Stevens were there; Carole King recorded her Tapestry album there. Even musicians who could write their own music preferred to have me transcribe so that they were free to create without having to fuss over notation. Soon, I met Richard and Karen Carpenter and started transcribing and orchestrating for the Carpenters, another career that lasted over a decade, until Karen’s death. To this day, I still work for Richard Carpenter on his various projects, transcribing “live” as he plays the orchestral parts on the piano.

In the 80s, I found myself writing episodic tv; one-hour dramas. I was composing and orchestrating simultaneously for a 35-piece orchestra (the good old days of tv). Again, I didn’t use a piano or other instrument — I could trust my “ear” to write for any instrument. I always kept a range and transposition guide with me. This was before VCRs and computers, so I wrote with only a timing book and a stack of cue sheets, where dialog and action was timed to the 100th of a second. After working about 2-1/2 days straight each week, I went to the studio and heard L.A.’s finest musicians play my music. It was a great experience.

During the 90s and to the present, I’ve been proofreading film scores for the likes of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Randy Newman, etc. In comparing score to orchestal parts, I am using my ear. You cannot proofread music with your eyes only — you must listen internally. The younger composers are sending in MIDI files, so part of my job is listening to audio files and working with music notation and digital audio software.

The technology will change and continue to improve but music remains music. If you train your ear and trust your ear, nothing will be out of reach, whether you are composing, orchestrating, arranging, performing, recording your own music or working on someone else’s music.

Ron GorowRon Gorow has been in the music business in Hollywood for over 40 years, working in film, TV, records, live acts and publishing. He has consolidated his experience as a composer, orchestrator, arranger, copyist, music engraver, score proofreader, musicologist and teacher his book Hearing and Writing Music.