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Understanding musical scores
Understanding musical scores

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3.3.2 Putting it all together

The score for Blue Skies that you have been looking at was made through a process called transcription, where a musician notates what they hear in a performance.

Writing music down in this way can be very useful when musicologists want to study it. The skill of listening to a piece and writing it down in musical notation takes a lot of practice – even then it’s often necessary to listen to a piece many times in order to notate it accurately. Often it’s not possible to hear exactly what each instrument is doing in large ensemble pieces, and educated guesses are needed to complete the score.

You are now getting more used to listening carefully and thinking about how sound relates to notation, and for the final activity this week you will have a go at making a simple transcription of your own.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: blueskies_p2.mp3
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Activity 1

First, listen to a longer section of Blue Skies and identify the sections that will already be familiar to you:

  1. where the saxophone players swap to clarinets (0:00–0:10)
  2. where the saxophones, trumpets and trombones play together in block chords (0:11–0:31)
  3. where the saxophones and brass sections have different material, but again use block chords (0:52–1:11).

These three points don’t cover the whole score though. Listen again to the performance from the beginning up to 1:51 and make notes on what the saxophones, trumpets and trombones do (don’t worry about the rhythm section, which plays throughout, for the purposes of this exercise). Think about the missing details indicated by a question mark in Table 1.

Table 1 Blue Skies
SectionTrack timingMelodyAccompaniment
0:00–0:09Saxes swap to clarinetBrass flutter tongue
0:10–0:30Saxes, trumpets trombones, block chords 
 0:36–0:40Trombone solo? sustained backing
0:51–1:10Sax and brass play different material in block chords 
 1:11–1:30? solo?
 1:31–1:51? solo?

Wind players can produce a distinctive sound by flutter tonguing, like rolling an R, while blowing into the instrument.

Notice that the solos in the last two sections would not have been notated in the original parts used by the Goodman band – they would have been improvised, that is, invented more or less on the spot by the individual musician. Usually the relevant part would contain a version of the melody, sometimes with indications of the harmony, for the musicians to work from.

Once you have done this, take one or two sections and see if you can make your own representation to show what is happening. You will need to listen closely several times in order to do this. Section 1 has been done as an example.

Figure 9

Here, different colours have been used to represent the three instrumental groups (red for clarinets, green for trumpets, yellow for trombones – you could perhaps use one colour for the brass as it’s often difficult to pick out the trombones on this recording). Figure 9 tries to show whether each group is playing constantly, or in shorter bursts; the broad contour of the melodies, and even tries to show the crescendo at the end of this short phrase. There’s no right or wrong way of doing this, so be creative.