I have spent much of the last two days transcribing and analyzing a song I’ve known for about half my life. (No, you don’t get to know what it is!) It is so satisfying to do this work. In contrast to the process of writing, and my self-imposed daily word counts, you’d think this kind of woodshedding would be frustrating. It really isn’t. The knowledge that transcription brings excites me, especially in this case where everything is finally coming together in front of my eyes.
My learning style has always combined visual, aural, and tactile knowledge, maybe that’s why this step is so rewarding. I was one of those students that needed to do the reading before lecture, listened closely in class, and take copious notes. For me, knowledge absorbed three times isn’t just knowledge that sticks, it is knowledge that comes alive. Of course, as soon as I condense these two days of work into the four sentences I wanted to add to my paper, I’ll forget about the excitement of this experience.
To transcribe a lot of the music I write about is often both a translation exercise and a political act. This is one reason why I don’t use a lot of transcription examples in my publications. Yet, I have yet to find reasons to directly engage with the politics of transcription, maybe because it is so useful to me in the writing process. In other words, maybe its a blind spot. This past summer I got to discuss my work in an interdisciplinary, multi-media workshop. Yes, putting musicological writing online, for example, can be exciting. Your readers can hear what you’re talking about, and you don’t have to impose your notation and your assumptions onto that music. But, even more intellectually exciting might be to engage with the difficulties of representing popular music in the multi-media formats that, on the surface, allow you “do it all.” I’m working on a project that I hope will let me do just that, and I hope that some other contributors have something to say about this.
Finally, I recommend reading Peter Winkler’s article “Writing Ghost Notes: The Poetics and Politics of Transcription,” found in the 1997 collection Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture. He talks about the process of transcription, and its value, and contrasts it to the product of transcription. Transcription, he argues, is a particularly intimate way to get to know a song, as a musician. The article also includes a transcription of Aretha Franklin’s version of “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).”