I get excited to learn new things, musically at least, so I will regularly try new instruments, learn new songs, compose in different styles, and things like that. This is challenging and tiring at times, but life gets too mundane for me staying within the same set of parameters for too long. One of my excercises to keep on my toes is transcribing songs or film cues.
Since the early days of my guitar playing life I would often learn to play songs by ear. Transcribing an orchestral piece has additional challenges but it’s fundamentally the same thing as learning a pop or rock song by ear. I feel there are 2 separate talents needed for this: 1. Learning the tune and 2. Deciphering the arrangement and orchestration. Skill 1 will get you to a lead sheet like you find in jazz fake books, a melody with chord symbols. Skill 2 is all the details to write out each instrument’s part. Skill 2 is hard to do exactly but I don’t think there is anything lost when you get a really good transcription that has a few minor differences from the original, the differences can be irrelevant when we are talking about whether the violas divisi to get the C# or the 2nd violins divisi to get it. Woodwinds doubling other instrumemts can be hard to get exactly too so you will need to make some of your own creative choices here and there but as long as you make sensible choices and the end result sounds like the original then I don’t think it matters much how much of an exact clone it is.
That being said, I think I nailed this transcription of Ennio Morricone’s Fistful of Dollars Prima. It doesn’t have a lot of instruments though, and it’s rather short so it’s no big deal but still fun, educational and satisfying to me. You’ll hear the big obvious difference is that the main solo instrument, the trumpet, is missing and in its place is electric guitar. My transcription was written for Bb trumpet but when I recorded it I remembered that I don’t play trumpet so I performed it on the instrument I know best. You may also see there is no viola or cello in the video, but there again the reason is just my lack of access and proficiency on these so I made substitutions while recording. My transcription is written for trumpet, acoustic guitar, snare drum, 5 part standard string section and SATB choir. That’s what I believe Ennio used for his version.
The strings are in the low register for most of the piece, leaving the soprano range open for the trumpet to dominate. The long, short, short and Dsus9 of the strings give the characteristic hook of the “rhythm section” to support the brazen wide vibrato trumpet melody which is unapologetically liberal with frills and runs. There is a build up where the violin does fill in rhythmic chords in the high range but it drops down low again when it hits the climactic D minor chord with trumpet on a piercing F and the choir stepping in louder in 4 part harmony. It ends with a recap of the initial hook and melody for a few softer measures which punctuate a sort of lonely, wide open feeling.
This is a great cue, it really moves me. You can compare my performance to the original and critique how well I did. I’m not going to share my written transcription, there are legal reasons why I can’t do that but I can give a few measures as example. As with every transcription I do, I certainly learned a few things in this process. I will do more Morricone transcriptions in the future. He writes great and intetesting music that has tons of personality.