Should we consider requests that ask for aid in reverse engineering / transcribing compositions valid?

By this I obviously mean well constructed questions that the OP has put clear effort into, articulating where they're at and what they need help with, not straight-out requests to provide the poster with a complete works. But, badly constructed questions aside, should they be tolerated at all?

If yes, then what legal implications might we need to think through?

In some cases allowing this might not fall foul of any law or copyright, but I think we would need to look into what can be done to protect ourselves from anything of the like happening, since, inevitably, other cases won't be so 'free' - what do sites that host music sheets / chords / tabs en masse do? Is there somewhat of an umbrella policy we can get under?

  • What do you mean by "reverse engineering"? Transcribing?
    – user28
    Apr 27, 2011 at 19:14
  • @Matthew Read: Precisely, I'll explicitly mark it so. Apr 27, 2011 at 19:16

3 Answers 3


Yes definitely. Transcribing is a very important part of music practice and performance. It is especially so for Jazz musicians, where one of the most effective way (mostly because the lack of extant transcriptions) is to learn "licks" through transcribing them off a record. So questions on the techniques involved in, and software aids that helps, transcription should be on topic.

On the other hand, questions asking for transcribed information could be in a legally grey area. And we probably should not allow requests for complete tablatures or transcriptions.

The one murky area I haven't made up my mind about is: what about very specific requests for incidental information? (A question like: what is that chord that Hank Jones played on the 4th beat of bar 79 of Autumn Leaves on the recording Somethin' Else.) I can't see how that could possibly violate any laws by itself, but I can also see how this question could be a slippery slope.

  • I'm interested to see what others think in regard to your last paragraph. I don't think it would particularly be an issue either, but we can't really afford to simply think we're right, I would suppose. Apr 27, 2011 at 19:36
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    I also don't think it would be an issue, but it's way too specific. Questions are closed as Too Localized when "This question would only be relevant to a small geographic area, a specific moment in time, or an extraordinarily narrow situation that is not generally applicable to the worldwide audience of the internet." I think the last part of that applies here.
    – user28
    Apr 27, 2011 at 19:43
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    I'm not so sure. There's a lot of worldwide figures in music and a specific question could well be a widely wanted nugget of knowledge. Just to throw a thought into it. Apr 27, 2011 at 19:46
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    @Matthew: it just occurred to me also that the specific example I used in the last paragraphs is just asking to be closed as Too Localised. So I agree, we probably should disallow those questions because of its limited interest. (Unless it is something like this.) Apr 27, 2011 at 20:45
  • @Willie That's pretty cool.
    – user28
    Apr 27, 2011 at 20:52
  • @WillieWong Like I commented on @MatthewRead's answer, I think that specific requests are okay just like specific programming questions on Stack Overflow. Especially when the questioner puts in a reasonable effort, the answerer can often provide useful generally-applicable info that can help in the future. Apr 28, 2011 at 21:06
  • I agree that it would be too localized. You should then ask a question instead in the form of "Suppose I have an audio example of a chord that I'm trying to transcribe, how can I determine what chord it most likely is?" without giving more specifics. May 8, 2011 at 20:38

I don't think we should give help on transcribing particular songs, and we certainly should not host transcriptions. I think help for a particular song is too specific to be useful for the site, and it could definitely run into legal issues.

On the other hand, help with transcription in general should be on-topic. I don't think there's any question that playing by ear would be on-topic, and there's not a clear difference (you can just write down the notes that you've learned to play by ear!). You can still get into specifics (e.g., "How do I transcribe a guitar masked by lots of cymbals?") without naming the song. It's probably good to help people learn general transcription skills as well, rather than have them come back for help with every song.

  • 1
    Nice, succinct answer. Apr 27, 2011 at 19:31
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    I'm not so sure. On Stack Overflow, users often ask specific questions about their code that aren't very helpful for anyone else. Especially if the answerer writes helpful info about how to do the transcription, I think questions about specific pieces are fine. (But of course, we shouldn't have entire transcriptions nor should we answer questions that have no effort put in by the asker.) Apr 27, 2011 at 22:39
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    Although it's probably best we don't host complete transcriptions, I think it's rather important that users be able to ask "What is Coltrane doing [here]?" In a lot of cases it really can't be anything other than opinion, and that kind of question extends to many other situations in all genres of music: for example, a composer might want to know "what the heck is Bobby McFerrin doing HERE???" or an electronic musician might want to know how to produce a specific timbre. Transcription is more than just the "notes".
    – NReilingh
    May 3, 2011 at 0:00
  • @NReilingh Good points.
    – user28
    May 3, 2011 at 1:11

There are other aspects of reverse-engineering a piece as I understand it than transcribing and they apply both to old and recent compositions, with or without a score.

  • Understanding/commenting the harmony, themes, form, composition techniques, inspiration sources, related works.

    In my opinion, this is perfectly acceptable as long you are only making short quotations for works still under copyright. I believe that for classical works this is an important part of music practice and performance. Alas, like Willie Wong suggested, many questions could be viewed as too localized.

  • Discussion of arrangement, ornementation, bass figuration, instrumentation and orchestration used in a recording, a particular form of a work different from available sources.

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