Transcriptions Guide

Transcriptions Guide

This page is aimed primarily at the volunteers who have offered to help with transcriptions of the words and music of the songs that are being prepared for inclusion on our database. We felt that we could do no better than to be guided by the “Note on Editing and Transcription” that appears in the Introduction to “The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs” – Steve Roud & Julia Bishop (2012) ISBN 978-0-141-19461-5 and it is reproduced here with Julia’s permission.
Of course, others may read this and feel afterwards that they would also like to participate. We are always looking to add to our growing list of volunteers….

Note on Editing and Transcription


Text Editing and Transcription

Apart from the considerable difficulties of representing vital vernacular speech in cold print, one of the most problematic areas of any attempt to make the transition from ear to eye is punctuation. Many of the songs are not grammatical in the strictest sense, and if a text is punctuated according to the formal rules it becomes burdened with marks — particularly commas – which destroy the rhythm. We have therefore decided to strip the punctuation to the minimum, and have always favoured rhythm over grammar. For example, the line which could be given as’ So, fare ye well, my own true love, for ever, ever more’ becomes So fare ye well my own true love, for ever ever more’. Punctuation at the end of each line has been particularly severely suppressed.

It is a well-known characteristic of folk songs that titles vary considerably from singer to singer, which presents editors and researchers with major problems. We have decided to give a generally known title as the main heading for each song, while the singer’s or editor’s title is given in the Notes.

Music Editing

The songs in this volume have been taken from a variety of sour­ces, each of which presents the tune in a slightly different way. Some are notations made by ear directly from a singer’s rendition, others are tran­scriptions from sound recordings. Some are highly detailed, while others are more skeletal or composite in their conception. Some include melodic and rhythmic variation to a greater or lesser extent, others do not.

There has, of necessity, then, been some degree of standardization in the presentation of the tunes here. Where necessary, they have been transposed so that they fit the stave without the need for notes using more than one ledger line and so that they are presented in keys of no more than two sharps, as follows:

  • Major and Mixolydian tunes
  • (plagal range) —»• tonal centre on G
  • Major and Mixolydian tunes
  • (authentic range) —> tonal centre on D
  • Minor, Dorian and Aeolian tunes
  • (plagal range) —> tonal centre on A
  • Minor, Dorian and Aeolian tunes
  • (authentic range) —> tonal centre on E

Other editorial emendations, such as the addition of slurs or the sub­division of notes to accommodate the words of the first verse, and the correcting of obvious mistakes, have also been made. More major changes, such as editorial solutions to anomalies in the text, have been documented in the written notes for the relevant song.


Music Transcription


A fairly straightforward level of transcription has been adopted so that the transcribed tunes are easy to read and more closely resemble the other tune notations in appearance. Ornaments and grace notes have therefore, for the most part, been omitted unless they are very prominent, and rhythmic subtleties have mostly been notated in the nearest conventional note values and combinations. Sometimes these latter have been supplemented by impressionistic symbols, especially the pause sign, which obviates the need for too many changes of time signature and unexpected time values. In some songs, where the length of the bars alternates between two different time signatures, or sometimes even three, the additional time signatures have been noted in parentheses at the start of the transcription rather than at the point at which they occur in the notation. Music theory has not been strictly adhered to in the final bar of each tune, which reflects the length singers give it rather than being made up to one full bar with the addition of the upbeat (pick-up) note with which the tune starts. Rests have also been omitted for the most part, as have indications of where singers took breaths.

Since, by convention, it is usual to present the music and words of the first stanza in folk-song collections, it was decided to follow this practice in the transcribed examples here. This is despite the fact that, in performance, it is often the case that singers take a while to get into their stride with a tune and the first verse may be the least typical rendition of it.

For reasons of space and clarity, it has been necessary to be selec­tive with regard to the notation of rhythmic and melodic variations introduced by singers in the course of singing a song. Since rhythmic changes are often made in response to the words, they have been omitted and only variations which introduce changes of pitch through omission, addition, substitution or reordering at a specific point have been included. Other notable features of individual per­formances are mentioned in the written notes to the song.

Notes on the tunes of the songs have been provided in many cases. Although not exhaustive, they attempt to bring together salient com­ments by others relating to the song and its tune and to highlight particular musical features of the melody and its performance. Resem­blances with other tunes have also been noted, but adopting a rather more narrow definition of resemblance than that which characterizes Samuel Bayard’s tune family research.

Mode names have been used in describing the tonality of some of the melodies, but only as a shorthand method by which to indicate the occurrence of inflected notes within a tune. We have also tended to distinguish between the major modes (the major scale or Ionian mode and the Mixolydian mode), on the one hand, and the minor modes (the Dorian and Aeolian modes, which, like minor scales, flatten the third degree), on the other.