• Copyist

The state of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s immortal legacy of compositions is a terrible tragedy. His combative relationship with his copyists is well-documented; their work was often sloppy and plagued by mistakes. The hatchet job on his music has persisted, despite the efforts of historians and musicologists to return the compositions to their intended glory, and it is impossible to know how badly corrupted are the orchestrations. A good copyist is dedicated to the meticulous preservation and reproduction of a composer’s art. A bad copyist is like graffiti on a Picasso. 


Music preparation, also called copying, is the act of taking a fully orchestrated score and transposing it for each individual instrument and voice. Rather than giving every player a sheet containing the parts for a dozen instruments, the copyist documents pages of music specific to each section and soloist. This copyist’s work provides entrance cues for the players and other signposts to ensure that musicians can properly follow the score. Depending on the length of the composition (or cue being recorded) the individual parts may be only a few staves or several pages. As the copyist prepares the transpositions, he or she will bind the collection to be provided to the composer, conductor, music editor, and (where applicable) the music publisher. In some cases a copyist may be asked to create sheet music based on a recording, without any written material provided. In this scenario he or she must be especially skilled in music theory and notation, and have an ear sharp enough to recognize harmonies and individual parts. This person can also be called upon to assist an arranger or orchestrator for purposes of revising existing work.

Skills & Education

A formal education in music is not required, but it is the best way to fully develop your technical abilities. Unlike musicians, there are very few self-taught copyists or music engravers. An advanced degree in music theory and composition is highly recommended. A copyist must be proficient in reading and writing music for different clefs, and skilled at transposing a score for different instruments and voices. The ability to play one or more instruments is necessity—especially piano. The practice of scoring and copying compositions by hand is becoming less common (though still an important skill), so practice in the use of software like Sibelius and Finale is crucial. 

What to Expect

Copyists have the opportunity to work in music publishing, film and television, games, and for symphony orchestras—any medium that has the need for a composer. This is an entry-level career (with necessary education) with potential to progress as an arranger, orchestrator, or composer. Often the copyist acts as an assistant and apprentice while studying toward these advanced roles; it is common for musicians, students, and songwriters to work as part-time copyists. In film/TV recording it is typical for the copyist to face short turnarounds (a few hours) between receiving the score and producing the cue sheets. This person must be capable of quickly churning out work that is carefully edited and accurate.


Related Content

Have some feedback for our editors? Contact Us