Meet George Collier, YouTube’s Star Music Transcriber

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For some budding musicians (and even old pros), the very sight of sheet music can elicit a fight-or-flight response, bringing up painful memories of strict piano teachers and high-pressure recitals. George Collier, a 20-year-old music transcriber, is doing his part to change that.

Collier, a student at Warwick University in the United Kingdom, takes snippets of videos from live performances by well-known artists like Wynton Marsalis and Celine Dion, or bedroom musicians who’ve posted clips online, and adds detailed directions for what’s being played. Juggling harmony, melody and rhythm, he turns sounds into wildly detailed notations and shares the results with an audience of over 882,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, where his most popular videos have between 5 million and 18 million views.

“Music can be a bit uptight, particularly in the whole music theory land,” Collier said during a break between lectures, as he video chatted from a light-filled campus building where the sounds of bustling university life swirled around him. In his videos, made with the help of a team of transcribers, he deciphers mesmerizing cadenzas, barbershop quartet arrangements, funk jams and jazz solos in an entertaining way that softens sheet music’s reputation as something academic and unforgiving.

His video “When You Make the Trombone SING” takes on a soaring trombone solo by Frank Lacy from a performance in 1988 with the Art Blakey Big Band. Another clip, titled “She Practiced 40 Hours a Day for This,” captures a virtuosic Mozart piano cadenza by Mitsuko Uchida. While Collier specializes in jazz, he also showcases performances from the classical world, as well as everyday people with impressive talents. A clip titled “When Your Family Is Musically Competent” features a version of “Happy Birthday” that turns into improvised gospel-laden riffing. His video “Pro Musician Jams With Street Performer on Subway” notates a saxophonist on the London Underground as he spontaneously engages a guitarist in a version of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”

“The transcriptions are to understand the musical decisions made by performers,” Collier said. “It doesn’t really matter how famous you are. If you make good stuff, then people are going to want to listen.”

Laufey, the Grammy-winning cellist and multi-instrumentalist, has been the subject of Collier’s videos multiple times, and she appreciates his broad taste. “It’s celebrating, I think, real musicianship,” she said in a video interview, “and uplifts artists that aren’t necessarily the most popular.” She noted that his channel is also a powerful source of discovery: “I’ve got lots of comments, especially on YouTube, where people say: ‘I found this song from George Collier’s video.’”

Collier grew up about two hours north of London, in Cambridgeshire, a low-lying county known for its pastoral beauty and historic universities. After picking up piano and trumpet by age 8, he began showing a keen interest in jazz. In 2020, when the pandemic hit and in-person music making ground to a halt, Collier, then 16, started expending his musical energy online, uploading his first transcriptions to YouTube as a just-for-fun side project to combat lockdown boredom.

One of these early uploads was a particularly beautiful piano and voice interlude from “Hajanga” by Jacob Collier (no relation) during a performance with the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble. The video attracted a modest view count at first, but in February 2021 it connected with YouTube’s elusive algorithm, accumulating 200,000 views in just nine days.

Collier is now a student of philosophy and politics — “Hardly music-related,” he quipped — but he is also the musical director of his university’s founding a cappella group, the Leamingtones. Some of his key musical influences often appear as the subjects of his transcriptions, including Jacob Collier, the guitarist Cory Wong and the funk band Vulfpeck.

Navigating full-time student life, plus recently starting his own web development agency, has made it difficult for Collier to fit exacting music transcriptions into his day. To keep his channel consistently uploading, he works with transcribers from the United States, Germany, Hungary, Austria and beyond, and sometimes brings in an online music transcription service. A far cry from a pandemic pastime, his project is now monetized, and operates as much as a business as it does a hobby. Collier breaks even through view-count-dependent payouts from YouTube, but in keeping with his channel’s spirit of accessible music education, he leaves the transcriptions free to download.

Collier stressed that he wants his audience “to have fun watching the videos, whether by being amazed by the performer, whether it’s being amazed by how someone can transcribe that, or whether it’s being amazed at some of the daft comments on the transcription.” When traditional notation can’t reflect the raw energy onscreen, Collier and his team, well, improvise.

Whilst standing on one leg” is marked into a transcription of a flute solo by the Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson as his limbs become increasingly erratic onstage. “Induce stank face in First Lady is annotated into a transcription of Trombone Shorty’s performance of “St. James Infirmary” at the White House in 2012, as Michelle Obama’s face contorts in approval at Shorty’s growling solo.

“It can be very intimidating to approach music at that high level without some kind of in,” the professional musician and YouTuber Adam Neely said. Watching Collier’s videos, “you’re given permission to laugh and find community with people that you wouldn’t normally think of.”

While perfecting the transcriptions is Collier’s priority, he wants his videos to be seen as widely as possible, and has learned a lot about the YouTube algorithm. Many of his videos are titled in the “when you” format, like “When You Hit Puberty Twice,” which transcribes a basso profundo’s astonishingly low vocal performance, or “When You Practice 40 Hours a Day,” which tracks an impossibly fast rendition of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” by the pianist Hiromi Uehara.

“It’s not just hypermusical nerds who click,” Collier said. “It’s people that may not even be musicians, may not even understand the transcription, but click on it for the title and stay for the music.” In turn, his videos have amassed over 300 million views. “It’s just democratizing, making it accessible for everyone, and everything for free,” he added.

Laufey agreed with this assessment. “I think social media has been that kind of great equalizer,” she said, calling Collier’s channel a “great way for my fans to also learn my tunes.”

Despite his steadily growing subscriber base, Collier is hesitant to make YouTube his full-time job. “I don’t want something that I enjoy as a hobby to risk becoming work,” he said. But until he moves on — or the algorithm does — he’s still enjoying that he can help inspire first-timers to pick up an instrument, and old-timers to dust theirs off.

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