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  • Angela Marshall

How to Translate Music Scores with Your Phone Camera

As musicians, we’re used to dealing with foreign languages. We learn Italian tempo markings and texts for Latin masses. We take coursework to pronounce German and French for art songs and operas.

But what happens when your choir sings in Swahili? Or an edition of a piece you want is only available in Russian?

Or you buy sheet music in Tokyo, then realize you have no idea what the performance directions are telling you to do?

All of these examples come from my experiences, but the Tokyo example is the most recent. I picked up some sheet music on a recent trip to Japan, then realized I had no idea how to read the performance notes sprinkled throughout the sheet music. I also have no way to type Japanese characters on my computer.

Luckily, Google Translate can help.

You may have typed phrases into Google translate before or used it to translate a webpage, but did you know the free app will translate text on a page in real time? Just select the language and point your phone camera at the text. If you want a more permanent translation, you can also take a picture of the text. The app also includes options for handwriting, voice recording, and real time conversations!

This is endlessly useful for travel. While in Japan, I used the camera tool to translate street signs, menus, and labels in stores. But it also has a more practical application for the books on your shelves…

The sheet music I brought back from Japan includes titles and performance directions in Japanese. I can’t type the characters into my computer to search for translations, but I can use the Google Translate app!

The translations aren’t perfect. This particular book is a collection of music from animated films, and some of the whimsical descriptions and character names gave the app some trouble.

But I was able to discover the composer and arranger of the piece.

And the performance direction translations are close enough that I know I’m supposed to imitate a bus horn in this measure. That’s a lot more information than I had before!

The Google Translate app is great for foreign editions, lyric translations, or any other situation where you need the general idea of a phrase quickly.

My students also find this very cool. It’s a great way to build language awareness and get students excited about music from different cultures.