The copyist is one of several roles involved in the larger field of music preparation. Copyists, who proofread and organize written music for an upcoming studio session or performance, are one of the last in a chain of professionals responsible for creating the finished scores that musicians play.
Their goal: to create polished and practical sheet music that can be distributed to each member of the orchestra or ensemble, as well as to important figures like the conductor and music director. Copyists prepare music for everyone from members of the musical theater and film industries to record label employees and jazz ensembles.
Traditionally, the copyist receives the finished master score from an orchestrator, who received a draft, sketch, or outline of the score from the composer. However, this isn't always the case; copyists might also receive scores from transcribers, arrangers, and music directors. Once they have the score, copyists use notation software such as Sibelius and Finale to create, finalize, and bind individual parts for each musician or instrument.
While much of the job rests on aptitude with the aforementioned software, copyists must also consider various factors while producing the parts, including the location of page turns, how rests are displayed, and—more generally—how the music’s presentation will affect each musician’s experience playing it. The scores copyists produce are not used solely by performers but also by sound engineers, recording engineers, and film or music video directors.
At a Glance
There are no formal educational requirements to work as a copyist, although a deep knowledge of music notation and composition is essential. Copyists are usually self-employed, offering a number of related services to their clients, including proofreading, transcription, orchestration, and arrangement. Some work full-time for music preparation companies, where they perform similar duties. Copyists can also find a wealth of work in the film industry.
While a small number of copyists make this job their entire career, most are just looking to make some additional income and valuable industry connections while they work another angle; often, this means pursuing a career as a composer, conductor, or music director. Still, those who devote time and energy to their careers as copyists have the opportunity to work with higher-profile artists and composers, and are paid more for it.
A copyist who truly loves working around and preserving written music might also be interested in a career as a music librarian.
Many copyists get their start by apprenticing under a music prep person (usually a copyist, proofreader, arranger, or orchestrator), although some develop the necessary skills by working as composer's assistants. Most copyists work freelance, making it important to develop connections and build a reputation in order to create a steady stream of gigs.
- Reading and writing music notation
- Notation software: Sibelius, Finale, etc.
- Broad knowledge of instruments
Copyists are organized and fastidious. They are dedicated and speedy, capable of receiving a request early in the morning and having it finished by the evening. Flexibility is also important, as copyists must sometimes drop the work they’ve done when a client contacts them with major changes. As this is a freelance career, cultivating networking skills is important.
Most copyists are freelancers, combining this work with another form of music prep, a regular teaching job, or part-time work in music prep offices, where they may have more consistent hours. Still, very few copyists enjoy a regular schedule. Work comes in at all hours of the day and needs to get done with a very quick turnaround. Rates differ based on industry, but most copyists are paid by the page.