The ability to transcribe, or write down on paper what you hear on a recording, is one of the most valuable tools a musician can possess. Why? For starters it enables you to learn directly from the masters via their recorded works. Harmony books are great, and books of scales are useful, but if you want to get inside the head of an improviser and really try to understand why he/she made those particular note choices, nothing is better than transcribing them in action.
When you are able to write down or even just learn by ear at first what someone is playing on a recording that you dig, it is just like taking a private lesson with that person. In fact it’s probably much better because there are no personality issues to contend with, and it’s a hell of lot cheaper too! You are going right to the source, no middlemen, just you and a recording of your favorite piano solo, bass line, guitar solo, whatever! You can sit down with your digital transcribing machine, your instrument, some music notation paper, a pencil and an erasure (yeah you will need an erasure) and take a private lesson with anyone you admire whenever you feel like it. All of their musical ideas are there for you to study and absorb.
Transcribing is also the best ear training that there is in my opinion. It makes you concentrate on recognizing intervals, bass lines, chord progressions, rhythms, and single note lines. All of these can have direct applications to “on the gig” situations. For example, if someone calls a tune that you don’t know, you can follow the root motion of the pianist, hear and recognize the chord types and forms that are in the tune you’re playing. These are extremely useful things to be able to pull off on the spot. When you transcribe regularly, you focus in on these skills and refine them so that they can become available to you in an instant. Most of us aren’t blessed with perfect pitch, but having a highly refined sense of relative pitch can be about 90% -99% as useful.
How does one actually begin to transcribe? It starts by choosing a relatively simple piece of music, whether it is a melody to a song, a part of an improvisation, and just diving in. You should be able to read and write music notation and having a basic knowledge of music theory is helpful; especially knowledge of musical intervals, but it is not required to just get started. You can learn as you go and practice on your instrument or a piano playing chords, scales, intervals, etc. But what is required is the ability to listen very closely to a series of notes and recreate those notes exactly on your instrument, and hopefully, on the written page as well. You might start out by transcribing a melody to a tune you like, or a solo lick you want to learn. It’s up to you.
Tools of the Trade:
a) Music Paper/ (To Read or Not to Read)
b) Pencil & Erasure, no pens!
c) *High quality digital transcribing machine
d) High quality set of headphones
e) Using Your Instrument to Find the Notes
Some players transcribe without writing anything down on music notation paper. This is OK especially for the more experienced player who just wants to grab a specific lick or melody that he/she heard and can just commit it to memory. But for the beginning-intermediate player, writing the notes down is pretty much the entire goal of transcribing so please, learn basic music notation even you start out just using your ear. At first, you’ll make a lot of mistakes, that’s fine, but write the notes and rhythms as best you can. Even if you know it’s wrong, write it down anyway. That’s how you will get better and make fewer mistakes. A good thing to do at first is to have an accurate transcription of the piece you’re working on so that you can compare your work to the correct version and see where you went wrong. Use pencil of course, pen is OK for final drafts but you will be doing a lot of erasing at first.
To Read or Not to Read (My 2 Cents):
In my opinion the complete musician should be able to both write down what they hear and play the music back by just using their ears. Strive to be a player who has “elephant ears” and can hear the subtlest changes AND a player who can sight-read his/her ass off. By all means ignore musicians who say learning to read and write music is unimportant. That is ridiculous! It is akin to saying don’t bother learning to read and write English, it’s not that important. You’ll be regaled with stories of famous players who never learned to read. SO WHAT? I don’t know any of those guys who would tell up and coming players “Hey, don’t bother learning to read music! It’s a big waste and will get in the way of your career.” That’s just insane. Strive to become an excellent reader.
Treat music like you would the English language. All the same rules apply. Proper grammar, syntax, tenses; all have their counterparts in the language of written music. Great sidemen bassists like Will Lee and Anthony Jackson have each played on thousands of recordings. Do they both have big ears? No doubt. Can they sight-read music that would terrify 99% of professional bass players? What do you think? That is why players like AJ and Will Lee are legends. They are legends because they can do it all and still put their unique stamp and style on everything they play. OK, you get the message, now back to transcribing.
The digital transcriber (no, I don’t have an endorsement, but I should!) I use is made by Reed Kotler. www.reedkotler.com
Reed sells several excellent digital transcribing machines that all allow you to record a piece of music from a CD, tape deck, MP3, IPOD, etc say in 90 second chunks, and then slow it down incrementally, without distorting the pitch at all. This is extremely useful for very fast passages. Some things you hear on recordings go by so fast (John McLaughlin’s solos comes to mind) that having the ability to slow them down is very useful. Many older “Rockman” type tape decks have a speed control that you can use to slow the tape down. However older, analog type, tape machines tend to distort the pitch. The newer digital transcribing machines or computer software allows you to slow the music down without and pitch loss is highly recommended. After you have a good machine to do your transcribing, the next thing you need is a high quality set of headphones. Good headphones are always worth the money and I would spend as much as you can afford on a really good quality set of studio type headphones.
I prefer to transcribe with my instrument on hand. Some experienced transcribers sometimes have the ability to transcribe without any tools other than their ears. At first though it is a good idea to have whatever instrument you play with you to check your accuracy. As I mentioned before, the more theoretical information you have, the faster you will be able to recognize things like root motion, intervals, and chord progressions. If your goal is to transcribe somebody’s individual solo on a particular song, it is helpful to know the chords that are in that song.
If it is a standard type tune, you may be able to find the chord progression in some type of fake book. These progressions are notoriously inaccurate however, and can’t always be depended on. Also, there are often substitutions that the artists make in his/her solo and you will want to know what those are. It may be a good idea to transcribe just the chord progression of a particular song first before attempting the solo.
The best way to begin recognizing chord progressions is to get near a piano or guitar. Play the various chord types, (major, minor, altered, dominant, diminished, augmented, and sus 4 etc) and get these sounds in your ear. Be able to recognize the difference between them. Listen for the “color” tones such as the 9th, 11th, or 13ths. These tones are often altered in some way especially in the improvisation. After you have the chords, you will be ready for the solo itself.
Qualities to Strive for:
a) Melodic Accuracy – Starting notes, correct octave, avoiding 2 clefs, key signature, song forms, accidentals
b) Legibility – Rough drafts, software, Photoshop etc.
c) Rhythmic Accuracy – Doing purely rhythmic transcriptions first, counting w/ your fingers, tips, & tricks. Time Signatures, Knowing when to take a break
Be aware of the meter/time signature and form of the song. This is the skeleton upon which the person is hanging their improvisation. I recommend taking no more than two measures at one time to work with. Listen for the starting note. Sing it to yourself. Singing is crucial. After you sing the note find it on your instrument. Write it down. Fast! Before you forget! After that it’s a matter of hearing the intervals. Where does it go from the first note? Is it a whole step? A minor third? This also requires practice. Play all the different intervals on your instrument. Become comfortable with recognizing them and their different sounds. I do not use key signatures when transcribing solos as a general rule. They just get in the way. Remember though, that a note that has been altered (flatted or sharped) is altered for the entire bar unless it is altered again. This is really crucial to remember.
Be sure you are transcribing your music in the proper octave. Try to avoid using two clefs in the same piece. Piano music is often an exception to this. Bass solos played in the very high register will usually end up in treble clef to avoid using ledger lines, which are hard to read and to write. Which brings me to the importance of legibility. If you are using Finale, or any number of music writing soft ware programs then this isn’t much of a concern. But some old timers (like me) still prefer to transcribe by hand. Crazy, I know. So get used to doing several drafts of the transcription before you put your name on it. I use Photoshop to get rid of smudges and the like which also helps. There is no one, single, “correct” way to transcribe per se. The only thing that matters is that the transcription is as accurate as you can make it. I can’t tell you how many emails I get telling me that missed ONE note in the 34th bar of Jaco’s solo on some tune. Transcribing after all is an art. Yes it should be as accurate as possible but there will always be discrepancies between transcriptions. It is NOT and exact science, not in jazz anyway.
Pay close attention to the rhythms. This is a whole other field of study in and of itself. If you plan on accurately notating the solo, the rhythms are going to be crucial. Many times it is the rhythm of what you are transcribing that makes it so compelling. The notes may be ordinary in the sense that they are within the scale of that particular chord but the rhythm of it is what makes it special. I occasionally will do what I call a complete rhythmic transcription. By that I mean I’ve written down the rhythms first and then gone back and just plugged the notes in. This is a useful technique especially if rhythms are your weak area. Use your fingers to tap out the beats and watch where a note starts. Is it the downbeat of 2 or the “and” of 2? Tapping along seems silly but it has gotten me out of many a jam.
Another crucial aspect of transcribing is knowing when you need to stop and rest. Take frequent breaks to rest your ears. That passage you just can’t seem to get right get will be clear, as can be when you listen to it the next day. The brain absorbs it all, it’s all in there don’t worry. You just have to take a rest now and then. If you are really stuck, move on to the next line. You can also go back and connect the dots so to speak. Look for patterns in the lines. Players tend to repeat themselves. Also use the chord symbols to help you. Knowing the scale of the moment will many times enable you to deduce what the next note should be.
Most of all though, if you haven’t transcribed something before, don’t be afraid. You really can do it. When you begin to transcribe you will see a whole new world of information opening up. It will be very frustrating at times. It will be monotonous at times. It sometimes will seem like you will never get those two measures no matter how many times you listen to it! Persevere though. The rewards are well worth it.
Ready to try your hand at transcribing? Click on the link below to download the 2nd part of the lesson!