The ability to transcribe
By Lucas Pickford

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. It enables you to do many things that are of great use in a wide variety of musical situations. First and foremost, it allows you to learn from the masters via their recorded works. When you are able to write down or at least figure out on your instrument, what someone is playing on a recording, it is just like taking a private lesson with that person.

Therefore, you can sit down with your tape machine or CD player and take a private lesson with anyone from Chick Corea to Eddie Van Halen. All of their musical ideas are there for you to study and absorb for all time. It is also the best ear training that there is. It makes you concentrate on recognizing intervals, 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 the chord types, and recognize forms. These are extremely useful things to be able to 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. How does one actually begin to transcribe? It all starts by choosing something relatively simple and just diving in. A knowledge of intervals and music theory is helpful but not required. What is required is the ability to listen very closely and recreate what you hear onto your instrument. Pick out the first few notes of a solo. I started with artists like Chet Baker and Miles Davis. I chose the simplest melodies at first. Some people transcribe without writing anything down on paper.

I find it more useful to write things down so that I can refer to them in the future. It is nearly impossible to remember everything that is contained in even eight or twelve bars of someone’s solo. Nevertheless, some people prefer to learn by ear and commit it to memory. That is cool too if you can do it. There are also some basic techniques and tools that one should have when you sit down to transcribe. First is a good half speed tape deck. Some things you hear on records go by so fast that having the ability to slow them down is very useful. Many “Rockman” type tape decks have a speed control that you can use to slow the tape down.

I also think that having a good set of headphones is important. By putting the music right in your ear, you can hear things that you might otherwise miss. 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 makes 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. Be aware of the meter 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. 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 too requires practice.

Play all the different intervals on you instrument. Become comfortable with recognizing them and their different sounds. Only by doing this a lot will you begin to be able to pick out the different intervals quickly. I will often listen to the whole solo several times in a row. I listen for the overall shape of the lines and any landmarks that may help me such as turnarounds, or repeating figures. I also pay attention to the rhythms. This is a whole other field of study in and of itself.

If you plan on writing down 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 have even done what I call a rhythmic transcription. By that I mean I’ve written down the rhythms first and plugged in the notes later. Different people do it different ways. There is no “correct” way to transcribe per se.

The only thing that matters is that the transcription is accurate to whoever is reading it. Music is a language and by studying transcriptions, either your own or someone else’s, you are studying the language of music. I have learned more by transcribing than by any other means. I went to a major music school in the Northeast and I can honestly say that I learned more from transcribing than I did from any of my private lesson instructors. It wasn’t that the instructors weren’t good, it’s just that in my particular case, the information that I was really after was contained in and easier to absorb directly from the music of the artists that I really loved.

Before music schools musicians learned from each other much more. There were very few books on improvisation, and if you wanted to learn a tune or someone’s solo on a tune you sat down and transcribed it by ear. Unfortunately, this art has died out among many younger players. 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 worth it. Good luck.


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Last uptdated 22.11.02