Transcribing 101

Posted by DannyFratina, 11.12.2012 There have been 5 comment(s)

Transcribing is the process of hearing something and figuring it out, either by writing it down or learning it on your instrument. Transcribing is a great skill to work on and has all kinds of practical benefits:

  • Transcription is ear training in boot camp mode. You have no choice but to get right so you can move on, forcing your ear to quickly adapt and learn.
  • The more you transcribe on your instrument, the quicker you will be at executing those same lines, rhythms, licks, etc, and the quicker you’ll be able to develop your own vocabulary from a wider base of knowledge and ability. It also makes your instrument fun in a new way and mixes up a potentially stale practice routine.
  • Transcribing onto paper eventually gives you the ability to make money by writing things out for other people, including chord progressions, solos, and even full arrangements. As a composer, it strengthens your ability to connect certain chords/voicings/techniques with an actual sound, boosting your arranging speed and adding artistic accuracy.

My first transcription was a lousy one, done at the age of about 12 with my french horn and my Third Eye Blind CD, played loud and proud for the whole neighborhood to hear. I was unorganized and having a lot of fun with my instrument. Don’t get me wrong, it should be fun! But you can also take away a lot of stress and frustration by adding a little organization.

Today we’re going to start with something practical that you can start up with no real prior ear training - transcribing a melody.

1. Pick a tune you really like. This can be a song on the radio, a jazz standard, a classical melody, a church hymn, whatever you have a recording of. Make sure you really enjoy it because you’re going to be stuck with it for a few days, maybe even a few weeks!

2. Make a decision: do you want to improve your skills on your instrument or double up on your ear training points? Remember, you don’t have to play the same instrument as the one you are transcribing. If you figure it out on your horn, as long as the source is good (i.e. avoid beginner band students posting their rendition of the Star Wars theme on Youtube) you’ll definitely learn something and improve on your instrument. If you are writing it out, you still may need need to use an instrument on which you are proficient.

3. Gather your supplies. If you are writing it out, save yourself a lot of frustration and use a solid pencil with a solid eraser. This seems like a no-brainer, but believe me, avoid pens like the plague! You will also need some blank sheet music paper. Please don’t try this on lined notebook paper, you’re making it harder than it needs to be. If you don’t have a bound set of sheet music paper, head over to Blank Sheet Music .net and go nuts. I prefer clef-less blank paper, Portrait, and 0.71 scale, which will give you 12 lines as spaced out as possible. (It’s free!)

You are also most likely using digital music for this, which is good. If you are using a CD, be prepared to walk back your track by almost 10 seconds each time you need to catch something again. I recommend converting to mp3. This actually goes for Youtube as well, which I know is a popular choice. Transcribing can get frustrating in a hurry. Try to use audio files you can seek through with more precision if you can. Our transcribing ancestors worked off of records and while I give them huge props, I also think we should use every tool available to us to make the process as painless as possible. The goal is to learn with as little stress as possible, not go through a gauntlet for the same ultimate benefit.

4. Set aside 15 minutes and don’t work longer than that. Start yourself off in 15 minute bursts of work, a couple of times a day at the most (with 15+ minutes in between each session) and go at a steady pace. Keep yourself from burning out. If you are using your horn, this will keep your chops up but also keep you from spending all this time learning so much music when it’s fairly likely that the next day you’ll have forgotten some of it. Don’t let your time be mismanaged! If you are writing this down, this effect isn’t really in play, but it’s still good to practice in fifteen minute bursts.

5. Start with the first note. Another no-brainer it might seem, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed by a tune and not know how to get started. Just find the first note! Along with that, try to figure out the key. If you have access to a lead sheet you might be able to see the key ahead of time, or maybe the first note just sounds like the key. The best way I can describe the key if you don’t know anything about theory, is to find the note that sounds “home.” This note sounds settled, feels in place, is resolved, etc. For example, the first note of the ABC song is also the root (the first note of the scale and the home key note) and you come back to it when you sing the letter P. It feels home and resolved. If you are transcribing the ABC song and that note is a Bb, then you are in the key of Bb.

At this point, before you go much further, it would be a good idea to run down your Bb scale and whatever else you’ve got along those lines, like the 2nd Clarke Study in Bb, your Bb scale in thirds, etc. Once you are generally comfortable with your key, head back to the transcription.

6. Work one phrase at a time. A phrase is a single piece of the melody that you would sing in one breath, usually. Sometimes the phrases can be long, so split it up further if you need to, but try to pick something out that has bite-sized pieces to work with. Even then, it can be like trying to hop on board a moving freight train, so take it slower and go a note or two at a time. Pay special attention to rhythms over notes though, as rhythm is ultimately the more recognizable factor. Learning the rhythms accurately will make you a better musician, then adding the notes will make you a better instrumentalist. If you are writing this down, you can actually "cheat" and do a visual trick that can help:

7. Write out all the rhythms with placeholder notes. Drummers are familiar with this style and know it as “rhythmic notation,” where the rhythms are written out and instead of note heads, they uniformly have little slashes in the middle of the staff.

Go through your tune and write out the rhythms first and make sure you’ve got that down. Then, when you get the notes, you just drop them into your little rhythm buckets, letting you concentrate on both aspects, one at a time. Instrumentalists can also use this technique, but without the visual element involved it’s tougher to keep track of. Still, if you want to try this trick, pick something like the root note (in our key of Bb example, play the Bb) and learn the rhythms on that single note. It will sometimes clash, but if you can learn the rhythms first and drop the notes in later, more power to you!

8. SING! Not much to say here, just be sure to do a lot of singing! The voice is the most accessible instrument we have and though professional singing requires a lot of training, we don't have to worry about the technical limitations of valves, keys, gear, etc. So let your voice get some of the work done for you and use it as often as you can!

9. If you haven’t done this before, make sure to stick with it and see it out. Once you get the first one done, the next one takes half the time, and the third one takes half the time, and by the fourth one you can crank these things out in no time. Remember that it’s OK to make mistakes! Make tons of them, seriously, it’s OK! As long as you recognize that there are mistakes and you work hard to make less mistakes in the future, you are in the clear as far as I’m concerned. The more you practice this, the better you will get.

It’s never too late or too early to start. If you are not currently a musician but are working your way up, this is a great way to make solid improvement in several areas, and if you are a musician looking to buff up some neglected skills, this is a win-win task to take on!

I started off with stuff I knew and enjoyed (like cuts from the Mechwarrior 2 soundtrack, because of course the Mechwarrior 2 soundtrack!) and now I use my ears to get pieces (like an arrangement by Billy May for Frank Sinatra with full 18-piece big band and 17+ -piece studio orchestra) on paper in record time with no stress. Happy transcribing :)


This post was posted in Notes from the Arranger and was tagged with Lessons, Practicing, Transcribing

5 Responses to Transcribing 101

  • Michael says:

    This is a fine howto, but I strongly feel that transcribing is only something that someone with good understanding of harmony should attempt, especially if one wants to generalize upon what they learn. If you want to transcribe a jazz solo to learn its secrets, you are not going to get far at all, unless you have a solid foundation in harmony which basically means you are not a novice musician. It is *very* easy to misinterpret transcribed improvisation, especially in jazz even if you are an experienced musician, and this can actually be detrimental to your progress because you will almost certainly come up with an incorrect analysis.

    So, bottom line, you better know something about music before you start transcribing.

    Posted on 11.12.2012 at 10:56 AM

  • John says:

    True, most improvised jazz solos would be tough for a novice musician to transcribe. But if you're a novice, the tunes you like at the moment will probably be pop & rock songs off the radio, as in Danny transcribing Third Eye Blind. Most of those songs are simple enough for anyone to transcribe and subsequently enjoy playing along with.
    I play trumpet myself, and I was transcribing Offspring, Basement Jaxx, and Dire Straits years before attempting Clifford Brown or Lee Morgan.

    Posted on 11.12.2012 at 11:22 AM

  • sam says:

    great article.
    hits on all great points...
    start with a tune you really like..don't overwhelm yourself...think prior to transcribing what you want out of it...have basics down before you start...AWESOME!
    "...makes your instrument fun in a new way and mixes up a potentially stale practice routine" this is HUGE!
    it's an exciting (and sometimes scary!) process that brings to light immediately your strengths and weaknesses, which is a great thing at any level. transcribing is such an amazing tool to learn more about your instrument, a song, fundamentals and yourself as a musician (especially your ear!).
    and i think this can and should be done at all levels (after the very beginning). who cares if you screw it up or get some harmonies wrong, no big deal, that's how you get better.
    as a now advanced player, composer and transcriber i can remember the time when i first tried to transcribe a classical trumpet solo by sergei nakariakov sophomore year of high school. i sucked, didn't know how to write or play very well and had such a small understanding of harmony it's sad...but i loved the music and wanted to see how it was done.
    after days and days i got through the thing..kinda half-done but at least something!...and was seriously excited for months about what i had accomplished. looking back, a ton of the notes and rhythms were "wrong," but at least it was a step in the right direction. i played that damn excerpt so many times and memorized it and actually saw a marked improvement as a player and started changing the notes around to "fix" them as the weeks went on and i practiced waht i had transcribed..learning slowly what was right and what was wrong.
    doing it over and over again...different tunes, different styles, eventually to actual songs with chord changes..these are all stepping stones to actually having an understanding of harmony and melody...WAY more important than any book, music class, lesson, etc. could ever teach.
    point is you gotta start somewhere and doing is better than not doing. you get better by trying things you can't do and not being afraid to mess up and try again..and again...and again...

    Posted on 11.12.2012 at 12:02 PM

  • As a professional musician and educator, I can say with complete certainty that while allowing our students to transcribe is frustrating for us as teachers because we want them to understand ALL the things about music theory (things we didn't even understand until college lol), we must understand that students are going to transcribe anyway, and we might as well give them tools that will allow them to effectively develop their ear. As for me, I could have really used this article as a kid. Transcribing piano music is a difficult venture, and it took me until after college to realize that I didn't have to understand everything that was happening musically in a piece for me to begin to learn it.

    Posted on 11.12.2012 at 7:41 PM

  • Chadley says:

    Singing is one of the best things you can do. I've found it immensely helpful to sing everything I play or transcribe. Great advice, Danny!

    Also to Michael: This is the first I've heard that you shouldn't transcribe before studying extensive music theory. This is absolute nonsense and garbage advice, especially coming from a jazz musicians point of view. I've known so many people who can play amazing lines and voicings but can't even read music notation. You have to hear it before you play it (or write it). You don't have to know or even care what it "is" you just have to like how it sounds. We're not studying math here, we're studying music (aka sound).

    Posted on 11.13.2012 at 8:05 PM

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