Tips For Transcribing Music

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Transcribing songs from a recording is a great way for brass players to learn new music. Studying another musician’s solo teaches you not just the notes they played but the style, articulation, phrasing, and many other musical goodies. The jazz education world uses transcription on a regular basis as part of a music curriculum. Starting a transcription can be a daunting task for a beginner. This article will outline a few tricks to make the process faster and easier.

Before You Begin

Practice Ear Training

Before you even attempt to play a note from the recording, warm your ears up. Sing and play through a few scales and intervals in different keys. Many solos will alternate between runs up and down scales and arpeggiated chords. Practice these patterns. It will help you hear these sections as they come up and also to be able to play them without having to think about it.

Listen, Listen, Listen.

Listen through the passage you are transcribing several times. You must be able to hear any melody before you can play it. I sing through passages to ensure that I know them completely. Singing in perfect pitch or on key isn’t necessary, just make sure you have the rhythm and basic melody ups and downs.

Get The Basics Down

Familiarize yourself with the tune. Find the key, meter, and tempo. Then analyze the form of the song. Look for phrase lengths, check out which instruments play melody or harmony, and number of soloists. Knowing these things will save you time as you play through various sections of the song, and will come in handy when it comes time to perform.

Are you transcribing a solo? Transcribe the melody first. Many players will quote melody passages and embellish them. Plus, what’s the point of learning a solo if you can’t play the song?

During Transcription

Look for Patterns

Your favorite musicians aren’t as good as you think they are. What? That’s right, there are tools and tricks to soloing that every player employs. Once you find them, finding the exact notes is easy. For instance, large interval leaps are most likely going to be on chord tones or important notes in the key. Musicians’ don’t choose notes at random in most cases. If you’re having trouble hearing a jump, think first: “What would make sense?” before getting frustrated trying too many things.

Scale patterns are equally easy to recognize. Jazz musicians love eighth note runs up and down the key scales. If it doesn’t sound quite right, try chromatic scales or sections beginning and ending on chord tones.

Take Breaks

We all take breaks while we practice to keep our embouchure fresh. Your ears get tired too. If you find that things are getting more difficult, take a silent break for a few minutes and try again.

Don’t Cheat

If you can’t get a section, whatever you do, don’t look it up. Yes, many transcriptions and songbooks are out there that could tell you how to play it. But learning a song will keep it in your memory far longer than playing it from paper, and will often not include any of the articulations or stylistic notations you gain by learning from the record.

I equate this point to watching a movie before you read the book. If you do that, you no longer have the means to imagine the characters and scenes as they originally were, you can now only see how the movie depicts them.

Tools to Use

Using a keyboard can be a great tool during hard sections. If a section is difficult to play, it can be almost impossible to replicate it over and over while trying to figure the notes out. A keyboard or piano will give you a break from playing so you can just listen. Keyboards are also a good device for learning the harmonies of multiple players at once.

There are many computer programs that can help in transcription. A great one I use is The Amazing Slow Downer. It lets you slow the tempo while keeping the key the same, or change the key while keeping the tempo the same. You can also break up small sections to be repeated.

After You Finish

Once you have all the notes down, don’t think you are done with the transcription. The most important thing about learning a piece is not the notes that were played, but the style they were played in. Listen for dynamics and articulations, as well as other brass techniques like scooping notes or glissandos.

Have any other tips? Comment below with your own techniques or favorite transcriptions.

by Kyle M. Bagley.

3 Responses to “Tips For Transcribing Music”

  1. Rich says:

    great article Kyle and while I do quite a bit of transcription there was plenty to make me think about how I might make it easier.

    You’re right about musicians using key scales. Often if a run sounds like a weird or “new” scale it’s often a basic one played over an unconventional chord for that set of notes.

    What’s your approach to records that aren’t at correct pitch? It’s not so muh a problem with modern recordings but I find that many older recordings tend to be “between” pitches, perhaps due mismatched recording and mastering speeds or even an instrument tuned poorly. Do you detune your instrument or transcribe by ear and then play in correct pitch?

    • Rich, thank you. I do run into this a lot with old jazz and ska recordings I transcribe. If its a solo instrument that is off, I write the pitches according to what fits in the key or “makes sense.”

      From there, I consider those out of tune notes part of the “…style they were played in. Listen for dynamics and articulations, as well as other brass techniques like scooping notes or glissandos.”

      It may be a stretch considering out of tune notes part of a style, but it is. Think of Miles Davis stuff where he plays “blue notes”, or notes that are in the key, but he plays them really flat to give that effect.

      If your problem is an entire detuned track, thats somewhat of a different story. I usually just play along and cringe :). I believe the app I mentioned allows for ‘micro-tuning’ under transpositions, you could try re-tuning to a good pitch, and running the whole chart from there.


  2. bobilleg74 says:

    Personally speaking, I have to be inspired to transcribe a particular solo. Something the soloist plays has to grab me and make me want to analyse it. It’s easier if I have heard the solo so many times that I can sing it, but that isn’t necessary. I find that the slowdown program on WMP is enough and put the notes straight onto Sibelius.

    Check out my YouTube channel where I’ve uploaded nearly 50 jazz trombone solos so far.

    I’m not great on the piano, though, and I wish I was clever enough to take down the chords!

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