I have been thinking about writing an article on transcribing for quite some time now but whenever I have come to do it, it has proven almost as hard as transcribing itself!!
Transcribing is the act of writing down music that you hear.
Many musicians use this technique in order to learn songs, improve their ears and theoretical knowledge, find out how other musicians interpret music and a lot more.
Learning to transcribe and the act of transcribing can take a lot of time and patience but is worth every ounce of this for what it can deliver to your musicianship.
Finally, I am biting-the-bullet, so to speak – which is also the same way I feel when I set out on a transcription project – but it was an incident which brought me to this point.
Myself and another band member had to transcribe a song for the Band to perform, however, when we got together for rehearsal the results we came up with were completely different.
How could this be? We both had ears, surely there was only one definitive answer to what was going on in this song.
I was perplexed until I got together with this person and realised we had heard the same thing but our approaches to transcribing were different.
He was right and I was right, we just had to put our work together to get a good chart.
Let me explain….
When I learned to transcribe the first thing I was taught to listen to was the bass line.
This is the most important part of working out what the harmony is doing because it provides you with the root note on which the rest of the chord is built.
In this blog, I have written about basic harmony, however, this is only the beginning of where chords can go and there are a myriad of different sounds and flavours you can add to them.
Also, as spoken about in this article, there are also some very common and repetitive harmonic progressions, so hearing the bass line also provides you with a clue to what the chords are going to be.
I am good at hearing bass lines, so my basic chords were correct.
The guitarist, who also transcribed, only transcribed his part, which was obviously based on the chords, but which didn’t necessarily give the correct root notes and chord names, therefore chordal notation for the other instruments (bass and piano) was incorrect.
What his transcription did provide me with, however, was the missing “flavours” of the chords, e.g. flat 9’s, sharp 11’s etc.
When we got together, I was able to improve upon the basic harmony of my chart by figuring his chords into mine.
When I explained to him what I had done and what he had done, he realised that it was important to notate chords based on the root notes and would do so from now on.
But because he had trained his ears, always to pick up on the “added” notes, he was quite easily able to get them, whereas I had more difficulty.
It was therefore a pleasure to work together to get the right answers.
So, the moral to this story is…. Well, there is a few morals:
- When transcribing, first listen to the bass line to gain the big picture of the harmonic structure of a song.
- When you have discrepancies with other musicians (such as the one described above), don’t jump to conclusions about the other’s musical ability. Instead, find out their approach to transcribing and work it out together.
- Recognise your strengths and weaknesses and be open to sharing them.
- The more transcribing you do, the better you will get at it.
There are several ways you can go about transcribing music (as illustrated above).
Here are a few tips:
If you are a beginner at transcribing
Start by doing some ear training. This means learning to hear a pitch and sing it or play it on your instrument.
There are a few programs out there to help you do this that you can research. Meanwhile here are a couple to get you started.
If your ears are happening
The next step is learning how to transcribe.
As I said, I always start out by working out:
- The form of the song
- The harmonic progressions (bass line!)
- Then focus on the different instruments.
Start by choosing relatively easy songs. You will get to know what these are as you experiment.
This website also has some good suggestions.
If you want more detailed transcriptions, i.e. written on the stave, you will need to learn how to notate music, and especially rhythm dictation.
This should really start with learning to read music, just the same way we learn to read and write our language.
Again, you will have to be patient with this process but the key is just to enjoy it.
Please refer to this article if you are a beginner and learning read music.
If you don’t want to learn to read and write music, you could always choose from a number of notation programs where you can play the music into the computer and it will notate it for you.
However, sometimes this notation isn’t as clear and simple as it could be so I would recommend you take it to someone who knows music and who can help you to edit it.