Transcribing solos from recordings is widely regarded as one of the best ways of improving your jazz ability. But, judging from the students I see, precious little attention is given to the process of transcription.
The point of transcription as a learning tool is not simply to arrive at the right notes. It is to deepen your understanding the music and all the artistic “decisions” that went into its creation. And, in the process, to gradually assimilate that understanding into your own improvisation.
Many people just go for the notes. They miss out on much of the potential benefit…
The “Hunt and Peck” approach
A great many musicians use a sequential, trial-and-error method of transcription: guess at the pitch and rhythm of the next note, compare your guess to the recording, repeat until you get it right, then move on to the following note. Unfortunately, that method won’t teach you to solo beautifully any more than you can learn to diagnose like a doctor by guessing at a patient’s problem until you get it right. Luckily for patients, that’s not how doctors train. It shouldn’t be how we transcribe either if our aim is to improve our playing.
A Better Method
The common approach has the student ask repeatedly, “what is the next note and where does it fall rhythmically?” A better question to ask over and over, and in increasing detail, is, “what’s going on in the upcoming notes?”
This question is much more vague and open-ended than the first. It requires that we peck away at a phrase not one note at a time but one insight at a time. What do I mean by an insight?
Here are some examples:
- The rest of the measure is a sequence of eighth notes.
- There is a flurry of notes that ends in a note falling solidly on beat three.
- The pickup to the measure leads chromatically upward to the downbeat note.
- The rhythm involves quarter note triplets.
- The next few notes move in fourths
- The notes form a repeating pattern that modulates upward in minor thirds.
- The notes are in ascending groups of four, each group starting a little higher in pitch than the previous.
- Or even just: The soloist seems to have reharmonized the heck out of this measure.
The “hunt and peck” approach makes use of one skill above all else: comparing pitch on a recording to a pitch played on an instrument. But that’s not a skill that helps us much when we’re improvising on the bandstand. If we instead use our musical reasoning faculties to get the job done, we strengthen them… and these are of enormous use to us on the bandstand and off. We also wind up reverse engineering the solo in the process, which gives us insights about what makes it tick.
Rather than try to give an explicit step-by-step method for transcribing, I’ll give a number of tips followed by an example of doing a transcription…
Choose something appropriate to your level.
Don’t transcribe something that’s harmonically or rhythmically well beyond your understanding. Go for something within your reach or just beyond it.
Otherwise you’ll wind up transcribing it mechanically and not learn very much. And, of course, you’ll be more likely to make mistakes.
If you have the understanding necessary to make sense of the solo’s rhythms and harmony, then you can slow a solo down (or speed it up!) to adjust its level of difficulty. (See below)
Maybe you’re not ready.
If you have trouble identifying intervals or basic rhythms, it’s probably not time to start transcribing yet. If you need to transcribe a piece you can certainly do it by guessing each note until you have it right and slowing the recording way down if you need to. But if your aim is to improve your music then you’d be much better off spending your time at ear training or rhythmic training. Take a class, or play intervals back and forth with a friend, quizzing each other. Or check out some of the many educational computer programs out there.
Know the chord changes before you start.
If the solo is not over a song whose changes you know, transcribe the chord changes first, and then the solo. If you can’t do that, choose a different solo—you’ll get much more out of it that way.
Take it one phrase, or sub-phrase, at a time.
Don’t feel obliged to figure out the notes in sequence. Transcribe chunks that are longer than a note or two. Perhaps a measure. Within a chunk, get the broad strokes first, then fill in the details.
Propose and verify. Over and over.
Keep adding more details to your understanding of a phrase, checking your ideas for correctness as you go, until you’ve determined the notes and rhythms completely.
Go for generalities before notes.
Given the choice of saying something general about a group of notes or identifying a specific note, always go for the more general statement. “These four notes sound eerie, like minor-major” or “there’s some kind of hemiola” are better than “the first note is a D”, if they help you home in on the answer. That’s because they keep the focus on the big picture, where it should be.
Figure out the important notes before others.
What’s an important note? A note whose pitch sticks out in your memory after you hear the phrase. Or one that’s strongly accented, or where a tension resolves. Figure out their rhythmic placement and their pitch.
Then fill in the gaps between the key notes.
You may want to figure out the rhythms first so you know exactly how many notes there are and where they fall. You can even write out just the stems and fill in the noteheads later.
Be a sneaky detective.
When it comes time to identify an individual note’s pitch, bring to bear all the information you have: the current chord, the sound of the note, its relation to the notes around it, and whatever insights you have about the phrase that could help. If those things aren’t enough, compare it to a note you CAN hear in your head and identify. If you can tell that your note wants to resolve down a half step to another note, figure out what that other note is and you’ll have solved your problem. If you’re completely stuck, play the current chord on an instrument, or the chord’s root, and work it out mentally from there. Don’t just play notes till you find one that’s right. (Am I starting to repeat myself on that point?)
Verify your ideas.
When you have a theory about the notes in a phrase, test it mentally too. Save playing it on an instrument for your final accuracy check, if you can. For instance, if you think the notes are all out of a B diminished scale, listen to the notes on the recording and sing yourself a B diminished scale and see if they convey the same overall sound.
If you need help testing your theory, use an instrument intelligently. (e.g. play the B diminished scale on your instrument to compare).
When you use an instrument to test your ideas, don’t test one note at a time.
Rather, play a phrase in its entirety and ask yourself if it sounds correct. If it doesn’t, try to figure out where you went wrong before testing each individual note.
Accidentally signing off on mistakes
Sometimes you’ll mentally “verify” a theory that turns out to be wrong. You’ll discover this later on when you’re having trouble filling in the details. That’s ok. Learn a lesson from it if you can. (For instance, you might learn that you sometimes mistake an altered scale for a diminished scale.)
The soloist may depart from the chord changes.
Try to catch this before you go for the actual notes. It’ll save you lots of time.
Should I slow it down?
Slowing down a recording sure makes it easier to transcribe. When I was a kid I slowed down recordings on reel-to-reel tape, which also lowered the pitch. Nowadays programs such as Amazing Slow Downer and Transcribe! allow you to slow down recordings without changing the pitch. If you’re at a loss transcribing a passage at full tempo, by all means slow it down. But not any more than you need to. At a very slow speed you might hear & identify the individual notes right away, whereas if it were faster you would only hear the sound they form together. Go for the latter! Identifying individual notes by ear is great… but identifying the general sounds conveyed by groups of notes is even better. If faster speeds force you to do that, terrific! You can still slow it down to get the final details if you need to.
Use the pause button skillfully.
Hit it right after a phrase you’re working on so that your memory of the phrase you are working on is not contaminated by the phrase that follows. Programs for transcription are useful even when you’re not slowing down the audio because they let you easily set a start point and end point, to play a short clip. You can also do this easily in an audio editor such as Audacity or Garage Band or Pro Tools.
What to transcribe
If all this is much too difficult, then you’re choosing a solo that’s too hard. If you can’t do Coltrane or Freddie Hubbard or Mike Brecker, try Clifford Brown or Sonny Stitt or Pat Martino. If they’re too difficult, try Lester Young or Miles on Kind of Blue, or Chet Baker. If all those are too hard, work on transcribing the melody of a standard.
Another option is to buy a book of études that comes with a CD of them being performed, and transcribe the etudes from the CD! Unlike actual solos, which often have easy passages followed by wildly difficult passages, études tend to be written with a consistent level from beginning to end. That makes the transcribing process very efficient for learning.
An example of the process
Let’s look at the first four bars of the head of Charlie Parker’s composition “Ko Ko”. Here is a recording of the phrase—three seconds long, with two seconds of context before and afterward:
In case you’d like to follow along more slowly, here are three versions I slowed down (using The Amazing Slow Downer):
Don’t use one that’s slower than you need to.
Here is one possible sequence of observations that could lead you to a successful transcription:
- The song is in the key of B.
- The chord changes of first four bars of the head are B | B | Fm7 | B7. You can either figure that out by listening or by knowing that Ko Ko is written over the chord changes to Cherokee.
The first measure:
- The measure consists entirely of eighth notes, starting on beat one.
- The chord is B major.
- There is a prominent note on beat 3.
- It is the root.
- Before that, the note-to-note movements are small (mostly scalar); after it movements are large (arpeggiation).
- The note on 2+ is a chromatic approach to the root from below.
- The first note is the same as the note on 2+.
- The first three notes are ascending notes in the B major scale.
- The second half of the bar is a downward arpeggio.
- Guess that it is a B major arpeggio, confirm that it sounds correct.
(We could have guessed Bmaj7 arpeggio, tested it, and heard that it is incorrect, that the presence of the A gave it a different sound than the recording.)
We have the first five notes now.
We have the first measure done now.
The second measure:
- All eighth notes again.
- The notes on beats one and three sound prominent.
- The pitch on beat three sounds easier, so let’s start with that.
- Listening to it a few times, you might recognize it as the fifth of the key. If so, great.
- Verify it mentally (count up to the fifth note of the B major scale and compare that to the note… or use a song as a mnemonic), or using an instrument if you need.
- Now you may recognize that the second half of the measure is a descending portion of a scale, once again the B major scale. Fill in the notes descending. We notice that by this logic it ought to land on a B on beat one of the following measure. It’s easy to verify that it does.
- If you didn’t hear that the note on beat three was the fifth of B, you might still notice that there’s a descending major scale, and look to see where it winds up. The downbeat of the next measure is easy to identify: it is the root of the key we’re in, B. So you can pencil in a C right before it on beat 4+, a D on beat 4, an E on beat 3+ and an F on beat 3… and then verify that this is in fact correct.
- So we’ve got the second half of bar two… how about the first half?
The first note is tricky because it is not diatonic to B major. But you can notice that it is a chromatic approach up to the following note, and go after that note. That note, on beat 1+, may still not be easy, so we can ask what reference points we have. One is the F on beat three. It is, indeed a good reference point because it sounds very close to our note in pitch. If we continue the B major scale backwards from the downbeat of the next measure, we see that our note would be the next note in that scale after the F. In other words, there is a G on beat 1+. Which means the note on beat 1 is an F#, since it is a chromatic approach to G from below.
- That leaves beats 2 and 2+. Well, beats 1+, 2, 2+ form a downward arpeggio of some sort. Is it a B arpeggio? No, it doesn’t have that “resolved” sound. The notes are unresolved but not dissonant, so a good guess would be that it is some mode of B major, which would make all its notes diatonic to B. Well, we know it has an G at the top… so how about C minor? That turns out to be correct.
- Of course, we could have also guessed E major (2nd inversion) or G minor (1st inversion), which are also modes of B. They would have been incorrect, But here’s the good news: Neither one is a bad guess. Either would have sounded ok, and not extremely different from the correct phrase. That’s because our guesses were not blind pitch-matching. They were based on the (correct) insight that the notes sounded diatonic to B. And because the notes were the last notes we filled in, they are not the key notes in the phrase, so they don’t carry the main thrust of the musical idea.
The Third Measure:
- This one, like the others, is made entirely of eighth notes, but there are only six notes, with a rest starting on beat four.
- We already figured out the first note while we were working on the previous measure: It’s B, the key of the tune.
- The note on beat three is very salient, being the highest note of the phrase and on a prominent beat. It is also easy to identify: that same important B, an octave higher.
- Beat 1+ is hard to hear, but beat 2 is easy. It’s not far below the B and sounds like a chord tone. The chord is a Fm7, so A (the minor third of the chord) would be the logical guess, and is correct. You can hear that first three notes of the measure descend, so beat 1+ must be between B and A. That means it can only be A. Beat 2+ is hard to make out, but sounds like a chord tone closer in pitch to the note before it (A) than the note after (high B). That makes the logical first guess C (the fifth of Fm7), and once again that is correct.
- That leaves only the last note of the phrase. An advanced player might recognize it as carrying an augmented flavor, and reason that it is the +5 (13) of the upcoming dominant chord, B7. An intermediate player might notice that it seems to want to resolve down a half step, then hear and identify that resolved note as the fifth of the B tonal center. That fifth is F, making the note .
A musician who practices playing solos by the masters will see benefits from it, whether he is reading out of a published book or his own transcriptions, and regardless of how he made his own transcriptions. But teachers tend to agree that there is huge value in transcribing the music yourself, and I submit that the unlocking that value requires a method similar to what I have described above.
One technique I haven’t mentioned is learning to sing solos by ear. I consider that a very different task than transcribing, because for many people it involves bypassing altogether the kind of cerebral processes we’ve outlined. Still, if the task turns to putting the solo on your instrument, the same issues come up. You’ll be much better off finding the notes with your musical abilities than with “hunt & peck.”
Another subject I’ve left out is perfect pitch. If you can identify pitches absolutely then that gives you an alternative to both the transcription method that I’ve advocated and hunt & peck. And there’s reason to believe that practicing transcription that way might actually hone your ability to make music using absolute pitch. That’s another subject altogether, and one I’m hoping to write about before long.