The awesome power of transcribing music. Whatever your level.

Learning to play by ear will boost your musical fluency, but learning to transcribe is where it’s really at. Here’s how to do it…

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Playing by ear is the starting point…

…it’s one of the best ways to improve your skills as a musician, listening and mimicking what you hear without referring to musical score. Typically it involves a little trial and error before you find the right notes (in the right order!) but that’s fine because the process of working everything out dramatically improves your musical awareness — your rhythmic, melodic and harmonic understanding. Playing by ear also helps you to understand phrasing, instrumentation and style in a deeper way.

All this can seem like a super human skill, but it’s less intimidating when you think of it like this. There was once a time when you had no words for the colours you saw, no language to describe all of the different shades. With experience you learned to recognise all of the individual colour variations and their names, building up an internal colour palette with which to perceive and describe the world. It’s the same in music. Over time you encounter many different sounds and patterns, and with every exposure you assimilate a little more. You develop your ability to recognise different musical forms. You construct and engrain your auditory palette.

All good so far and yet playing by ear is really just the beginning. Once you’ve worked out how to play your favourite piece the trick is to write it down. This is called transcription. “Why bother?” I hear you say, especially when you can find so many scores online. Well, there are truly many benefits.

Why transcribe music?

Transcription is common practice in many music schools, especially in the jazz world. The thinking is that by taking the time to understand the greats in your own terms, you absorb and integrate their techniques into your own performances and compositions. You’re like an apprentice learning from the masters. At first you’ll simply imitate what you hear, but eventually you’ll develop your own unique style and voice.

When you transcribe you witness music theory in action. You shift from being ‘book smart’ to truly understanding and internalising what makes a piece hang together, all the components that make it great. The more pieces you transcribe the more you’ll start to recognise the hallmarks of different genres. The signature sounds that make Classical, Classical. Jazz, Jazz. And Catholic Psychedelic Synth Folk, well…you get the idea. Understanding the musical motifs that have defined music history also helps you to compose music with more confidence. You’ll know how to achieve the particular sound you’re going for, what musical devices to employ. You’ll also know how to avoid musical cliches, how to put a fresh twist on a classic vibe. Let’s recap:

  • Transcribing transforms theoretical knowledge into applied understanding
  • The so-called ‘secrets’ of arrangement and instrumentation become plain to see
  • Transcribing fills up your creative reservoir so you can make your own music
  • It adds the licks and trademarks of different genres and your favourite artists to your musical vocabulary
  • You come to know when to use them to get a particular flavour
  • And when to avoid them like the plague!
  • It improves your musical literacy with reading and writing music notation
  • And finally, it encourages you to push yourself by learning difficult pieces

Transcription can be an intense mental workout, that strengthens your mind and motivation immensely. You vastly improve your ear, especially in discerning pitch and rhythm, and basically get to feel like a superhero when you finally get to the end of a challenging piece.

A word of warning!

After transcribing a piece by one of your idols, you might find that the pedestal you’ve had them on all these years crumbles and falls. There’s nothing like transcription to demystify the glittering gestalt of your desert island discs, to lay bare the surprisingly simple components that go together to make the dizzying whole. Then again, it can go the other way. You might find yourself waxing lyrical to anyone that will listen about the elegant simplicity of Satie. Either way, transcription, it’s emotional.

So how do you do it?

There are three steps to creating a transcription:

  1. Active listening
  2. Translating the music
  3. Documenting the music

Active listening

Active listening is achieved by paying close attention to the music — ideally memorising it — so you really take it in, as opposed to just mindlessly transferring audio into notation.

Some tips for you:

  • Choose a piece you love, something specific to your taste that you’re happy to listen to hundreds of times…because that’s what you’ll need to do!
  • Start off transcribing pieces featuring instruments that you already play.
  • Listen on repeat until you can practically sing all of the parts of the entire piece or passage you want to transcribe.
  • Try playing what you hear on your instrument before you write it down.

When you find yourself humming along with ease, not just to the main melody, but to all of the little idiosyncrasies of your chosen piece then you’re ready for step two.

Translating & documenting the music

Make a map

The first step is to work out the form of the piece, the time signature and the number of bars in each section. Your aim is to make a map, not a perfect score. That comes later. Make a note of any similar sections, anything that’s repeated or varies only slightly. Repetition almost always occurs, even in songs where it doesn’t initially seem to. Also check, does the time signature stay the same throughout? If not, where does it change? Make a note of everything. Next, add the key signature and work out how many instruments there are, and when they come in and out.

  • Form: identify sections, phrases, and whether anything repeats
  • Time signature: note anywhere it changes
  • Bars: identify the number of bars in each section
  • Key signature: note anywhere it changes
  • Instrumentation: number of instruments, when they play, when they rest

Begin to flesh out the parts

From here you can start to create the parts, moving towards more of a score. When transcribing a complicated piece, it’s rare that I work from the beginning to the end on one instrument in one go, and I never work on all instruments at once! Once I’ve laid out the structure of the piece I listen through and choose sections to work on, the ones that sound the easiest, or most repetitive. Often I can tell that I need to work out a particular component before I’ll be able to work out another one. Like many things in life, the better you get, the less you need to think about your process; progress happens naturally simply by following your gut. Then there’s the moments you get in your own way. Sometimes I know exactly what I should do to move a score forward, but I put it off because I know it’s going to be really challenging and take a lot of time. Once I’ve done it though, the rest of the piece flows much easily — with the trickiest section put to bed. It’s always worth persevering.

My ultimate tip is to learn your rhythmic alphabets inside out, as this will make any transcription you embark upon easier. I rarely need to sit and work out a rhythm because I’ve ingrained so many. When I transcribe I start by writing down the rhythm, then all I need to do is overlay the pitches and articulation (how to play the note e.g. staccato). Others approach transcribing the opposite way round, especially those with perfect pitch. There’s no ‘right way’, so experiment with what comes most naturally to you.

Working out the bass movement is one of the key moments in transcription. This usually takes the mystery out of a piece, because you can see how the overall harmony works. Regardless how crazy the chords may first appear, lock down the root movement and the rest of the jigsaw will start to fall into place.

  • Create the parts: focus on rhythm or pitch first (whichever comes more naturally to you)
  • Bass movement

Hints and tips

It’s worth noting that you can slow pieces down as you listen and transcribe them, but there are pros and cons to this approach. I’ve slowed pieces down as much as 75% before, but this increases the risk of distortion, and you can start to lose musical context as rhythms and pitches suddenly seem unrelated. If you can think fast enough it’s better to listen at the original speed. If you can’t, slow things down, but be sure to listen again at the right speed to check your work.

It’s also good to chunk things up, to aim initially for transcribing just one bar, then one phrase, then one instrument part and so on. Chunking up a piece transforms it from overwhelming to manageable.

  • Slow the piece down if necessary but check again at the right speed
  • Chunk it up!

Finalising your score

Once you’ve got down all of the fundamentals you can finesse your score with dynamics, tempo and expression markings. When you think it’s complete, stress-test it by playing it through, part by part with and without the music. You can also give it to musician friends and ask for feedback. Often it’s as simple as leaving it be for a week or two, then coming back to it with fresh eyes.

  • Add dynamics, tempo, expression
  • Stress-test your score

Final thoughts

Through learning and transcribing other people’s songs you enhance your awareness of all facets of music. Genre, style and form. Instrumentation, arrangement and different approaches to articulation. Become curious. Aim to explore the world of music holistically, rather than just learning theory or just learning to play a song. I’ve learned more through transcription than I have through any other music training, like ear training and interval recognition. Transcription improved my ear but it also helped me to uncover and remedy other gaps in my knowledge e.g. different kinds of articulation. It also helped me realise preconceptions I had about certain genres, giving me a new sense of appreciation and passion for composers I’d previously overlooked. I now understand how to compose for instruments I don’t personally play too, where to place them in the mix and how to play to their strengths.

The main thing I learned though, is that music is always more simple than you realise. It’s just a matter of ‘getting it’, of spending enough time with it that everything clicks into place.

Self taught musician who loves to learn and share with the world. www.benspooner.co.uk

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store