Transcribing for jazz musicians is, at its most fundamental level, how we learn. Sure, we’ve all heard that it’s good for you, but why do it? I didn’t used to be a fan. I thought it was a boring waste of time and a redundant aural exercise. As I’ve learned, there are so many more dimensions of benefits that go way past the surface level physical benefits. I’m going to touch on just a few today.
But first, my preferred method when transcribing:
1) LISTEN to the passage you’re transcribing all the way through a few times. Try to get a grasp on the structure. What’s the form? What’s going on underneath all those lines?!
2) Start SLOW. Be intent on every note you’re listening for, as if you’re the one playing! You’ll likely recognize something in the passage you’re trying to transcribe. Remember what it is. (Slow it down if you must…free programs like Audacity have the capabilities to slow it down for you without altering pitch).
3) Start from the BEGINNING. I find that it’s easiest to have an instrument nearby when transcribing to be able to play it as I go. This doesn’t change if I decide to write it down or not. Sometimes, however, I prefer to transcribe away from any instrument entirely. This focuses more on my aural and conceptual intellectual skills.
4) Look for PATTERNS. There’s likely some sort of pattern (or patterns) that are holding this whole thing together? What is it? Is it a harmonic progression? Are there sequential passages? Look for anything that repeats itself even in the subtlest way. This will clue you in on what you should be listening for and can put you in the creator’s shoes to an extent.
5) Be patient and WORK HARD. There’s no getting around this one. If you’re going to successfully transcribe a passage, you need to stick with it. The nice thing about transcribing versus improvising is that there’s only ONE possible answer – the truth. What are the notes Charlie Parker played here? What are the rhythms? There might be different ways of notating these things, but notation isn’t music. There is only ONE correct way of playing it along with Bird. Do you sound like him or do you not?
6) Finally, as you begin to play through the passage (and especially if it’s improvised), pretend you’re the CREATOR. Defend, to yourself or somebody else, each musical decision. Why did you choose these notes? Approaching the analytical process this way will help give you an insight into why exactly this person did this. Really defend it! Figure out why it works. If you can’t, ask somebody (like a teacher) who might know!
...on to the benefits. Once you get past the aural benefit of transcribing (something I think is very important but only the top layer of the value of transcribing), you start to dig into the meat and potatoes of what makes this practice invaluable. I think the most valuable part of transcribing to me is seeing how somebody else took something I know (the blues in this case) and made it uniquely theirs. While I'm transcribing, I'm asking myself, why did he/or she make this decision? Why not this note? Why leave space here?
I think of transcribing in terms of THREE main benefits:
2) Vertical Intellectual
3) Horizontal Intellectual/Architecture
1) The Physical benefits of transcribing are the most surface level benefits and really require little explanation. When you transcribe a solo, you are basically practicing extended melodic and rhythmic dictation. Thus, you’re improving your aural skills in one of the most efficient ways you can. The other physical benefit is the practice of it. Especially if the solo is more technically demanding, you will have to practice those passages as if you were practicing a classical etude until you can play it up to speed with the recording. Thus, by transcribing a passage, you’re working on your aural technique as well as your instrument-facility technique. No wonder it’s such a recommended practice!
2) The Vertical Intellectual benefit, as I like to call it, is part of the analytical process. Think vertically (as we often do when we improvise) and think in terms of a single harmony or a few harmonic changes (such as a 2-5-1 progression). Ask yourself why. Why did he make these musical decisions in relation to the vertical component of this improvised passage? Why does this Gb work against this Cm9 chord? (Oh, it’s a chromatic passing tone). Part of this analytical process will help you get an understanding of what you like as well. I’m a big believer of developing intention when we improvise. Thus, figuring out what you like and what you don’t like is one of the most fundamental ways of developing intent. (If you don’t like the sound of what you’re playing, why should anybody else?!)
3) The Horizontal Intellectual/Architecture benefit or the THIRD DIMENSION of transcribing is what I consider to be the most valuable part of transcribing and something that can only come at the end of the analytical process. What makes the whole solo or tune work? Why is this transcription considered great? Try to analyze and understand the transcription from a horizontal/linear approach. What about the architecture makes this work? (HINT: It has a lot to do with the balance of tension and release). This is also the step where you can get a sense for the creator’s personal style/genius/whatever you want to call it. So often, I think improvisers struggle with the idea of form. I certainly do and am constantly working towards a better understanding of what “form” really means. This last stage in the process of transcribing is really the stage where you can get the best sense of why this solo is considered to be “great” or “genius.” In a nutshell: it works. Why?
I hope these are helpful. This has been an approach that has worked the best for me – both from a physical skills level and also an intellectual level. Does any of this sound familiar to you? What’s worked best for you? I’m curious. Let me know what you think! -DMR