Transcription: A guide to the how and why of stepping outside yourself

Traditionally, transcription has been the preeminent, “go-to” way of becoming a great improviser, and one of the most effective ways of learning the language of music.

There are undoubtedly many of the great living musicians and improvisers that have never done a transcription in their life, and there’s something pure about that. Though, for the rest of us who may follow in the ideal of Stravinsky’s quote: “Good composers borrow, great composers steal”, there are many clear tangible benefits of transcription, and in many ways is the ultimate musical workout with benefits such as:

  • Gaining vocabulary to use (licks, phrases, etc…)
  • Ear training in it’s rawest form
  • Rhythmic training
  • Opening you up to new harmonic concepts (new ways to use scales, patterns, devices, etc…)
  • Looking at your instrument in a different visual sense (if transcribing from another instrument than your own)
  • Developing new fingerings
  • Develop better feel, pocket, groove, etc…
  • And so much more…

Live the solo

In looking at these benefits, and seeing the fact that transcription hits all areas of musicianship, not just learning a solo, I’d like to focus in on one area; developing feel. It occurred to me at one point while doing some transcribing, that given the goal of trying to learn the style of another player that: When you play the exact note, with the exact fingering, with the exact phrasing, with the exact intonation, you will then FEEL what that musician was playing at that given moment. To learn honestly from another musician, we must feel what it would’ve been like to play that phrase within that solo at that given time. Then, we can assimilate the idea of stepping outside our natural human limitations as a player, and live that solo through the musician you are transcribing.

That being said, the practical elements of transcription how-tos, can be rather personal, depending where you are at in your musical development. One thing is the same for everyone though: we’re trying to play what we hear. The following tips will provide an efficient method to get the most out of your time, and as we all know transcription can be a very tedious process.

Listen. Over and over

There is nothing that will waste more of your time than trying to play a phrase if you haven’t listened to it enough. You must absorb the music first. For some of you it may only take 1 listen to get it, others 20, but if you can’t hear what your trying to play in your head first, there’s no way you’ll be able to play it on your instrument; you’ll simply be guessing!

Sing it first

The ear to hand connection for musicians is the primary bond we have, and what we all strive to strengthen. Singing is the best way to do it. When you sing a phrase, it is reinforced in your mind and then therefore made available for your hands to play. When transcribing, sing the phrase you have just listened to, and if you can sing it correctly, you can play it correctly. Let your ears guide your fingers, not vice versa.

Slow it down

Simply stated: Speed is the byproduct of accuracy. If you can’t play something slow, there is surely no way you’ll be able to play it fast. As musicians we all want instant results, but be patient and take your time. In the long run, the time it will take you to slow down the phrase your working on, play it at a comfortable tempo (or even slower than that!), and then and only then work it up to the recorded tempo, you will end up saving time and energy that you would’ve wasted playing it fast and wrong over and over…

One Phrase at a Time

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If your inner ear can’t remember the entire piece, or several phrases that you had just heard, you’ll be playing the guessing game again on your instrument. Take it one phrase at a time, to digest fully what you have just heard. If you take a transcription (or learning any piece of music for that matter) bit by bit, you will learn faster and more efficient. Follow these steps

1) Transcribe the first phrase, and then work it up to tempo

2) Transcribe the 2nd phrase, and then work it up to tempo

3) Play both phrases together slowly, then work up to tempo

4) Transcribe 3rd phrase, and then work up to tempo

5) Play all 3 phrases slowly together, then work up to tempo

6) So on and so on…

By working this way, you reinforce all previous phrases you had learned, and you will strengthen your musical memory, and efficiently learn your transcription in the big picture.

Overall, if you follow the guidelines here, you will undoubtedly become an efficient transcriber, and vastly improve not only your musical vocabulary, but also your overall musicianship. Everyone learns differently, so be patient and stick with it. Remember, the more you transcribe, the bigger your musical muscles will be and the easier it will get. Happy transcribing!

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One thought on “Transcription: A guide to the how and why of stepping outside yourself

  1. Pingback: 10 Simple Ways of Improving Your Musicianship Cont’d (part 2): « MusiCloud Blog

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