Transcribing Music

November 25, 2020

Transcribing music is the act of listening to something, working it out by ear and then capturing that, either in your head, on an instrument, paper or within some other medium where you can analyse, take apart and replay it.

Why Should You Transcribe Music?

80% of music of course is not written down, so serious musicians need to get good at working things out by ear. But more importantly, you should realise that 80% of the detail that makes music sound the way it does isn't ever detailed when it is written down! 

Think about the textural qualities of a wind player's embouchure, or the exact vibrato and portamento or rubato used by a string player. By transcribing, you connect directly and deeply with all of these hidden aspects, and ultimately you learn music through the medium it lives in - sound.

So while music transcription can be used for many different reasons, this post only covers its use as a musical development and practice technique.

Ways of Transcribing Music

Music transcription doesn't need to be about writing it down, although that's classically what people think. If you think about it, the main purpose of transcription is to internalise and understand the music you are studying. If that's our goal, then writing it down on paper might not be the best way of doing this.

Personally, I have always found music notation to be an abstraction from the way I actually experience and compose music. Despite having conducted and arranged a lot of music, I still am much more at home representing the shapes of music within my mind. So learning it at the piano and using my voice is often best for me.

Using the piano and the voice is also the way I output music, so it makes sense to input music that way too. For you, your primary method of outputting music might be arranging/producing it in a DAW, in which case practising reproducing/transcribing the tracks you love in a DAW would make absolute sense for you building the right skillset.

Having said that, while we all have a preference or primary way of transcribing, the best musicians can input and output music in more than one medium. Here are a few of the main ones you should consider transcribing with.

  • Music notation
  • Your instrument
  • Piano
  • Voice
  • DAW
  • Rough notes/graphic score

Transcription Software

Whatever you choose to transcribe, technology can help the process enormously. I remember tackling Cannonball Adderley's solo in Limehouse Blues. I'd been transcribing for a while by that point, so I knew I could do it, but there was no way I was going to transcribe it all effectively listening to it at that speed. Like practising a written piece of music, I needed to slow my process right down before I could speed it up.

There are many pieces of software which help you transcribe, but one of the oldest and simplest is Transcribe, by Seventh String. It works on Windows as well as Mac.


What Should I Transcribe?

Once you know how to transcribe, it's a question of what you will transcribe. There are three parts to this, 1) what styles of music 2) what parts of the music and 3) the difficulty level.

What Styles of Music should I Transcribe?

You need to think of it like 'what should I eat?'. We try to eat stuff that's going to nourish us and help us grow into the kind of musician we want to be. Transcription is about internalising music that you want to sound like, that you want to replicate or be a part of.

The answer; start keeping a well-documented library of all the music you want to transcribe. Be infinitely ambitious, don't worry about whether you can or can't. You want to keep building a library of all the things that interest you as a musician that you want to understand and internalise.

What Parts of Music Should I Transcribe?

You may be interested in different aspects of music and improving specific areas. When I was primarily a saxophonist, I did mostly phrasing-based transcriptions (solo's, melodies etc.). Nowadays I'm mainly a composer and pianist, so I'm interested in harmony & voicing.

Whatever your areas of interest within the styles of music you love, keep separate playlists for different aspects of music: groove, phrasing, harmony, string writing... etc.

What difficulty level should I transcribe?

NO ONE should ever tell you what your limits are, least of all you. I had a great teacher when I was younger who was adamant I could transcribe something I thought was too hard, and she forced me to do it. Two weeks later, I had it down.

That being said, there are limits, and only you and the context can tell what those are. However, I would encourage you never to rule out anything that makes you feel:

'I'll never be that good'

Most of the time that is merely a ceiling you're setting for yourself. Transcriptions are amazing things, because, once you've actually tackled the transcription, you have literally broken through your own artificial limitations as a musician.

So, how do we keep track and organise all this?

Keeping a Transcription Library

To manage all of this then I suggest to all my students that they maintain a transcription library. A central place where they build, sort and understand the constellation of things that they love and want to learn. Curating such a library is so much fun and also so informative. It gives you a fantastic reflection of what inspires you as a musician. I usually suggest playlist folders in something like Spotify, Apple Music etc.


Be Selective With Your Transcriptions

Once you've decided to pick something out from your library, it's very easy to fall into 'all or nothing' thinking and assume that you need to transcribe the WHOLE SOLO or the WHOLE SONG. But in reality, 1) that may just be too overwhelming and actually put you off the whole project & 2) there are likely to be many bits within that selection which aren't that relevant or useful to you right now.

Remember the 80/20 principle;

roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes

In other words, the most relevant bits of the thing you want to transcribe may only make up 20% of the whole piece. By truly learning and integrating just that 20%, you'll achieve 80% of the results you were after than if you learned the transcription well, but ultimately superficially.

There's also another principle from Gary Keller;

What’s the one thing you can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

In other words, by focussing on the most important part/s from the transcription first and doing those really well, the rest of the transcription actually may unfold more effortlessly if you choose to do more.

So how do we really internalise and make the most of our transcriptions?

How To Get The Most Out Of A Transcription

So you've learned the transcription or part of it.

Naturally, over time by simply learning it as it sounds and being able to perform it well will really improve your playing. But there are some other things intelligent musicians do to unpack and make the most of the material they've transcribed

1. Transpose it to a different key or keys.

By transposing it, you force yourself to think of the music relatively, in other words, you have to analyse how the music is working together in relation to the key in order to transpose it to the other key.

You could do 1 key, 2 keys or all keys. But seriously, that might just be overkill...

Note: some people transpose by moving the music up or down by a specific interval. I advise against this within the context of transcription practice. Thinking in relation to the key gives you a much greater grasp of what the music is doing.

2. Take tiny sections and transpose to all keys.

So transposing the whole excerpt to all keys may be overkill, but taking a few tiny bits and taking them through all keys is fantastic. This stuff then starts 'coming out in your playing' without you even trying. In 6 months time, you'll notice the effects of this on your work.

3. Analysis

By transposing, your mind may well have already analysed a lot, but depending on your current understanding, you may need to slow things down. Here are a number of ideas to help you start unpacking your transcription further.

  • Create a thorough harmonic analysis, working out and labelling many/all of the harmony and progressions which get used.
  • Create a harmonic reduction. Reduce the piece in all its complexity down to a set of chord progressions, if you can.
  • Extract all the themes or major patterns which get used more than once and list them somewhere.

4. Recompose

Often when we start a transcription, it's because we admire the artist who's created it in the first place. After thoroughly studying it, however, we may find little bits we could change!

Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and try messing with the music to see how far you can tweak it from the original and whether that makes it 'better', 'worse' or merely different.

5. Vocalise It

Not everyone is comfortable vocalising music, I get that. But notice I didn't say 'singing'. Vocalising is different, and doesn't mean you hit the pitches perfectly/at all. It's also not something you need to do in front of anyone!

Vocalising (or singing if you are up for it) is one of the best ways to embody and internalise the gestures and feeling of the transcription. It gets the phrasing and rhythm into your system without you having to worry about the theory or execution. This means the music is truly inside of you.

Building an Uber Transcription

After all this then, you have the potential of adding what you've found to your Uber Transcription.

I mentioned above that we want to find the 20% of the transcription which delivers 80% of the value or results we're after. In other words, the best bits. Once we've done this, we can add this to our own practice patchwork or collage. In other words, all your favourite bits across all your transcriptions re-composed into your own, personally tailored study piece.

Now, THIS is definitely something you then want to be taking through all keys. Treat this as your Bible. It's the condensed, most valuable stuff that you and only you have hand selected for you to internalise and learn.

Dave Swift spoke a lot about transcription in his podcast with me. One of the quotes he mentioned in that episode was from Clark Terry and it directly relates to transcription:

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.

So what's stopping you? I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts below on how you find transcribing. What your specific techniques are and what you struggle with.