Music Transcription 1 – Materials and Planning

Transcribing music is probably the most important exercise one can do to understand and perform any style of music. Although this may sound obvious to many jazz musicians, it took me a long time to realize the positive effects of transcribing during my early years as a music student.

Here in Brazil, there’s a very strong DIY culture among musicians about practicing, mainly because our schools and universities couldn’t follow up with music advancements properly for a long time. So when we start to get more independent about our instruments, it’s kind of a mess. One finds a record on the Internet, the other one finds a cool book about harmony, but no one really tells you: “Oh, this is what you should be listening to/working on”. Unless, of course, you’re lucky enough to hang with the best musicians around.

In my case, learning music has always been a very slow process. Mainly because I was never focused enough when listening to music. I have listened to a lot of music, but the only things I could think about it were through an emotional level, and not technical. So I’ve spent many years studying music theory in books and practicing those scales on my instrument, but never really mixing those experiences with the music I was used to listen to.

When people around me started to talk about transcription, I’ve realized there was something really important missing in my daily practice. But still, I knew what was transcription, but I had no idea how to do it. It took me some time to make it a habit.

So if  you have the same problems as I used to, these tips about transcribing might be useful:

  1. Transcribe everything you can: melodies, chord voicings and rhythms, solos;
  2. If you’re doing your first transcriptions, choose something simple to start with. For example: gospel, dixieland, rhythm n’ blues;
  3. Prefer slow tempos. They’re easier to listen to, and you can probably find more complex and interesting things more easily than in fast tempo tunes;
  4. Show your transcriptions to the best musicians you know, they should help you figure out if there’s something wrong;
  5. Get used to preparing “lead sheets” of everything you listen to: melodies and chord symbols.
  6. All you need is your own instrument (I would recommend also any harmonic instrument, such as a piano or guitar) and your headphones or speakers.
  7. Sometimes when the recording is old and/or damaged, you might have to deal with some tuning problems. If you’re using your guitar, just tune it accordingly. Due to this problem, it may be hard to know exactly what’s the key being played. In this case, look for other recordings of the same tune. Also, if you found the key to be, for example, B major, it’s quite likely that you’re wrong, because this is a very rare key for jazz tunes. Here’s a list of the most common keys in jazz tunes:
    • Major: F, Bb, Eb, C, G, Ab, Db;
    • Minor: Fm, Dm, Cm, Gm, Am, Ebm, Bbm, Em.
  8. Try to find out how the tune begins. In approximately 80% of the tunes there’s an introduction before the melody. And the introductions are usually 4 or 8 bars long.
  9. Figure out the tune’s structure and form. Count the number of measures while the melody is being played. 32 bars AABA is a very common thing you’ll end up writing. This structure will very often be repeated throughout the solos until the recapitulation. Just watch out with interludes and codas, they usually change things a bit.
  10. Everything repeats in jazz. If you’re having trouble to figure out the chords of an A section in a AABA tune, just wait until the next A shows up and you can try to figure it out again without pausing your player. If you lost a note or two in the melody of B, just keep listening and taking notes, and soon the recap will show you everything you need.
  11. Make sure you have a proper software to slow down your audio file. It is very common to get stuck in passages where you can’t really figure out what’s being played because it’s too quick or blurry. I would definitely recommend RiffMaster Pro for that. It slows down the audio without sacrificing quality, which happens very often with these kind of softwares.


Now you’re ready to start transcribing for real. In the next posts I’ll talk about the process to transcribe melodies, chords and solos.

Thanks for passing by and see you next time!



Feel free to comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s