Friday, February 26, 2010

The Answers to All Your Questions are in Your Living Room


    My recent article "Music Before Theory" addresses the need to listen to music as opposed to just learning the terminology and the analysis of it.  In this article I will discuss the process of transcription, or as I like to call it, the art of aural thievery.  "How does one go about stealing sound?," you may be asking.  The simple answer is by listening.

    What is meant by the title, "The Answers to All Your Questions are in Your Living Room," is that your music collection contains everything you need to know.  Having a good teacher is important and you can glean some information from books, but one thing I've learned in my experience is that nothing compares to what you can learn by listening to and transcribing good music.  By "good" music, I mean music that sounds good to you, as it is quite a subjective thing.

    To transcribe something, proper tools are required:

  • A music player (A portable device is preferable, as you will need to pause and rewind/fast forward frequently.  It is also helpful if the device is capable of slowing down the music.  There are a number of relatively inexpensive computer programs that are capable of this and can easily be found with a google search.)
  • A good set of stereo headphones
    Many people use the piano to transcribe, regardless of what instrument they play.  Personally, I only occasionally transcribe at the piano.  Most of the time I use my guitar.  Now, on to transcribing!  Please note that the method I am about to present to you is the method that I use, and that there are many ways to transcribe something, so it may not be the best method for you.

    First, I give the whole tune a good listen a few times to gain a sense of the overall form.  Once I determine the form of the tune, I go back and listen to the first phrase of the melody until I can sing it.  Once I've internalized the first phrase I try to find the first note on my instrument by randomly playing notes until I find it.  From there, it is just trial and error until I fill in the rest of the notes in that first phrase of melody.  I find it easier to focus on the actual pitches and figure out the rhythm after I get all the notes in the phrase.  This process continues adding, phrase by phrase, the rest of the melody.

    Sometimes it is hard to get all the notes in a particular phrase.  If you are having difficulties with one or two notes in the middle of a phrase, skip them.  They will become apparent later.  The more you transcribe, the better you will get at it.  This is called "ear training."

    The next step is going to be to figure out the chord progression to the song.  This will be much easier if you transcribe the bass line first.  To save time, you really only need to know the first note the bass plays on each chord change (most of the time).

    Now all you need to do is determine the quality of each chord.  The bass line will provide you with a decent guide for this purpose, which is why I transcribe it before I attempt to figure out the chord changes.  You need to listen to the sound of the recording at each chord change.  Does it sound major or minor?  Or is it a dominant sound?

    The following step usually invites a decent amount of controversy.  Should you write out what you transcribe, or not?  I feel that it is helpful to write out the melody and the changes, but the solo is optional.  When you get to transcribing the solo, I feel that it's generally best to memorize it as you are transcribing it.  This forces you to play the solo along with the recording rather than write it down and play it later.  You will gain so much more this way because you are also learning the phrasing, the breathing, articulation, and most importantly, the emotional content.  These are things you can't get from simply reading it later.  If you feel the need to write out the solo, however, I advise you do it only after being able to play it along with the recording.

    By listening to the music you like and learning it in this way, you develop a certain relationship to the music that can't be obtained through books or reading music from a page.  What is there to learn in your living room?



  1. Good article there. The best teacher(s) are indeed your recordings. I spent a whole summer transcribing Scofield solos from Uberjam and a little from A Go Go. Ah, to have that much free time again!

  2. Yes time seems to be a thing of years past, as I feel that everything is speeding up around me. I, too have enjoyed transcribing some Scofield solos. I just can't get enough of Agogo. He has such a laid-back style.

  3. I am appreciating much of what you are sharing here. I am new to blogging and I have to ask: are you the author of everything within your posts or are you quoting others' words? I have seen the title of this post written before,so should I assume that you are the originator of the phrase? I want to understand how blogs work before I get into it.

  4. The title of this post is something I heard before, but I do not know who originated the phrase. It seemed fitting for the content of the post. There are a couple posts on this blog that I borrowed from other blogs or websites, and the original author is credited in each instance.


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