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Transcribing Jazz Solos. Transcribing solos from recordings is widely regarded as one of the best ways of improving your jazz ability. The point of transcription as a learning tool is not simply to arrive at the right notes.  It is to deepen your understanding of the music and all the artistic “decisions” that went into its creation. And, in the process, to gradually assimilate that understanding into your own improvisation.

Many people just go for the notes. They miss out on much of the potential benefit…

The “Hunt and Peck” approach

A great many musicians use a sequential, trial-and-error method of transcription: guess at the pitch and rhythm of the next note, compare your guess to the recording, repeat until you get it right, then move on to the following note. Unfortunately, that method won’t teach you to solo beautifully any more than you can learn to diagnose like a doctor by guessing at a patient’s problem until you get it right. Luckily for patients, that’s not how doctors train. It shouldn’t be how we transcribe either if our aim is to improve our playing.

A Better Method

The common approach has the student ask repeatedly, “what is the next note and where does it fall rhythmically?” A better question to ask over and over, and in increasing detail, is, “what’s going on in the upcoming notes?”

This question is much more vague and open-ended than the first. It requires that we peck away at a phrase not one note at a time but one insight at a time. What do I mean by an insight?

Here are some examples:

  • The rest of the measure is a sequence of eighth notes.

  • There is a flurry of notes that ends in a note falling solidly on beat three.

  • The pickup to the measure leads chromatically upward to the downbeat note.

  • The rhythm involves quarter note triplets.

  • The next few notes move in fourths

  • The notes form a repeating pattern that modulates upward in minor thirds.

  • The notes are in ascending groups of four, each group starting a little higher in pitch than the previous.

  • Or even just: The soloist seems to have reharmonized the heck out of this measure.

The “hunt and peck” approach makes use of one skill above all else: comparing pitch on a recording to a pitch played on an instrument. But that’s not a skill that helps us much when we’re improvising on the bandstand. If we instead use our musical reasoning faculties to get the job done, we strengthen them… and these are of enormous use to us on the bandstand and off. We also wind up reverse engineering the solo in the process, which gives us insights about what makes it tick.

Rather than try to give an explicit step-by-step method for transcribing, I’ll give a number of tips followed by an example of doing a transcription…

Choose something appropriate to your level.

Don’t transcribe something that’s harmonically or rhythmically well beyond your understanding. Go for something within your reach or just beyond it.
Otherwise you’ll wind up transcribing it mechanically and not learn very much. And, of course, you’ll be more likely to make mistakes.
If you have the understanding necessary to make sense of the solo’s rhythms and harmony, then you can slow a solo down (or speed it up!) to adjust its level of difficulty. (See below)

Maybe you’re not ready.

If you have trouble identifying intervals or basic rhythms, it’s probably not time to start transcribing yet. If you need to transcribe a piece you can certainly do it by guessing each note until you have it right and slowing the recording way down if you need to. But if your aim is to improve your music then you’d be much better off spending your time at ear training or rhythmic training. Take a class, or play intervals back and forth with a friend, quizzing each other. Or check out some of the many educational computer programs out there.

Know the chord changes before you start.

If the solo is not over a song whose changes you know, transcribe the chord changes first, and then the solo. If you can’t do that, choose a different solo—you’ll get much more out of it that way.

Take it one phrase, or sub-phrase, at a time.

Don’t feel obliged to figure out the notes in sequence. Transcribe chunks that are longer than a note or two. Perhaps a measure. Within a chunk, get the broad strokes first, then fill in the details.

Propose and verify. Over and over.

Keep adding more details to your understanding of a phrase, checking your ideas for correctness as you go, until you’ve determined the notes and rhythms completely.

Go for generalities before notes.

Given the choice of saying something general about a group of notes or identifying a specific note, always go for the more general statement. “These four notes sound eerie, like minor-major” or “there’s some kind of hemiola” are better than “the first note is a D”, if they help you home in on the answer. That’s because they keep the focus on the big picture, where it should be.

Figure out the important notes before others.

What’s an important note? A note whose pitch sticks out in your memory after you hear the phrase. Or one that’s strongly accented, or where a tension resolves. Figure out their rhythmic placement and their pitch.

Then fill in the gaps between the key notes.

You may want to figure out the rhythms first so you know exactly how many notes there are and where they fall. You can even write out just the stems and fill in the noteheads later.

Be a sneaky detective.

When it comes time to identify an individual note’s pitch, bring to bear all the information you have: the current chord, the sound of the note, its relation to the notes around it, and whatever insights you have about the phrase that could help. If those things aren’t enough, compare it to a note you CAN hear in your head and identify. If you can tell that your note wants to resolve down a half step to another note, figure out what that other note is and you’ll have solved your problem. If you’re completely stuck, play the current chord on an instrument, or the chord’s root, and work it out mentally from there. Don’t just play notes till you find one that’s right. (Am I starting to repeat myself on that point?)

Verify your ideas.

When you have a theory about the notes in a phrase, test it mentally too. Save playing it on an instrument for your final accuracy check, if you can. For instance, if you think the notes are all out of a Bdiminished scale, listen to the notes on the recording and sing yourself a B diminished scale and see if they convey the same overall sound.
If you need help testing your theory, use an instrument intelligently. (e.g. play the B diminished scale on your instrument to compare).

When you use an instrument to test your ideas, don’t test one note at a time.

Rather, play a phrase in its entirety and ask yourself if it sounds correct. If it doesn’t, try to figure out where you went wrong before testing each individual note.

Accidentally signing off on mistakes

Sometimes you’ll mentally “verify” a theory that turns out to be wrong. You’ll discover this later on when you’re having trouble filling in the details. That’s ok. Learn a lesson from it if you can. (For instance, you might learn that you sometimes mistake an altered scale for a diminished scale.)

The soloist may depart from the chord changes.

Try to catch this before you go for the actual notes. It’ll save you lots of time.

Should I slow it down?

Slowing down a recording sure makes it easier to transcribe. When I was a kid I slowed down recordings on reel-to-reel tape, which also lowered the pitch. Nowadays programs such as Amazing Slow Downerand Transcribe! allow you to slow down recordings without changing the pitch. If you’re at a loss transcribing a passage at full tempo, by all means slow it down. But not any more than you need to. At a very slow speed you might hear & identify the individual notes right away, whereas if it were faster you would only hear the sound they form together. Go for the latter! Identifying individual notes by ear is great… but identifying the general sounds conveyed by groups of notes is even better. If faster speeds force you to do that, terrific! You can still slow it down to get the final details if you need to.

Use the pause button skillfully.

Hit it right after a phrase you’re working on so that your memory of the phrase you are working on is not contaminated by the phrase that follows. Programs for transcription are useful even when you’re not slowing down the audio because they let you easily set a start point and end point, to play a short clip. You can also do this easily in an audio editor such as Audacity or Garage Band or Pro Tools.

What to transcribe

If all this is much too difficult, then you’re choosing a solo that’s too hard. If you can’t do Coltrane or Freddie Hubbard or Mike Brecker, try Clifford Brown or Sonny Stitt or Pat Martino. If they’re too difficult, try Lester Young or Miles on Kind of Blue, or Chet Baker. If all those are too hard, work on transcribing the melody of a standard.

Another option is to buy a book of études that comes with a CD of them being performed, and transcribe the etudes from the CD! Unlike actual solos, which often have easy passages followed by wildly difficult passages, études tend to be written with a consistent level from beginning to end. That makes the transcribing process very efficient for learning.

Pick a solo you like and transcribe at least 16 measures. Then play along. with it. Post it. 

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