These days, more and more opportunities for musicians require the ability to learn songs without using sheet music; your friend might send you an MP3 of a song they wrote, or your band will want to play a new pop tune that’s on Youtube. To learn these songs, you’ll need to transcribe them yourself. So what is transcription?
Be sure to check out my first article on transcription: Chart to Win Part 1: Why You Should Learn Transcription
"transcription |tranˈskrip sh ən|
This definition of transcription is correct, but misleading. It might make you imagine musical notes on a stave, guitar tabs, or maybe lyrics with chords written above them. These are examples of the final product of the transcription process: the music written on the page. But the most important part of transcription happens before we ever put pen to paper, in our mind’s ear. You have to be able to both reproduce and analyze a piece of music before you can write it down. These two aspects, reproduction and analysis, are the fundamental parts of transcription.
Aspect 1: Reproduction
The first aspect of transcription is to reproduce the sounds you are hearing using your voice, instrument, and even your feet and hands for rhythms. For beginning players, the process of using trial and error to figure out how to reproduce what they are hearing is extremely important to developing a trained ear. There are only 12 notes so there’s no excuse for not simply trying them all until you find one that sounds good! (For more on learning by ear, see my previous blog post, Listen Up! Practicing With Your Ears)
Of course, once you can reproduce the melody or a bassline with a few correct notes or chords, you’re playing the song! So are we done? We’ll not quite, because we haven’t yet memorized it and we have to memorize it because we haven’t yet written it down!
Aspect 2: Analysis
At this point it may seem like the easiest way to memorize the music is to simply play it over and over again. For beginning players, this may in fact be the best option so they can focus on building comfort with their instrument and their technique. However, as I described in my first article on transcription it’s much more efficient in the long run to continue the process of transcription by also analyzing the sounds you are reproducing.
This analysis is the second aspect of transcription; looking for patterns and structure in the sounds we are making and hearing that we can categorize and describe in shorthand. Instead of having to remember to play the notes A, C#, E and G# in unison, we can just remember to play and A major chord. Instead of memorizing 56 bars of chords in a song we could learn just three, 8-bar chord progressions and repeat them in a typical order of a pop song. When we start analyzing songs in this way, we quickly find that most songs have more similarities than differences. The patterns and structures we learn in one song can be applied to many others as well.
When we understand these patterns we can write them down using whatever method we want: chord and lyric charts, tablature, notes on a stave, etc. Learning the symbols is easy and can always be looked up in a book. It’s the skills of reproduction and analysis that allow us to understand what those symbols represent. Writing down these symbols completes the process of transcription. We are left not only with a written record of the song we learned, but also the many benefits of transcription including ear training, stronger memorization and understanding of music.
As you improve as a musician the analytical skills and reproductive skills you have learned by transcribing music will allow you to create a chart of a song in your head even
In the following post I will outline a method of transcription that combines both the reproduction and analysis aspects of transcription into specific step-by-step process you can use on any song. Stay tuned!
Eric is a musician, audio engineer, educator, and radio nerd based in Seattle, WA.