Practicing transcription helps develop your ear, presents you with a big-picture view of the song you are learning and leads to a deeper understanding of music in general. There are many different approaches to transcription many of which involve intimidating chord charts and musical symbols. However, many professional musicians often use the simplest form of transcription: writing out chord charts.
As a young bassist, I would never write out charts for the songs I was learning. I thought that writing out charts for all three songs I had to learn for my next gig would take forever! I was going to memorize them anyway so why waste time writing them out? It wasn't until I played one of my first professional gigs that a more experienced band member convinced me to start transcribing songs. "I write out charts for every song I do," he told me. "Do it in pencil" he said, “so when they change the form or the key you don't have to cross things out."
I never forgot those words: "When they change the form." Not "if." I haven’t forgotten because I've been reminded of them on every gig and session I've ever done since. Even if you write out a tune exactly as it’s played on the record, something will always get changed during a rehearsal, or even during a gig! The singer will need the song in a different key, you'll add in a special ending, or your guitarist learned different chords than the rest of the band. That's why a pencil is the most important piece of equipment for musicians next to your instrument. Never leave home without it.
A pencil is the most important piece of equipment for musicians next to your instrument.
And that right there is the second most important reason to write out a chart; It gives you something to take notes on. Say you need to remember to add an extra measure onto the second verse of a tune and build into the chorus. What are you gonna do? Option 1: Cross your fingers and hope you still remember that after two more hours of rehearsal, much less at the gig four days from now. Option 2: Tell the whole band to wait while you search for a piece of paper and then write a long winded note to yourself explaining the change and where it comes in the song. Option that doesn’t get you fired: Make two quick scribbles on your chart to add the bar in, and get on with rehearsal!
But the most important reason to practice transcription is that it actually helps you learn songs faster!
By writing out a chord chart, you learn a song's structure on multiple levels: from the lowest level of the individual chords, the sequence of chords in each part, the order of parts in the song, up to the highest levels of key and time signature. Understanding a song on all these levels at once is what it means to "know" a song. There's also some neuroscience at play; The act of writing out a song as you learn it helps cement that memory into your brain.
The act of writing out a song as you learn it helps cement that memory into your brain.
My current band The Nines plays a total of 139 songs. I know exactly how many because I wrote a chart for every one of them. That’s a lot of charts to write, I know, but it's much faster to learn the songs that way. I never have to re-learn a song, because I can always look at the charts to refresh my memory. Occasionally, I will try to learn songs that I think are easy and skip writing out a chart for them. I am always surprised by how tricky even "easy" songs can be, and I always end up writing out charts for the songs I learn.
To learn to write chord charts, ask Eric! I'm also working on a blog post about transcription.
Eric is a musician, audio engineer, educator, and radio nerd based in Seattle, WA.