Don’t Suck at Music - Learn How to Transcribe
What makes a musician any good?
Some would say knowledge and others would say virtuosity. The ability to hear, to analyze what is happening in a song, and to respond naturally are some of the most practical skills that I developed as a musician.
This all starts with a process known as transcribing.
Much overlooked and sometimes feared, transcribing is a vital skill for any serious musician. It’s what got me my first paid gig and helped me interpret not just the notes on the page, but more importantly, the pathos of the song.
What is Transcribing?
Transcribing is figuring out what is going on in a piece of music.
It’s critically listening, analyzing, and writing down what you hear. It takes high-level focus, mastery of an instrument, and a thorough understanding of music theory.
There are three ways that you can transcribe as song:
- Aural: Less work—playing back what you hear on your instrument. Relies on memory. Easy to forget.
- Lead sheet: Shorthand—chords and arrangement of the song. Quick and useful on the go.
- Written notation: Deepest understanding—the piece written down, note for note. Fantastic learning process, most effective, but time-consuming.
Transcribing—Critical Skill in Your Arsenal
I got my first paid gig because of my ability to transcribe.
When I came down to Miami, my mission was to get a mentor and learn everything I could about the music business. Every day, I called all the studios and creative agencies in the area. It was my full-time job. I’d wake up every morning, grab some coffee, and then hit the phones.
I eventually got a hold of a studio owner who told me to “call back next week.” Lesson in persistence—when the following week approached he told me the same thing. This happened for months. I didn’t feel like he was blowing me off, just busy, so I kept calling back. Eventually I landed an interview and got an internship on the spot.
Soon after, a project came up that needed solo and rhythm guitar parts and bass lines of classic rock songs recorded. The tracks were part of a bigger platform intended to teach people how to play guitar, with real-time feedback. Needless to say, the parts had to be as accurate as humanly possible to the original recordings. No pressure. None at all.
Although I had never taken on a project of this caliber before, I knew that this was an opportunity to transition from a lowly intern to a professional. I told the studio owner that I played guitar and could record everything that he needed. That’s how I landed my first paid gig.
Why Don’t We Transcribe?
In the past, I didn’t transcribe because I was either lazy or intimidated by the process. I didn’t have enough skill and faith in my abilities to figure out a piece of music correctly.
An unwillingness to transcribe indicates a lack of ability or knowledge. I know because it was true for me. I relied on guitar tabs or written sheet music from professional sources, treating it as gospel. There are great resources out there but the information can often be incorrect and even conflicting.
My first exposure to transcribing, as for many others, was when I tried to play a part of the song from my favorites records. The problem was that I learned the music in the moment, but would forget it a few days later. This was partly due to my inexperience at the time, but it also has to do with learning solely by listening.
It’s much more effective to combine some type of notation, either a lead sheet or full score, with what you figure out by using your ears. It helps you commit the material to memory.
Why You Need To Transcribe
Learning how to transcribe unlocked my ears—I knew exactly what was happening in a song, how to interpret it, which gave me the confidence to trust what I heard. I also stopped relying on tabs or written music.
Developing your transcribing muscle will not only help you figure out other artist’s music, you’ll also nail down those ideas floating around in your mind.
Think about it—when you write music, you’re actually transcribing what you hear in your head.
How to Transcribe a Song
Transcribing is work. There’s no way around it. The only way to get better is to grab your instrument, listen, and try to play exactly what you hear on a recording.
Mastering the music fundamentals makes everything a 100 times easier. This might seem obvious, but I used to think that I didn’t need to know “music theory,” and that it was only for academics. Don’t be fooled. It’s a must if you want to get seriously skilled.
Skyrocket your transcribing by developing these skills:
Master Your Instrument
· If you play guitar or piano, master the fret-board and keys/notes.
· Master chords, inside and out: major, minor, inversions, and extensions.
· You should be able to identify them by ear: 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths.
How to Do It
The most practical way to transcribe is to figure out the musical content like the melody, chords, arrangement—then write a lead sheet. Creating it will solidify the parts in your memory. Many times, I was two steps ahead of my bandmates simply because I created the lead sheets for everyone.
Step 1. Write out the song structure: verse, chorus, bridge
· You need the road map of where you’re going
Step 2. Learn the Melody
· Be able to play it and sing it
Step 3. Learn the Chords
· Pay attention to voicings: inversions and extensions
Developing my transcribing abilities redefined how I view arrangement, inversions, and song structure. I analyzed details that I never even though about before, nuances with how the guitarist played the solo, was the line picked, the string bent, or the note slid into, just to name a few examples.
It was a lesson that seemingly simple songs are not always what they seem. Masterful construction can appear simple, but upon further analysis, the bulk of the iceberg hides below the surface.
Dig deep and really get in there to understand what is happening in the song that you love. Don’t just wing it—transcribe it!