How often do you attentively listen to music, free from distraction, absorbing what it has to offer? As a student or beyond, your musical “to-do” list can fill up quickly.
Scales, etudes, long-tones, repertoire, and exercises to build technique can all contribute to your practice routine. They are useful and important, but I want to focus on an often-overlooked part of one’s development as a musician: careful listening and transcribing. In classical music, transcribing can simply mean writing out a piece of music for an instrument for which it was not originally written. Among composers and jazz musicians, however, it also means listening to a recording or performance and notating it “by ear.”
There are three main reasons to transcribe (in addition to the fact that for some people, it’s a lot of fun):
1. It develops your overall musicianship, and if you play what you transcribe, it also helps you gain proficiency on your instrument.
Most conservatories have some sort of required coursework containing “ear training” or “dictation” where a student must write down a melody or harmony played by a teacher. Transcribing will give you an advantage in these courses, and may even enable you to test out of them.
2. Transcribing can be a source of income. From composers to music publishers to academic institutions, there is often demand for individuals with the patience and skill to do transcriptions.
- Books of transcriptions (these are common in the jazz, pop, and rock worlds);
- Teachers who need music notated for research or coursework;
- Arrangers who need an original recording notated but are too busy to do it themselves.
In many cases transcribing can also make you more attractive as a private teacher, since you can write out the music to anything the student may want to study.
3. Most importantly, transcribing gives you a deeper understanding of the music you like, allowing you to better develop and articulate your own musical identity. To a certain extent, this can be accomplished by listening without writing anything down. However, the process of writing things out will help focus your ears and force you to think about how the music fits together.
This is a vital part of your musical development, whether you’re a composer, a singer/songwriter, a jazz musician, a performer in classical ensembles, or all of the above.
It is easy to get caught up in endless practicing, rehearsing, studying, and performing. Take some time to really soak up and understand the music that matters to you.
If you haven’t done much transcribing, it can seem daunting, particularly if you’re still developing your knowledge of theory and your ability to read music. At first, the key is to find music that is not too difficult. Try taking a melody you know by heart (it doesn’t matter what genre or style) and can easily sing. Write down the melody. Or, if you want to make it even easier, write out a rhythmic pattern or drum part to a song you like. Don’t worry too much about accuracy. It’s much more important to develop your ears and move through the whole selection than to spend a lot of time picking over the details of a single passage.
From here, you simply transcribe things of increasing difficulty and complexity. While it is best to begin with the most prominent voice or instrument, eventually you will be able to transcribe accompanying parts as well.
As you progress, you can employ several strategies to help the process go more smoothly:
1. Have a very clear idea of what you want to transcribe. Is it a whole piece, a solo passage, a section from a larger work, or just a few measures that interest you? Determine the length, meter, key, and instrumentation and write them down. This will allow you to create a template (either with manuscript paper or in digital notation software) that you can simply fill in with the material you transcribe.
2. When it comes to writing out the actual notes, if the passage is difficult, first focus on the rhythm. Write it down and fill in the pitches later (this is very easy to do using notation software). Keep in mind that in most genres (but particularly in jazz), portions of the music are improvised, interpreted freely, or were otherwise never notated. This means that you are trying to record and approximate something that happened spontaneously. Opt for clarity in your notation rather than literal accuracy. And be aware that it may be better to set aside something frustrating and work on an easier project until your ears have improved. Something that will cause you hours of headaches today may take you 30 minutes six months from now.
Any amount of regular, attentive transcribing will help you immensely, regardless of your background. It will make you a better composer, listener, arranger, and ensemble player. Find some time in your routine ‚ even 5 or 10 minutes a day makes a difference‚ to carefully absorb and write down the music that moves you.