Transcription is the practice of converting sound (spoken language, music, noise, etc.) into a notated, written form. For this article, we'll only look at musical transcription though. Many music students look at transcription wearily as a laborious and painstaking process. While this may sometimes be the case, the benefits of actually hearing, decoding and writing out music does wonders for the ear, eye and mind in regards to music studies. This should be used in combination with regular music studies and requires basic knowledge of rhythm, pitch and music notation.
When I first started transcribing my favorite jazz tunes, I noticed that I could more easily recognize chord qualities and scale types after being able to put the sound together with the written form. While transcription can be done on virtually any instrument, I have found the piano to be the easiest physically, since you spend some time going back and forth between listening to the music and figuring out the exact notes. I'll go through a couple of easy steps that I use and explain how they relate to transcription overall.
- Size up the section you want to transcribe. While it's easy to want to transcribe a whole song or a whole solo, in the words of Count Basie, "Less is more." Figure out the parts of a recording that really stand out or the parts that you want to analyze. It's cool to hear a saxophone wailing over a blues scale, but if you know that it's a blues scale they are using, you're better off just playing the blues yourself! A portable CD player works best for listening, and as I mentioned before, piano is the instrument of choice (although whatever you are most comfortable playing is more realistic).
- Familiarize yourself with the sound. Once you know what it is you want to transcribe, take each individual section and get familiar with the sound. Try singing the part if it's a single-line instrument (saxophone, trumpet, trombone) and become familiar with the rhythm. If you want to, write out just the rhythmic aspect of the section you are transcribing, and worry about the pitches later. You could even mimic the sound on your instrument, trying to match the overall idea of the recording, even if it's not perfect, so that when you finally start writing it out, you are more confident of the overall structure
- Work from the outside in. Music is nothing more than a series of sound waves, and the human brain detects those sound waves of the highest and lowest frequencies with greater clarity. So for the purpose of transcribing anything with more than one pitch at a time (guitar, horn section, piano), work from the extreme parts of the sound, i.e. the lowest and highest notes, since they are the easiest to hear.
- Go to it! Once you are familiar with the section's rhythm and general pitch movement, start getting down to the nitty gritty. Start with just a few notes, go to your instrument and figure out the starting pitch of the section. Make sure it's the right octave and be careful that it's not an interval. (Often times, a pitch that is a 5th or a 4th apart from the note you are thinking of will sound very similar.) Now you've got to play leapfrog, going from note to note, figuring out the exact pitch. Make sure you have them in order and are not jumbling the pitches and rhythms. Even consider going from one note to the very next, and stopping the recording to figure everything out. This can take a fair amount of time at the beginning, but as you become familiar with the scales and structures being used, you'll find that it becomes increasingly easier and you can begin to transcribe more than one or two notes at a time.
- Transcribing chords. As mentioned in Step 3, it's easiest to transcribe chords from the outside in. For a piano playing a chord, for example, start with the highest note played in the chord. After listening to the recording, pause the CD and figure out the highest pitch being played. If you happen to have a chord chart for the song, refer to that and see what chord type is being played. For most conventional music, the upper structure of the chord is played in the higher register (the 9th, 11th, 13th, etc.), so typically the notes of the higher pitches fall into that category. Transcribing chords can be a repetitive process since you have to keep rewinding the recording to listen to the exact overall sound and referring back to the piano. So try to keep the notes that you have already figured out in your head or written down so you can continue to build upon them.
Hopefully this has been of some assistance or at least encouraged you to consider trying transcription. I know for myself it has been a wonderful learning tool in my musical development and should be a part of any serious musician's practice plan. Good luck!