It sounds crazy, but for years I didn’t understand what transcribing music meant. I heard it all the time in my musician circles and in school, but I think I was too afraid to ask what it really meant. It seemed like such a basic question, and because everyone talked about it, I just assumed I should know too.
I had ideas, but the term didn’t feel solidified — like when you use a word but feel guilty because you’re guessing at its meaning.
This is the blog I wish I would have had then.
We’ve got options when practicing.
When we go beyond the basics with an instrument and begin constructing our own practice routines based on our unique goals, we have a lot of options. You’ve got scales, arpeggios, scale analysis, rhythm work, memorizing songs, ear training, sight-reading, new techniques, patterns, licks, etc., etc.
And some of those are specific to a single genre and/or can be transposed across all 12 keys!
It’s just a lot, and it’s no wonder it can feel overwhelming. Building an effective practice routine is a skill in itself, and it’s easy to fall victim to practice paralysis — the state of feeling hopeless at all there is to learn and practice.
When we attach music to our sense of identity and purpose, this can be particularly painful. If you’ve ever had a frustrating practice session because you didn’t feel like what you were practicing was doing any good, felt a sense of existential despair, opened up Instagram, and had a bitter flash of envy when you see a peer or influencer destroying a solo, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
What to do when you feel a bit lost
When we don’t feel motivated to build out specific practice routines that fit our goals by highlighting our weaknesses and constructing sessions to speak to them (which is the best approach when executed correctly), it’s helpful to have something we can always rely on as a source of good practice. It may not be the best practice, but it’s better than half-assing a technical routine or repeating the same solo for weeks for no real reason.
That tried-and-true technique I’m referencing is transcription, and musicians have a complicated relationship with it. It seems like everyone knows that they should do it, but no one really talks about how to do it, and then, because it is so ubiquitous, it feels like teachers just assume their students are doing it, which leads to students not actually doing it.
Why does this happen? For two main reasons:
- Transcription is actually really simple.
- Musicians love to complicate it to extract an extra 10–20% of goodness from it.
We’ll start out with the simple definition. Then, I’ll nerd out a bit about the more complicated nature of transcription, a.k.a. ideal transcription.
What does it mean to transcribe music?
Transcribing music is actively learning songs and records by ear & then analyzing them by writing down the notes on staff paper.
That’s really it. I know. All of the other terms and techniques that surround the word “transcription” are just ways to get more out of the process of learning a record by ear. But that’s really it. If you sit down, learn the chords, learn a melody or phrase, write it down, and are able to play it back — congratulations, you’re transcribing.
That being said, I think many players as they progress don’t have to include writing down the solo or song on staff paper as part of this process, and some pro players wean themselves off of this as they progress.
This isn’t “transcription” exactly at this point because you’re not writing anything down, but players and teachers I’ve met talk about this process in the same way.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll call this process aural transcription, which may be an oxymoron but I think it gets the point across.
In other words, aural transcription involves the same careful analysis and memorization while thinking about the licks over the form, but they don’t sit down and write it out. Or perhaps they’ll learn it and then double-check their aural transcription against a written one that already exists.
Transcription is hands down the best bang for your buck in the practice room.
Transcription is the best all-around deal in the practice room. As master musician, after master musician, after master musician says, the best thing you can do is learn the songs that are played by the people you want to sound like. Many musicians across countless genres from jazz to rock didn’t sit down with a book on how to play their genre — they just threw on a record and went from there.
Why? Because it hits on so many elements of musicianship at once — rhythm, technique, phrasing, harmony — because it’s just learning to play the music!
So if you don’t know what to practice and are feeling a bit lost, do this for me:
- Put on whatever song is inspiring you at the moment.
- Pick out your favorite sections or licks.
- Learn them slowly and learn them well (a.k.a. Play the song as best as you possibly can. Don’t settle for mediocre).
- If you want to do traditional transcription, which is fantastic for harmony, then this is when you either write it down on staff paper OR double-check your memorization against a written transcription.
- Record yourself playing it and see if it sounds like the record. Repeat until it does.
- Try and pull out why you like it so much and how you can apply it in the future (this is where theory comes in handy).
This is basic transcription, and it will do more for you than just about anything else. Also, you don’t have to transcribe your own instrument — transcribe what motivates you. I play guitar, but I can’t get enough of Stan Getz.
The Perfect Transcription Model
So if that’s the basic way to transcribe, why is there all of this theory and noise around transcription?
Thorough transcription helps you frame what a musician is doing in harmonic, rhythmic, and musical context, which increases retention and makes what you transcribe go even further.
Learning a complicated lick is fun and can help with technique and rhythm, but if you have no idea where it can go musically, you may struggle to resurface that idea in your own compositions or improvisations.
For example, if you understand that a lick is over a 4 dominant seven chord, then you can plug that over any four dominant chords in the future, in any key.
With that in mind, here’s how to transcribe “perfectly”. This hits almost every major area of musicianship and will give you some of the best practice sessions of your life if you commit to it.
How to Transcribe Music like a Pro
#1 Learn the changes, perfectly.
You HAVE to know the chord changes — otherwise you don’t have context.
#2 Sing the melody or solo you want to learn so you internalize the pitches & rhythm.
To check yourself, sing the line(s) over the accompanying chords without the song.
#3 Write down, memorize, or read the section you want to learn.
The most efficient way to memorize the solo or melody is what’s best for you. If you are having trouble seeing where the line sits in the measures, then writing it out on staff paper can be useful, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. Most of the time memorizing while knowing where you are in the form is enough.
#4 Record yourself playing the solo until it sounds exactly how you want it.
Music is way more than pitches and exact rhythm. Get into the nuances. How are they making that sound? Are they leaning back on the beat? What gives it that extra “oomph” of musicality? Don’t settle until it sounds like the music you want to hear.
#5 Analyze each phrase.
Pay attention to what you like about the rhythm and the scale degrees used.
#6 Transpose your favorite licks or what you learned into a minimum of 3 keys.
Transpose it into the most useful keys and the keys you struggle with the most, and don’t forget to think about the chords as you do it.
#7 Apply what you just learned by writing 3 licks or writing a song that emulates the original.
Use similar rhythmic and melodic motifs to internalize what you learned.
— — —
The bottom line
Transcribing music this way is a lot of work, but this is the gold standard. If you did this and nothing else for years and focused exclusively on one genre, your progress would be fantastic.
I like to use transcribing as the foundation of what I practice, and then I build specific drills for areas I know I’m weak in (these are often identified during the transcription process itself). For example, I may learn a lick that walked up in sequences of 4ths that kicked my ass. That’s a sign that I could use some specific practicing around playing scales in 4ths.
P.S. This post was inspired in part by Mike, who writes at goodbyeruth.com — if you’re a guitarist interested in learning by ear, check it out.
— — —
I started a newsletter about practicing music better, and it would mean the world to me if you checked it out — plus I guarantee you will discover something that will change how you approach practicing forever.