Global Bass Online                                                                                December 2000

Home Up Outline Dec. 2000 Search Discuss this issue

Transcription Technique


GB Central
GB Station
GB Search
GB Archives

Transcription Techniques-Part 1

By: Lucas Pickford


In my last column, The Art Of Transcription, I discussed the basic principals that are involved in listening to a piece of recorded music and being able to reproduce what you are hearing onto your instrument and also onto paper in the form of written music. There are many benefits of becoming an adept transcriber. One of the most important benefits of transcription is that it enables you to learn directly from the masters via their recorded works. Whether you are transcribing a solo, a chord progression, a groove, or any other aspect of a song, you are getting the information directly from the source. Another important benefit is that being able to transcribe affords you the ability to play other people’s compositions or grooves in your own groups.

When you really like a song on a record, and there is no chart to give to the other guys in the band, being able to transcribe it accurately really helps. Not everyone in a band will have the time, the ability, or the will to transcribe the tunes that you want to play. You are able to rely on yourself for accurate charts of your favorite tunes. Another benefit of transcription comes from the fact that most bands do not have any written charts. Often times when you join a band or fill in as a substitute, you will receive a tape from the bandleader that will have between 15-20 songs on it. The bandleader is of course expecting that you will be able to learn these tunes to be able to play on the gig. Being able to make accurate lead sheets for yourself is invaluable come gig time which in many cases is the next night!

In this installment on transcription techniques I want to cover some specific ways in which you can approach a piece of music and a few tricks that you can use to make a difficult piece of music a little less daunting. Of course these techniques are not by any means the only way to transcribe something. Everyone has their own unique methods that they use. I offer these methods as one possible approach that you can take.


Tools You Will Need:

· Music paper

· Good mechanical pencil and eraser.

· A good half-speed tape deck.


Transcription Protocol:

1. Listening - I highly recommend listening to whatever you are going to be working on for at least three days in a row. You want to be able to sing along with the different rhythms and sections of the piece. You need to really internalize it. Listen to it closely as well as just putting it on in the background or in the car. Your subconscious will absorb quite a bit of information and you will probably be surprised by how much of the music will stay with you when it comes time to transcribe. When you are very familiar with the piece you will be ready to make a sketch of the form. By form, I mean the different sections in the song. This includes the intro, the A & B sections, the interludes, the codas etc.

2. Sketching The Form - Most songs in most styles have an introduction or an intro as we call it. In the intro, there are several important aspects of the tune that are usually revealed. Most of the time the meter and the key of the song are established. The basic ”feel“ or groove is usually set up in the introduction. A bass line is also often established in the intro and you should pay close attention to it. On a sheet of music paper sketch in how many bars the intro is. The next most likely section is the {A} section or theme. Pop songs and jazz songs sometimes have different forms. In pop tunes there is usually a verse section first then the chorus, which would be considered the theme or “hook” of a song. Becoming familiar with the different song styles and forms is very helpful. In either case, make a sketch of the length of the {A} section. Does it repeat the first 8 or 16 bars? Listen for repeating sections closely. Jot this information down. If any rhythmic kicks or accents jump out at you, which they should from your repeated listening, make a note of this as well. When we get into the nitty gritty of transcribing each measure you will address all the rhythms but for now just mark down things that really catch your attention. Do this with all the sections of the song including the ending or coda. When you have the entire form sketched from beginning to end you will be ready for the real work of transcribing.

3.Harmony - I find it easier to transcribe a solo or a melody when I know what the chords are. This is a really good place to start. If it is a standard type tune or blues, then listen for any alterations or substitutions the artist may have made. Artists rarely record something, even a blues, without putting their own stamp on the harmony. Here is where the ear training I talked about in my last column really pays off. You need to listen for the different chords types. Figure out if the song is in a minor key, a major key, or any key at all? Usually tunes are in some type of tonal center or key. Being familiar with common minor and major key chord progressions goes a long way here as well. Next listen for ll-V-I progressions and turnarounds. Also listen for any tonal or metric modulations.

If a chord sounds mysterious to you, try listening for just the bass note. Follow the root motion. Write that down. Is it possibly a chord in an inversion or a polychord? The bass note will really save you sometimes. It takes extra effort to hear a low bass note and using headphones or a Walkman that can boost the bass is helpful. Listen for the “color tones” such as the 11th, 13th, and 9th on the chords. Are there color tones being used on the melody? Take it one measure at a time and don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. It is very helpful to take regular breaks. By taking a break you will give your ear a chance reset itself. Don’t get stuck on one measure either. If you can’t get it move on. Just like a math test. Often times it will become apparent what the chord should be by what is surrounding it or it will pop up later in the song and you will get it at that point. After you successfully conquer the harmony of the piece you will be ready to move on to the melody.

4. Melodic Content - Interval recognition is the main tool that you will be using to transcribe the individual notes of a song or solo. Use the chord symbol as your guide. Long notes are easier to hear than fast moving notes. A good quality half-speed deck can slow down the music without distorting the pitch beyond recognition. Start by getting the first note. Listen to see if the melody moves up or down. It is important to use your knowledge of scales here. Melodies are often just permutations built off of the chord scale of the moment. Listen for guide tones such as the 3rd and 7th. Listen for any approach notes in the melody and determine if they are from above or below. If you can’t hear all the notes in a measure just jot down the notes that you do recognize. Sometimes it is like putting a puzzle together. You may find yourself working backwards in the measure sometimes. Fill in the notes around the one that you are missing and often it will become apparent what the right note should be. The more you transcribe, the faster you’ll be able to hear things.


5. Notating Rhythms Correctly - Wrong rhythms, like wrong notes, convey wrong ideas about the song. You need a solid knowledge of common rhythms. Both what they sound like and look like on paper. Depending on the meter, style, and tempo of the piece, you should be prepared to encounter common rhythms in that idiom. For example, if it is Latin tune you may want to notate everything in 2/4 or “cut time”. If it is a waltz then you know that the dotted quarter note is going to be used a lot. If it is a swing tune then eight notes are the order of the day and so on and so on. Use the drums to guide you when you’re trying to notate things. The drums are often accenting key rhythms even in solos. I use a technique in which I tap four fingers in succession and listen for what notes fall on what finger (beat).

Again, this can be a process of working backwards in the bar. If I know that there are four sixteenth notes on beat three then I can listen for what is happening right before that and right after that. Sometimes the rhythm of one beat will elude you. Lock onto a beat that you can recognize and work backwards. Be creative in how you listen. Find tricks that help you figure out what the rhythms are. As in transcribing melodic content, don’t get hung up on one measure. This is one of the biggest traps people fall into when they transcribe. It can be frustrating and make you feel like giving up the whole thing. Ask a drummer friend if he/she can help you with the rhythm. If you can’t get it move on and return to it later. One other possible way of approaching a transcription is to do what’s called a “rhythmic transcription”. This is just notating all the rhythms of a piece first then plugging in the notes afterwards. I have used this technique before with success and you should experiment with it.

In Part ll of Transcription Techniques I will be covering the final polishing aspects of a transcription such as the phrasing, dynamic markings, making corrections, and playing along with track. Until then, good luck!

Lucas Pickford can be reached at his web site ( where he has many transcriptions available for free or by e mail at




Home ] Up ]

Copyright © 2000-2009 Global Bass Online
Last modified: June 16, 2009