Transcription: Expand Your Skills Using Just Your Ears

If you’ve ever wanted to learn how your musical heroes do the amazing things they do, then fear not!

Headphones on music sheet

If you’ve ever wanted to learn how your musical heroes do the amazing things they do, then fear not! There is a way. It just requires you to listen. If there is one thing that, more than scale drills, technique books, or workshops, makes the biggest difference in improvement as a musician, it would be transcription: the art of learning by ear.

With transcription, you use your ears to absorb, process, and integrate every nuance of your chosen piece’s sound. Just as a baby imitates the sounds of its parents to learn to speak, you can imitate the sound of Joe Dart to learn to groove. HARD.

Wait a tick, we hear you say. Imitate?? Isn’t that just a fancy way of saying “steal”?

Yes, it is. And it is totally worth it.

As much as we as creatives vie for that elusive goal of originality, we have to acknowledge that part of the building blocks of our art is coming from past works, from inspirational musicians. Whether that was a famous player or your dad, there is at least someone whose playing influenced yours.

Transcription weaponises this, turns it into an engine for your creation. With it, you can:

  1. Get the sound of your heroes
  2. Grow your personal musical lickbag
  3. Improve your ears

In short, transcription is you stealing from the greats, to make yourself great. What you need, aside from a copy of your song, is not much. If your song is on YouTube, you can take advantage of the Playback Speed option to slow it down by 75-25%.

In terms of specialised software, there is also The Amazing Slow Downer app on mobile or desktop. In addition to changing speed, it can change pitch, set up precise loops, and saves all of your work for later access. You can EQ your imported tracks to enhance the bass or top end in order to better hear the parts you want, and you can even import your Spotify playlists to work on. Plus, the full version costs less than your last Deliveroo order.

This is probably the part where you’re wondering if you also might need your instrument. And you’d be wrong. You don’t need it yet at least. You see, the dirty little secret to absorbing and 100% nailing the sound of your transcription is this: you have to sing it first.

But what if you’re not a singer? Well, you don’t have to be (as any surviving DVD copies of a certain secondary school’s production of Grease will readily show. Someday they will all be found. And burned).

This isn’t about having a great voice, rather it’s about getting intimately familiar with every pitch, rhythm and trick in the song. You do this by listening and singing. This engages your ears in a focused way; it internalises the sound beyond what reading tab or sheet music can ever do.

So, your first task is this: you isolate one short section (pick a single phrase or line that’s in your vocal range) and you listen. Listen as many times as you can, and then start to sing along. You should start it at 50% of full speed, or even slower if it’s a fast line. You are aiming for as close as you can to perfection in rhythm and pitch, so the rule of thumb is:
-If you can’t do it, slow it down and try again-

Pinky promise, the start is the hardest part. It gets easier as your ears get used to the sound.

If any parts are out of your range, try singing up or down an octave. Once you nail it at a certain speed, then increase it by about 5% and try again, until you can do it at the original speed. This will take time and patience. You will know you’re done when you can shut off the recording and confidently sing that lick from memory.

Now you can take out your instrument and try to play it, using the same method outlined above. You will be amazed at how familiar it will feel, just by having it in your ears. But if you do have trouble transferring it to your instrument, just sing it again and copy the sound.

Title: Jemma Heigis and Lucia Sarmiento’s transcription of Jeff Coffin’s solo onI Remember”

You can learn to do this too, and it will kick your musicianship up a notch!


Written by Richard NG

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