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Transcription: the hows and whys
by Darrin Koltow

Many musicians, on hearing how important it is to transcribe music, groan with despair. Maybe they've tried in the past to listen to a piece of music and record what they think is happening, but they get caught up by several problems: they can't hear the bass line, or the melody is too fast. Maybe they can pick out four notes from a particular harmony, but there's another note or two missing that makes the chord sound just right.

They'll spend a lot of time playing and replaying the same passage to get that one elusive sound, feeling like it's just about to reveal itself to them. They never get that sound, and they angrily turn off the tape player or CD, feeling defeated.

Using this approach produces some results and builds some skill in transcription, but is ultimately self-defeating. It misses the essence of the music, the smooth thread that winds throughout the piece, making sense of everything in its particular context. In missing this, the student using this method may end up physically exhausted and despairing of ever being able to understand and ultimately play what he or she hears.

This article offers one way of channeling that frustration into a way for you to get results from your transcription experiences. It talks about why to transcribe and how to transcribe.

Why Transcribe

Let's talk about goals for transcription. What are outcomes or results we can realistically expect from learning a song by listening to it, from playing by ear? What have been the results for musicians in the past, who made a habit of playing by ear?

There's little doubt that playing by ear makes you a better musician: you understand what's happening musically; you can communicate more effectively with fellow musicians; you know why a song sounds as good as it does. That's the root of it: transcribing is a way of finding out why music sounds as good as it does.

And that's a realistic goal for transcription, no matter what kind of music you play: to apply what you learn from listening to a song to make that song sound as good as possible. But here's what a lot of other music students use for a goal when they transcribe: their goal is to write or play exactly what is being played on the recording. The student who first begins transcribing with no prior experience in it hears a piece of music and attempts to duplicate each sound in it.

So, what's wrong with that?

What's wrong with that approach is that it doesn't produce music, at least not consistently. Beginning transcriptionists miss the real target, because they try to get into the music, and not into the heads of the recording's performers. The beginning transcriptionist unconsciously and naturally uses the following type of model for approaching transcription. We can call this the House Building model.

A master housebuilder builds a house, and it naturally comes out structurally sound and attractive and having all the basic things a house should have. This builder, besides having built hundreds of houses before, has had specialized training: he knows what materials to use, from whom to get those materials, what order to assemble those materials in, and what tools to use to assemble those materials.

Along comes a novice who wants to build a house just like the housebuilder. He's a smart and determined fella, and he's committed to building a great house. He's also got some money. With this money he buys the house just built by the master housebuilder. He then proceeds to take it apart, nail by nail, board by board, brick by brick. He makes detailed notes of everything he does. He takes his time; maybe it takes him months to disassemble the master builder's creation.

Finally, the house is fully disassembled. The novice has stacks and stacks of notes that he'll apply to rebuilding the house. He arranges his notes in some organized way, maybe by the date he made them, and starts to rebuild his house.

How do you think it will turn out? What's that house going to look like when it's done? How will the novice know when it's done? When there are no more nails to nail or posts to post? And here's a question to drive "home" the point this metaphor makes: would you feel safe living in the house the novice built?

What does all of this have to do with transcription? The student first learning to play by ear, with little or no prior training in music, is just like the novice housebuilder: the result he's unconsciously moving toward isn't a beautiful piece of music, such as what he's listening to. Instead, it's an uneven, unsteady, occasionally interesting collection of sounds.

Has the student learned something from this experience? You bet. Maybe he even enjoyed the process of listening and notating, listening and notating. The same was probably true of the novice housebuilder: he learned something about housebuilding using his disassembly method, and may have enjoyed himself immensely doing it. But in both cases, the result they wanted was not the result they achieved.

Enough about the ineffective ways of transcribing. Let's bring in some other options that do give us the result we want: music.

How to transcribe

Let's coin a new term here, to help us approach transcription in a way that's effective. The term is "cocomposing." You can see that a big part of that word is composing, and that's because a big part of this results-driven approach to transcription is composing.

When you decide to cocompose instead of transcribe a piece of music, you're approaching things from the standpoint of the piece's performers; in a sense, you're already thinking like a pro, not like a novice. In this role as a pro, your job has been reduced to a single, wonderfully simple - and enjoyable - task: take what you know about how music works, and make some more pretty music with it. And that's all you have to do to get results from "transcription."

Let's break down that task, and discover what we need to do to complete it. "Take what you know about how music works, and make some more pretty music with it." Since we're dealing with an existing piece of music, and not one we want to create from scratch, we modify the task to read this way: "Take what you know about how music works, combine it with the ideas the performers on the recording are feeding you, and make some more pretty music with it."

How does that sound? If it sounds like an engaging and rewarding way to play by ear, you're right. Let's get more specific, and list one possible set of steps that you can follow to cocompose a piece of music. Bear in mind, these steps reflect just one approach to cocomposition out of many:

Listen to the music.

Listen with your complete attention to the whole piece or song. Listen to it several times, without stopping it.

Go back, and listen to each individual phrase. Listen to where each cadence or rest point occurs, and where the following one begins.

Sing the melody.

The melody is like a thread that winds through the whole piece and ties it together. Once you know the melody, the remainder of cocomposing is just adding icing (harmonies) to the cake (the song).

Write your impressions.

Write what you feel about the entire piece, and what it's trying to communicate to you. For example: "This piece feels dark, somber, brooding." Or, "This song makes me think of two great beasts trying to rip each other apart."

Do the same for each phrase. Here are some examples:

  • That 3rd bar in Section B sounds like a key center shift.
  • That riff in the third phrase sounds like a restatement of something in the first phrase. Create other riffs based on that.

Ask key questions.

For each phrase, you're going to ask and answer questions like the following:

  • Where are the restful points?
  • How should we distinguish this phrase from the preceding one? Should we move to a minor key center that's a third up from this one? Maybe we should move to a key center that's a perfect fourth up.
  • For this rest point, what notes besides the melody does my voice gravitate to? Once you get two or more notes for a particular chord, you can begin intelligently fitting different chords to those notes.

Put chords to the melody. Give yourself several options.

Put the chords in a table like this:

Phrase no.

chord 1

chord 2

chord 3

chord 4

1

A7

D- or Fmaj

G7 or D-

Cmaj or A-

2

F or D-

B or G7

E7 or D7b5

A-

How do you choose chords to fit the melody? There are lots of approaches to this. Here are some simple ones.

  • Determine what key center the phrase is heading for. Then, make the phrase into a 6251 progression that fits that key.

    Example: in bar 4 of phrase 1, it feels like we're going to C major; that's what my voice gravitates to when I sing the phrase. So, I build a 6251 progression that will take me from A7 in the first bar to Cmaj in the last bar.
  • As Mark Levine explains so clearly in his Jazz Theory book, "think key, not chord." That is, fuss later over what the specific chord for a bar is. Just "rough" the chord in based on the key center. For example, treat A min7, C maj and E min7 all as viable options. All of these can have a tonic sound and they're all in C major.
  • Choose a chord based on the bass note or notes. If you can't hear the bass note, sing or play one that sounds good to you.

Take a break and do this:

  • Learn how music works. Among other possible avenues, that means reading theory, and reading sheet music. It also means memorizing songs. Your aim is to learn how songs are put together. Even though learning a song by reading it on paper doesn't build your ear the same way that cocomposing does, it does give you a sense of how music is put together - especially when you memorize the song. And the greater the variety of songs you memorize, the more options you give yourself to cocompose a new tune with.
  • Train your ear in another way where you can learn exactly what the performers are playing. Here are two ways to do this: book and CD transcription kits from music publishers like Hal Leonard or Alfred Music; and ear training software, like EarMaster or other titles.

Whether you use these steps or create your own, remember the key to successful transcription: you are not a soulless robot or drone whose only job is to record note for note what the performers are playing. You are a Composer, in partnership with the recording's performers, to compose more good music based on what's on the recording.

Let's return to the house building example, to show you how the novice builder finally got a house built that he could be proud of and that he could live in.

The novice got wise to his former way of building a house. It didn't look right. So he went to the master carpenter's house and interviewed him. He asked him how he could learn to build houses, and the master told him: become an apprentice house builder, read books about how houses are built, and take some carpentry classes.

The novice was a bit daunted at the idea of doing all this. But, since he loved building houses so much, he did all of the things the master carpenter had recommended. He helped many other people build houses, making many mistakes along the way -- but he had fun.

One day, he finally got around to building his own house. It didn't look exactly like the one the master carpenter had built. But it was just as functional, and at least as sturdy as the master's house. More important, it was even more beautiful and comfortable than the master's, because he had built it.

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