What is transcription and why is it important?
Transcription is the process of listening to a line or a lick from a record and then working out the notes and the rhythm using your ears.
Transcribing lines is one of the most effective ways to learn and to develop your ability to improvise and it’s an essential part of your study of jazz piano.
How will transcription help me to improvise?
Transcription is like taking private lessons with the masters of jazz piano.
The best thing about it, is that you can choose what you want to transcribe based on where you want to take your sound when you play jazz piano.
When you transcribe something by ear and then transpose it through a few different keys, you will never loose it. The notes and rhythm will be ingrained in you and you will always have that line at your disposal.
Now think if you transcribed 100 lines, you would have a huge amount of ‘jazz vocabulary’ at your disposal when you come to improvise.
This is a long process but a very valuable one for your playing and improvisation! Unfortunately, there is no ’secret’ or ‘magic bullet’ to improvising – just lots of hard work, practice and patience!
So how do I go about transcribing?
There’s a few very important rules with transcription:
- Firstly it’s vitally important that you know the chords and the changes to whatever it is you are transcribing. For this reason I would recommend that you pick a recording of a tune that we have covered in a jazz standard lesson.Knowing the chords gives you the context to analyze what you are hearing so that you can work out the line in terms of scale degrees, extension and alterations.
Then once you have this information, you then have the formula to transpose your line into all 12 keys and then use this information when you come to take a solo over a jazz standard
- Next I would recommend playing left hand voicings underneath the recording so that you can understand where the improvised notes are falling in relation to the chord changes.To do this, simply follow along using the chords written on the lead sheet.
- Finally when starting out with transcription, you should be not be trying to transcribe full solos. Just find a nice line or lick over a 251 progression and then transcribe and study this line in isolation.
Remember that 251s are the most common progression in jazz music and so transcribing lines over 251s will be the most useful for you as you can apply them to virtually every tune and jazz standard that you want to improvise over.
After you have transcribed the line, analyze it to really understand why the line works, and what’s making it sound jazzy… is it the notes? The rhythm? The syncopation? Or possibly all these things.? You should then transpose the line into at least a few different keys and preferably all 12 keys.
Should we write out and notate our transcriptions?
I always tell my students to transcribe just by ear and play along with the record.
Also try to learn it by memory so you can sing or hum it to yourself whilst away from the piano – when you can do this you will know that you have truly absorbed it!
The problem with writing it down is that a lot of the musicality is lost.
Imagine transcribing a spoken conversation with one of your good friends… of course you would be able to write down the words (i.e.. the notes) but you would find it very difficult to write down the way they speak (i.e.. their pronunciation, articulation and emphasis)
The same applies to jazz. The main reason we transcribe is to truly absorb the phrasing and articulation of our favourite players and by writing this down, it can be easy to neglect this bit and just focus on getting the right notes which is only half of the task!
By all means, once you can play a transcription along with the record perfectly, then maybe write it down in order to keep a safe copy. However remember that this is not the most important goal of transcription.