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Friday, May 7, 2010

Effective Solo Transcription

Why Transcribe?

Depending on who you talk to, solo transcriptions are either an extremely effective tool or a total waste of time for persons trying to learn to improvise. It's always been my opinion that the latter is the opinion of those people who either tried to transcribe and failed to do so effectively or those who developed the skills sharpened through solo transcription by exercising in other ways. To that end, I put forth the following things to remember to help you ensure that transcriptions speed your development as a jazz improvisor:
  1. Transcriptions are a tool for developing aural skills.
    Much of the skill set honed through solo transcription comprises the musician's ability to convert tonal relationships (melodic modules) from concept into practice (physically realizing the notes by playing them on an instrument). This style of learning is the same way you learned how to form words as a child.
    Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
  2. Transcriptions are a tool for developing vocabulary.
    A phrase in a solo, like a sentence in a conversation, is made up of small pieces which can be pieced together in a variety of ways to produce similar but unique ideas. Transcriptions are a way to learn phrases, but more importantly they help you learn the building blocks from which to construct your own ideas.
    Jazz is a language. Learn the words before you try to express your ideas.
  3. Transcriptions are a tool for developing technique.
    How many times have you complained to yourself and others that you can't stand working out of the same old method books? Transcriptions (your own and those done by others like you) offer a wealth of new material to challenge you technically. Make sure to use traditional practice techniques when trying to absorb new material in this manner-work slowly if necessary, articulate carefully, and break difficult passages out for special attention.
    The metronome is your friend.

Addressing the Elements of Style

Just as in spoken communication, emotion is conveyed more through inflection than vocabulary. In order to understand the elements of a solo which convery the most emotion, then, you must pay careful attention to the less tangible parts of the solo -- inflection, tone, and articulation. Articulation is especially important to notate in helping you deal with technically difficult passages. I've often found that I had to go back to a recording and precisely notate the articulation of particular passages in order to be able to play them at all! In simpler passages, articulation is often a subtle and individual way of making a phrase unique to the performer. Tone and inflection seldom lend themselves to traditional notation, so you need to pay special attention to these elements as you listen to the original recording and find ways to incorporate them into your learning process. In the final analysis, anything you notate will be useful in the learning process; find ways around the limitations of traditional notation to indicate items of special interest to you.

Solving Common Transcription Problems

The problems which crop up in the process of transcribing a solo are usually the result of undeveloped aural skills and practice strategies (but that's why you're doing it, right?) -- here are some of the most common problems which crop up.

Transcribing the solo is taking way too long!

Well, who ever said it would be easy? Seriously, the transcription process gets faster and faster the more you do. It's really noticeable when you're transcribing a number of solos by the same musician, because people tend to use similar vocabulary between solos. Be patient, do one or two more, and see how it pays off!

I can't figure out the rhythm in this passage.

In most cases, you can solve this by eliminating the pitches from the passage and just sing or tap out the rhythm while counting. If you can't sing the rhythm, you haven't learned the phrase. And don't forget the basic tenet of reading rhythm: when in doubt, subdivide. Finally, don't get hung up on one section of a transcription. Count out the measures in question, leave them blank, and continue with the rest of the transcription-you can take care of the pieces later.

I can't hear the notes in this passage.

There are a number of techniques for handling this type of problem. One is to get a tape machine with a half-speed control on it and slow the recording down until you can make out the line. My preferred method is to skip ahead to the next section of the phrase where I can hear the notes and work my way backwards in small jumps of 2-4 notes. Eventually the two sections of the phrase have to meet, and voila!-you've figured out the notes. Make sure to concentrate on this phrase when practicing and proofreading your work, as the difficulty you've encountered illuminates a deficiency in your aural skills that you can help correct by absorbing the passage into your vocabulary.

I don't know how to notate a rhythm in this phrase.

If the rhythm is hard to notate because it's played loosely, then notate it in a more conventional way and indicate on the transcription that the phrase is to be played loosely.


Transcribing isn't for everyone, but it's been my experience that most musicians who have tried it have gained insight into the way their favorite jazz musicians craft solos. If you haven't tried it, do so! If you have, and gave up due to frustration, try again with an easier solo and work your way forward.


  1. This is a great post! May I ask permission to repost this in my blog?


    1. Sure, with attribution, please. Thanks.