Learning from ear and transcribing

January 28, 2020, 12:58 AM · Hi all,
reading another post I wondered what are the advantages of transcribing songs that I learn to play by ear.

I am trained in classic violin (amateur level) and now play in a band and also discovering jazz and folk music. I never really learned playing music by memory. Wasn't good at it and it took a lot of time. But now I have to learn songs by ear and so I have to memorize them also. The more I do this, the easier it gets. Now I also start to learn every classical piece by memory from the first moment. And now I think it gives so much freedom! (okay, many people said this before, but sometimes you just have to experience it yourself to become a true beleiver, right?)

But now I read from a lot of people that it is good to transcribe the songs or solo's that you learn by ear. Does this really gives an extra advantage (besides that if you don't remember a part you don't have to figure it out again)? And if yes, how and why?

Do you transcribe everything you learn by ear?

Replies (14)

Edited: January 28, 2020, 4:25 PM · Why do it if they're probably already written? Just search.
Transcribing can help you memorize even better, the same way many school students write down summaries at home when studying for a test.
Edited: January 28, 2020, 6:35 AM · A very old skill indeed, a skill well worth learning. It's how folk music (and other music - think young Mozart and the Sistine Chapel) was collected and later published.

If you transcribe folk tunes you learn by ear in sessions it's quite likely that you'll be transcribing something that isn't quite the same as in the book. This is particularly so in the case of Irish tunes. See thesession.org for hundreds of examples.

January 28, 2020, 6:36 AM · Transcription is one of the most useful skills a musician can have, and I think conservatories severely handicap students by not teaching it. It's not *just* for pulling solos; it improves your musicianship in a myriad of ways and goes hand-in-hand with improvisation.

Good on you for taking the time to learn! It is frustratingly tedious at the beginning...

January 28, 2020, 10:09 AM · cotton - not sure what conservatory you went to but mine definitely required us to do transcription / dictation in theory class.

I think the main benefit of it is that it forces you to engage with the music in more detail / with more precision than learning it by ear - kind of how your perception of a word changes when you know how to spell it as opposed to only having heard it.

January 28, 2020, 10:47 AM · If you ever want to compose anything, it would be helpful practice.
January 28, 2020, 11:14 AM · When I first started transcribing I would do it with violin in hand. I found that in time I would relate the intervals to shapes on the fingerboard and to the interval on the staff. Later I would imagine my violin if it was not with me. Personally, I found playing by ear easier than playing by notes on a page. Transcription made me better at sight reading, both for rhythm and notes. For those better at sight reading, but not so good at ear playing, it is also the bridge but the other way. I would say it's essential training. An app like Anytune Pro makes it easier to loop or slow things down and it's not that hard if you do this. It strengthens playing by ear, rhythm, intervals, reading, makes memorizing easier and can make you relate what you hear/read to the fingerboard if you transcribe with violin in hand.
When I was doing my jazz post-grad we had Randy Brecker give a workshop. I remember the best advice from him was to transcribe not just solos and tunes but chord voicings also. Fantastic ear training. Everyone should do it!
Edited: January 28, 2020, 11:52 AM · I didn't go to conservatory, but when I was studying for grade 8 cello in the '50s I found I had to pass grade 5 theory as well. My cello teacher regularly gave me music dictation exercises as well as the regular theory. I don't remember music dictation as such coming up in the exam, but recognising intervals, chords, and cadences were there, so perhaps my teacher had been preparing me for possible higher theory levels.
January 28, 2020, 11:42 AM · I agree entirely with Cotton and Christopher. Transcribing improves your overall musicianship. I have this on good authority from a former piano teacher for whom I have the utmost respect. Yes, transcribing is very laborious. But so are many of the other things we do for the sake of our craft.

I'll tell you what I think would be a tremendous pedagogical contribution -- a guided course in transcribing. What's in Book 1? (Probably not Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner.) If you seriously want to improve your skill at transcribing, then I'll rope in David's comment here and say that a good starting point would be to transcribe stuff you can look up -- repertoire, not improvised solos (although many of those have been published too, but they're not on IMSLP). But definitely start by getting to at least a working level with the melody line before you try to do whole scores.

January 28, 2020, 2:51 PM · The act of writing something down (whether transcribing music or writing prose or poetry) helps to fix it in your memory. That said, I don't transcribe music that often, unless there's no score available or I'm doing my own arrangements. Exceptions are when the score is very hard to read or has impossible page turns, and once or twice I've transcribed a score to fiddle with time signatures to shift bar lines to align with phrasing. (The last movement (Badinerie) of Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 is an example of a piece that benefits from such treatment).

There are programs that can ease the burden. I like Lilypond, a free program available for Linux, Mac, and Windows. It takes a bit of study (there is lots of documentation available), but it's possible to reproduce any markings in a score.

Edited: January 28, 2020, 8:01 PM · In my case, transcribing pieces of music is to have a score for later reference for when I wanted to commit it to memory. learning 'by ear' has a few meanings to me; learning a simple tune 'on the fly' at a session, but then they become too numerous to even remember how just one of the tunes went. Another way is to replay a tune as many times needed to memorize, but this only worked well with quite short tunes.

When it came to the lengthy Hungarian Gypsy pieces I preferred to transcribe usually phrase by phrase or even shorter bits, depends on the difficulty, as I learnt each section by ear. By the time I reached the end of the piece I had forgotten how the beginning went, but I had it all written down in a score for later practice and commitment to memory. This saved many hours of 'replay again and again' which would have been quit tedious for those long pieces. Now I have several pieces commited to memory and still have many more transcriptions to choose from.

If there was a particular phrase or melody I needed to play note-for-note in the band I would learn it by ear and then transcribe because some time may lapse between renditions and thus I would have the transciption to refresh my memory if needed.

Transcribing may have improved my musicianship, but it certainly gave many tunes and pieces I other wise would not have found in publication.

Edited: January 29, 2020, 10:09 AM · Transcribing, melodic and rhythmic dictation, is a valuable skill for a musician doing anything outside of the mainstream, classical world. The starting point is interval recognition, which also helps memorization and intonation.
It is part of the "musicianship" course at the first year of any college music major. I did a lot of it as part of my ethnomusicolgy major. And I still do a lot of it when it is my turn to create an arrangement, and the only source material is a recording. In those days we used a tape recorder with a half-speed setting, which drops the notes down an octave. Now the digital technology allows you to slow down the tempo while Not changing the pitch. You will discover that a lot of commercial lead-sheets and piano reductions are not quite accurate with the vocal line rhythm. Important details like ornaments and bowings are glossed over in published "fiddle" books. One of the most impressive transcription collections was done by Bela Bartok, who did field recording with the first generation wax cylinders, then later did meticulous transcriptions in his studio, with special attention to the highly ornamented vocal lines from East Europe and Turkey, even North Africa.
January 29, 2020, 10:20 AM · Dictation, both melodic and harmonic, are staples of conservatory education. I taught them for years in aural skills classes. Chords progressions are not as hard as you might think after you learn the rules.
January 29, 2020, 10:02 PM · Chord progressions are not all that hard, but the specific voicings that are being used by many of today's jazz pianists are not so obvious. Not to me, at least.
Edited: January 31, 2020, 4:55 PM · "Now I also start to learn every classical piece by memory from the first moment"

OK for short pieces, but a lot of work if you are to memorize a 14 pages 2nd violin symphony part! I envy those who can memorize, I can't, totally hopeless in my case. I see the value, especially for Trad/Folk music where this is pretty much a must.


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