1. Lose the instrument
You’ll develop your ears and confidence by not relying on an instrument while transcribing. After doing this for a while you’ll realise that the instrument is really just a crutch, you don’t need to check every note once you start trusting your ears. Consider the process of transcribing with the help of a piano:
a) You listen to the note/notes you’re about to transcribe.
b) You sing or hum the notes while pausing the music.
c) You find the notes on your instrument.
This last step is NOT the most important one even though it might look vital at a first glance. What you’re really doing is comparing the notes you play with what you already hear in your head since you can hum or sing them.
In other words, your instrument is only there as an afterthought, you’re not using it to find the notes only to check what you obviously already can hear. It’s more of a bad habit than anything else and once you start gaining some confidence in your ears it will open up a lot of things musically.
2. Only transcribe music that you love
This might sound obvious but it’s a thing that I overlooked when I started getting serious about transcribing.
I have a tendency to go a bit overboard with everything I do and transcribing music is no exception. Instead of focusing on the parts of a piece that I really loved I’d always start from the beginning regardless of whether the only part I liked were 2 minutes in and maybe lasted for 8 bars.
I sometimes pushed through the sections that I didn’t enjoy until I got to the good parts, but most often my motivation would dry up long before even getting to the music that interested me in the first place.
What I do now and highly recommend is to go straight to the part you love, don’t feel that you have to start from the beginning or transcribe the whole thing. Focus on what you love.
3. Stick to pieces you already have the score for at first
Having the score as a way to check your transcriptions is invaluable when you’re just starting out as well as when you have more experience.
I still do this and will probably keep doing it for the rest of my musical life since the real learning takes place when you correct your mistakes.
Don’t feel that you exclusively should transcribe stuff you already have the music for though, most film music isn’t available for purchase and the only way is to transcribe it yourself.
The more you’ve done the transcribe/correct-with-score method the easier and more accurate your “free” transcriptions will be though.
Mike Verta is also a big proponent of this method and I can't really give a better example than that, just listen to the guys incredible writing.
When I transcribe a melody for instance, I listen to the first phrase and then pause the recording and try to sing it back out loud.
My mind works sort of like a recorder and I transcribe more from my own memory and singing than from the actual recording.
When singing back the phrase it sort of clears the fog and reveals the framework of the music and it’s usually relatively simple to visualize and notate the phrase.
5. Learn Solfege
Solfege will help you in everything you do in music and especially when transcribing without an instrument. Check out my tutorial here for more details.
6. Use your fingers for easier notation of rhythms
It’s very helpful to tap your fingers while you sing the phrase out loud. For example:
In 4/4 I tap my fingers in a 1-2-3-4 sequence where my index finger is 1, long finger 2 and so on.
Find the downbeat right before the phrase you’re trying to figure out and start tapping with your index finger.
Sing back the phrase while looking at your fingers and you’ll much easier find where in the bar the phrase starts and also how many notes there are between each beat.
Which fingers you use doesn’t really matter, the important thing is that you know by looking at them where you are rhythmically,
7. Try to hear in phrases rather than individual notes
Music is about context and if you only go note by note it’s easy to lose the context and actually make it more difficult to hear than it should be.
Listen to the overall arc of the passage first and ideally learn to sing the whole section to get an overview.
Then try to transcribe in groups of 3 or 4 notes at a time. When you start getting more detailed, it’s much easier to recognize familiar scale fragments and arpeggios when you give yourself a few notes to work with.
Another drawback to the note by note approach is that it’s impossible to perceive and notate rhythms this way.
If you’re really stuck in a melodic passage you can use the note by note method, but that should be a tool for special situations.
Once you figure out the pair of notes that tripped you up, try incorporating them in a larger group so the next time something similar comes up you’re more likely to get it right away.
8. Listen at a low volume
Listening at a lower volume usually makes it easier to hear certain details and more importantly, you don’t tire out your ears/mind as easily.
If you have trouble hearing a certain passage try it at different volumes (not too loud though obviously).
It’s still surprising to me how certain things jump out really clearly at one volume, and is almost impossible to hear at another.
I always use headphones while transcribing and highly recommend it.
9. Set a clear goal before starting
Decide before you begin exactly how many bars of music you will transcribe, and set it pretty low for your first few transcriptions.
I still don’t transcribe more than maybe 8 bars per transcription. It’s important for my motivation that I have the end in sight.
If I’m really into a complete piece of music I divide it up into smaller transcription projects so that I can feel good about the process at each milestone.
10. Work in 20 minute bursts
Whether you use an instrument or not, transcribing is very taxing mentally and it helps to limit each session to around 15-30 minutes.
I've found that 20 minute intervals works the best for me. I set a timer for 20 minutes and as soon as it beeps I get up and do some push-ups or other physical exercise.
After around 2-3 minutes I go back and do another 20 minute session. I usually repeat this around 6 times before taking a longer break. I’ve found that this helps me focus for much longer than if I’d sit on my butt for 2 hours straight.
I use this method for almost everything I do, from composing to writing and of course transcribing. It's also an effective way of keeping fit and full of energy even though having a very sedentary job.
11. Get this book
I've written about it on my resources page and can't recommend it enough if you're serious about transcribing.
Since I'm obviously the worst counter in the world let's finish this up with one final tip:
12. Make your own version
To really internalize what you’ve just transcribed you can (and should) make your own version/variation of what you’ve just learned.
This is something that you can do with anything you transcribe, from a short lick to a full blown orchestral piece. By making your own variation you’ll gain a much deeper understanding of not only that particular piece, but any piece that’s built in a similar way.
More importantly you have an effective way to actually internalize and be able to use what you’ve spent your valuable time on.
Try it out right away
Since transcribing is such a vast topic and I keep learning more about it almost every day I’ll expand on this with later posts.
For now I’d suggest the following two steps:
a) Find a piece you love
b) Try out my advice from this article, and apply Bruce Lee’s philosophy: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
The important thing is that you start right now, don’t procrastinate on this, it’s too important.
Any questions or comments are welcome below or through my contact page.