Before You Transcribe or Learn Tunes…

Learn tunes. Transcribe solos. The instructions for aspiring jazz musicians are pretty much the same everywhere you go. You want to play longer lines and master tricky chord progressions? “Learn tunes and transcribe solos.” Need more technique and better ears? You get the idea…

We receive this advice from our teachers, friends, and from our musical heroes in master classes and interviews. Hearing these instructions repeatedly, we try to shape our practice sessions around these four words. It’s good advice, but how exactly do you transcribe and what is the best method to learning tunes?

As I started out with these instructions myself, I immediately went out and got a real book and some books of transcribed solos and got to work on becoming a jazz star. The only problem is that how you go about these tasks is gravely important. My idea of transcribing solos and learning tunes was not exactly accurate and this led to years of frustration.

Along with knowing that we should transcribe and learn tunes, we need some instruction on how to achieve these tasks and what skills are involved. Before you rush into the practice room with these words fresh in your mind, take a second to think about how you are going to go about completing these two tasks and more importantly, why you are transcribing and learning tunes in the first place.

Before you learn tunes

Make sure you’re clear on what “knowing” a tune actually entails. Do you have the notes of the melody and the order of the chord changes memorized, or are you able to sing the melody, truly hear the chord changes, and navigate the intricacies of the progression?

Keep in mind that simply memorizing a group of chord names or the notes of a melody from a page won’t guarantee that you’ll remember a tune on the bandstand and certainly doesn’t mean that you will create a great solo over the chord progression.

When you have listened to a tune repeatedly, can sing every note of the melody exactly, can hear the chord progressions going by, and have worked on the nuances of the chord progression – then you know that tune. Aim to learn every tune in this fashion. Instead of having a bunch of tunes that you kind of know, you’ll have a repertoire that you know inside and out – and this will help you learn any other tune in the future.

You’ve probably heard the idea that less is more. When it come to learning tunes this couldn’t be more true. Part of the reason that so many people skim over tunes instead of taking the time to learn them completely is that when we first begin we are overwhelmed with the amount of tunes in the Great American Songbook. Before we even learn one tune, we have a list of five other tunes that we are worried about learning at the same time.

Learning tunes is a project that lasts a lifetime. There will always be more tunes to learn and you’ll be continually expanding your repertoire. The cool thing is that most of these tunes are related and if you immerse yourself in one, there is a ton of carry over to every other tune you go to learn.

Before you transcribe

Know what transcribing actually means for jazz musicians and ultimately, what you want to get out of the process. For many, transcription means writing down a solo note by note on a piece of paper. This is how transcription is done in many educational settings, but this is not how the majority of great improvisers are learning the music.

We transcribe to learn the jazz language. The process of transcribing is very similar to the way we would learn any other language. We listen to the language being spoken by native speakers, we acquire simple phrases, we learn vocabulary, we practice pronunciation,we learn how to articulate this new style, and eventually we learn how to create our own sentences, communicating effortlessly in this new language.

If you approach transcribing in this manner, it will be very clear how to go about this process. You aren’t going to learn a language by analyzing it on a piece of paper, you need to hear it and try to speak it for yourself. So, as you go to transcribe a solo, listen to each phrase and repeat it on your instrument. In this way you’ll be speaking the language before you write it down, making it your own from the start.

It all starts with the ear

The most important skill you can have for learning tunes or transcribing solos is the ability to figure out things by ear: intervals, lines, melodies, chord qualities and progressions by ear. Develop great ears.

To learn something by ear you need to be able to hear intervals and melodic lines. As beginners, our ears are very inexperienced and in this condition, it’s a long and frustrating process to learn anything by ear. For example, an inexperienced musician may have trouble hearing or singing a perfect fourth, but is trying to transcribe a Coltrane solo by ear. Something is not right with this picture.

Utilize some ear training exercises to get your ears up to speed. For instance, if you haven’t worked on ear training and are having trouble hearing phrases, start by identifying intervals and then move on to groups of three notes. Before you know it you’ll be hearing and singing entire phrases, that at one time seemed impossible, with ease.

Eventually, the more tunes that you learn by ear and the more solos that you transcribe, the easier it will get because your ears improve each time. The key is to get over that initial barrier and learn that first tune by ear.

For hearing the chord changes of tunes, you first need to work on hearing chord quality. Start by identifying triad types then move onto seventh chords. Once that you can hear any chord type, work on hearing the movement between chords. With these few simple exercises, hearing any chord progression will become much easier.

Listening and singing before you play

Just like ear training, in repertoire building and transcription, listening repeatedly to something that you’re trying to learn and singing it before you figure out the notes is crucial to your success in. When you are first learning something, you want to be totally immersed in it. Listen to that tune or solo over and over until you can sing it without thinking about it. If you do this step before anything that you are learning by ear, it will be surprisingly simple.

Instead of sitting down with a record and trying to figure out the notes of a solo randomly with your instrument, make sure that you are hearing the lines before you try to figure them out. If you can sing the line that you are hearing, you’re not only ingraining the solo, but you are strengthening the connection between your ears and your instrument.

To become a successful improviser you need to transcribe your favorite players and learn tunes. There is no escaping that fact, but how you go about these necessary practices is crucial. Writing down a solo note by note without first learning to it aurally on your instrument will be significantly less valuable. Learning a tune from a page out of the fake book without hearing it is a going to be a waste of time.

However, if you know the correct way to transcribe and learn tunes, you’ll save time and improve rapidly. It’s not that you are learning tunes or transcribing, but how you are doing this that will make all the difference. Without listening, singing, and involving your ears, transcribing and learning tunes is pretty useless. So before you follow everyone’s advice and learn your next tune or transcribe another solo, think twice about what this really means.