Transcribing is NOT Transcribing: How This Misnomer Has Led You Astray

Tran•scribe – transitive verb. A: to make a written copy of, B: to make a copy of (dictated or recorded matter) in longhand or on a machine, C: to paraphrase or summarize in writing, D: to represent (sound) by means of phonetic symbols

This is the definition I found for the word transcribe when I looked it up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary recently. I was curious to get to the bottom of what transcribing actually meant, a word that I had heard for years as I was learning to improvise.

Ever since I became interested in jazz, transcribing solos was continuously touted as the “secret” to learning improvisation. Jazz musicians and educators constantly talked about transcribing, but it seemed that there was a conflict in what was actually meant by the word transcribe, as well as the reason behind doing it.

Throughout the years I’ve met amazing improvisers that claimed they’ve never transcribed a solo and have come across others that say they’ve transcribed hundreds of solos. I’ve had teachers that didn’t write solos down, but had numerous solos memorized to the point where they could sing them without their instruments. On the other hand, I’ve encountered players that had dozens of solos written down, but didn’t seem to retain any of it or improve by doing so. So who is right and why are there so many discrepancies if everyone is “transcribing”?

Even though we may not always believe it, the words and language that we use, have a direct connection to the way we think and the actions that we carry out.

For me, transcribing initially meant turning on a record, figuring out a solo note by note, writing down each note, and finishing satisfied with a solo notated on a piece of paper. I had repeatedly heard the word transcribe from numerous sources and immediately thought of a process that culminated with a written product. Not too far fetched, in that to transcribe, as shown by the above definition, directly implies something that involves writing.

As I matured and began to seriously immerse myself into the music and study how the masters learned the music, I began to see that “transcribing” meant something much more extensive than the actual or implied definition of the word.

What do you want to achieve by transcribing?

Before you decide to transcribe, ask yourself why you are learning a particular solo and what you expect to get out of it:

  • Are you writing down a solo to steal a line?
  • Do you need a ii-V lick in F#?
  • Are you looking for something to play over the A section of Bb rhythm changes?
  • Do you need an “outside” lick to insert into your solos?
  • Are you transcribing as a quick way to become a great improviser?

These were all reasons that I gave myself for transcribing solos in the past. For years I’d been writing down solos and wondering why I wasn’t seeing improvement. After running into stumbling block after stumbling block, I’ve found that writing down one line from a solo and expecting drastic results, like the above reasons, is a huge misconception. The simple act of writing down a solo note for note or learning a lick in one key will not automatically make you a better jazz musician.

Yes, you can get information from a record by writing out a solo on paper, but in the long run you’re gaining very little compared to what is possible. Perhaps the question you should be asking yourself is: What do I plan to do once I have that line written out and how am I going to make it a part of my playing? The problem for me wasn’t that I was trying to learn solos, but the method in which I was getting the information and what I did with that information once I had it.

It’s not What you’re transcribing, but How you transcribe it

The one aspect of transcription that vastly improves your musicianship is the process of figuring out the solo by ear. Truly hearing the intervals, chords, and articulation of a solo and internalizing them. Instead of figuring out a line note by note and going directly to the paper, you should sing the line and play it on your instrument repeatedly.

Not only will you immediately begin to memorize the solo, but you’ll begin to improve your ears; learning to hear chord tones, progressions and intervals along the way. Essentially, developing a skill necessary to all improvisers: learning how to play what you’re hearing.

If learning by ear while transcribing is so beneficial, why aren’t more educators stressing this? Many times the focus of transcription in an educational setting is on the final written product. The goal of a transcription assignment being: to see what the masters are playing over the changes, to see how they’re navigating ii-V’s, to see what they do when they’re playing “outside,” etc.

All actions that involve visually interacting with the solo, seeing the notes written out on paper. While informative, this is merely a surface level analysis and understanding of the solo; you’ve got the solo written out, but can you play it?

Because of this mindset, we expect immediate results from writing out the solo and seeing it on a piece of paper, when, in reality, the true benefit comes through the process of learning that solo by ear. Ideally, educators should promote transcription as a way to develop your ears, a sure way to hear chord progressions, a method to learn how to articulate, the best way to quickly memorize tunes, etc. By knowing the benefits of transcription before you start, you’ll get much more out of the process.

Through my own trial and error, I have realized that, aside from the benefit of ear training, the single most important reason to transcribe is to learn the jazz language, from it’s structure and phrases to it’s inflection and articulation. Hear it, imitate it, internalize it, and eventually innovate upon it. We commonly refer to this process as “transcription,” but the painful irony is that all of the above steps don’t involve writing – not even a single pen stroke. So why call it transcribing?

How do you learn a language?

Think about how you learned to speak. When you initially learned a language, you didn’t write it down or read it from a piece of paper. We learned by hearing phonetic syllables slowly, repeating them, expanding them into words, and eventually expressing ourselves through this medium of spoken syllables. In short, taking in information through our ears and recreating it with our voices. Gradually we mastered this technique and were able to create our own phrases and communicate with this language. It’s not until we’re already speaking it fluently, that we see this language written down.

Learning the jazz language should be approached in the same way. Jazz is essentially a second language that you are learning to improvise with. The most effective way to learn a new language, whether it’s a musical language or a spoken one, is to listen to it and repeat it. Say you are trying to learn some phrases in French, you have the instructional CD’s and are listening intently to each word and phrase. When you hear the spoken words from the recording, are you going to write down the words before you try to speak them, coming back later to try to recreate the phrases from the piece of paper? Absolutely not.

This is equivalent to “transcribing,”writing down a solo note for note and then playing it from the piece of paper. The information we are seeking is in the sound and our task is to develop our technique to recreate that sound.

Create your own vocabulary

When you write down a solo before you’ve got it memorized, it can feel like it’s set in stone. Once we see that line on a piece of paper, we are less likely to deviate from it. Transcribing should be a process that stokes the fires of our creativity rather than a process that limits our options. By learning and internalizing a solo with our ears and instruments, not our eyes, we’re inviting the possibility of innovation and personalization; making our own personal vocabulary from what we’ve absorbed.

To avoid playing a line that you’ve learned the same way every time, you must change your mindset as you approach the transcription process. Rather than aiming to transcribe one lick in one key to insert into your playing, your thought process regarding transcription should promote internalization and embellishment. As you start transcribing, aim for a process that encourages you to create your own lines, for example:

  • Take a line or phrase from a solo that piques your interest
  • Sing every note in the line exactly as it sounds
  • Play that line on your instrument, copying every articulation and inflection
  • Transpose that line to all twelve keys, repeating each key until it’s comfortable and easy
  • Begin to create your own lines by changing one note (ex. 9 to b9) or changing the rhythm

Transcribing…or learning by ear??

Clearly, we need to redefine what we mean by the word “transcribe.” While many great jazz musicians say they don’t transcribe or write down solos, they are definitely immersing themselves in the music aurally. Some musicians view transcription as a written process, while others view it as an aural process. Looking at the best musicians around today, it has become obvious to me that they’ve learned the music by ear, regardless of whether they’ve written it down after learning it.

From studying with many great teachers, the important thing they’ve stressed is that jazz is a language. Language is living when it’s spoken, being used to communicate ideas, evolving daily to reflect the emotions and thoughts of the people speaking it. When language exists only in writing it can’t evolve, it’s set in stone, losing the visceral meaning it once had. We must remind ourselves that jazz is still a living language, one of the few “oral traditions” that’s left in our culture.

Approaching improvising in an analytical or academic way (studying it in print), while informative, is only scratching the surface as to what jazz is really about. As we learn the music, we should aim to take in the information aurally and communicate with it musically. Learning the music by ear from the records is, hands down, the best way to achieve this.

Once you’ve internalized it aurally, it’s up to you whether you call it “transcribing,” learning by ear, or whatever you like. Either way the you can rest assured that most important part is done, so leave the semantics for everyone else to worry about!

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