Category: Tips

Transcribing the Slow Way

I recently started a new transcription project with the goal of learning as slow as possible. Well, not really—but in appreciation of the idea that “the fastest way is the slowest way,” I’m in no rush to finish the project.

The project began the way many of my transcriptions do: I was listening to music that I’ve heard many times before, but this time I heard it in a new way and was intrigued. The transcription is Herbie Hancock’s solo from “Oliloqui Valley” Empyrean Isles (1964).

Empyrean Isles” by Herbie Hancock. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

I was actually playing along on drums and trying to match Tony Williams’ feel when something from Herbie’s solo caught my ear. I ran to the piano to figure out a few notes and then hastily wrote “Oliloqui Valley” on the whiteboard to remember to come back to this solo.

When I came back days later to work on the solo, I decided to take it phrase by phrase and really try to digest each bit before moving on. As I go, here are some questions I’m thinking about:

  • can I sing the phrase or pattern?
  • do I understand the rhythm and can I apply the rhythm elsewhere?
  • do I understand the intervals and their sounds?
  • how does the melodic phrase relate to the harmony?
  • how does the melodic phrase work with other harmonies?
  • how does the phrase relate to what comes before/after?
  • etc.

For me, a phrase might be four measures, or it might be just a few notes, there are no additional parameters beyond “go slowly.”

This takes more time than just playing (or writing) the notes, but I’m convinced that I am learning the language more thoroughly than if I were rushing to get to the end.

How to Start Transcribing

Staff Paper

I remember trying to play along with recordings in high school (I fell in love with the melody to Desafinado and tried to figure it out), but it wasn’t until I got into college that I set out to methodically transcribe parts of solos or entire solos. The pause and rewind buttons were my best friends. In fact, the printing on the pause and rewind buttons of the boombox I schlepped to the practice room each day are mostly worn off from use!

For my students, I recommend the following process to begin transcribing a solo:

  • Listen to the solo many times to become familiar with it. You will eventually be able to sing or hum the solo even without the recording.
  • Begin by just trying to hear the first note. Hit the pause button right after the first note is played, such that you can still hear it ringing in your tonal imagination
  • Try singing the first note. Once you can accurately sing the note, you’ve got it made; keep singing the note and try to find it on your instrument.

Repeat the process to get the second note, the third note, etc. You may find that you are soon able to hear several notes or whole phrases at a time. Stick with it; like most things worth doing in life, it takes time and practice to gain skill.