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Music Transcriptions and Active Listening: The Cure to the Quarantine Doldrums

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

These few months have made it painfully clear how much I took for granted the ability to travel around and play music with and for so many different people. I truly miss getting to connect with people all over the world through music. But sheltering-in-place has presented me with the opportunity to establish a more regular practice routine than I am used to, and part of what has kept me from feeling so stuck at home has been putting on my favorite records and focusing on learning by ear. Not only is it a great distraction from what is going on out in the world, I also truly feel it is some small way of traveling: through time and to parts of the world us Americans are even currently banned from actually visiting if we wanted to.

Technologically speaking, it has never been so easy to play with our musical heroes. I’ve heard many childhood stories from older musicians about having to rip new songs from the radio with a two-track recorder so they could learn them later. And even before that, aspiring musicians would just have to listen so intently that within a few radio plays, they’d have learned the piece of music. Or they’d rush to the record store to grab a copy of the song, that they’d proceed to wear out by listening over and over again in their efforts to internalize what they are hearing. They really had to work for their musical knowledge in such a different way than we can hope to even understand today.

Now, the amount of technology at our fingertips to facilitate learning is just astounding. When I began transcribing as a teen, I purchased an app called the Amazing Slow Downer, to be able to slow fast lines without altering the pitch of the recording, something that seemed cutting edge at the time. But now Youtube even has a (completely free) option to play back any video at various speeds with the click of a button. So I urge anyone trying to improve their musicianship in this time of corona to please(!), for your own sakes, resist the urge to bury your head in a chart or google a guitar tablature for the song you’re trying to learn, and instead, just open your ears…and listen.

As someone who regularly transcribes and arranges charts from recordings for various ensembles, I can attest that the process can be frustrating. Many times, I’ve found myself completely stuck, my ears bent fervently towards my speaker, struggling to demystify a single chord voicing for almost an hour by playing the split-second of music over and over. But the frustration and extra time commitment that learning by ear requires come hand in hand with an equally significant sense of satisfaction when you’ve learned an entire piece of music from ear and have it 100% internalized, like it’s etched within your musical being on a deeper level. The added benefit of this process is that now you’ve already memorized a song and will retain the information 10x longer than from reading a chart. Learning your first song by ear might be a painful process, but in a way it represents awakening some musical muscles that have been largely dormant, and with every new song you learn, you will absolutely notice a concrete improvement both in the speed at which you’re able to connect what you’re hearing to your instrument, but also your musical memory: in other words, your ability to retain longer sequences of melody and harmony. If you are interested in playing any kind of improvisational-oriented music, these skills are absolutely essential.

If you’re new to learning by ear, here are a few tips and recommendations:

1. Start by transcribing a melody that is already familiar: something you could already sing or hum. By beginning the process with a melody that has already etched itself into your memory (one could even argue on a subconscious level) you are one step closer to translating what you are able to sing to your instrument.

2. Slow it down. If figuring out a melody in real time is overwhelming, take advantage of Youtube or slow-down apps like the Amazing Slow Downer. It is not cheating. Over time the reaction time will quicken and you will be able to make sense of what you are hearing immediately. But the fastest way to get there is by going through the process slowly.

3. Get the general shape of a phrase first. At first, forget about specific note choices and try to get the big picture. Is the next note in the phrase going down or up? By a little, or a lot? Basically, by identifying the shape or direction the phrase is moving and whether the intervals are large or small, you are narrowing down the possibilities of note options.

4. When stuck or unsure, go back to singing what you are trying to get on your instrument. Singing is a great tool to physically feel the distance between pitches. Even if you haven’t memorized the sound and corresponding names of different intervals, singing up the distance of a fourth versus a half step will feel markedly different in your voice, even if you can’t consciously name what that difference is. That again helps us get closer to the note we are trying to find by narrowing down the possibilities, and over time our ear gets more specific in picking out the distinct sounds of various intervals.

5. Build out what you are learning on your instrument, one interval at a time. It can sometimes be helpful to isolate what is going on by focusing one new note (and its corresponding rhythm) at a time. Once you orient yourself to what note a phrase starts on, just try and hear the very next note in the phrase. Loop those two notes until you are feeling sure of the pitch and rhythm, then listen for the next note, and build out the phrase incrementally in this way.

6. Make sure you are repeatedly running through what you have from the beginning, so you don’t lose what you’ve already worked out. Repetition is crucial in building up your musical memory. Especially when this process is new, one of the biggest hang-ups can be forgetting the phrases you had all figured out five minutes prior. My recommendation is that once you’ve learned a complete phrase, go back to the phrase before and run the two consecutively, then run what you have from the top once, before moving on to new information.

Once you have learned a few melodies, then maybe challenge yourself to start identifying/transcribing chords. The easiest way to start hearing chords, especially if you are a monophonic instrument, is to start with hearing and learning the bass notes, or roots of the chords. For this, it’s helpful to be listening via some decent headphones or speakers, as built-in laptop and phone speakers often lose a lot of low end, making bass notes more difficult to hear. You can also play around with adjusting the EQ, boosting lower frequencies, to facilitate hearing the roots better. Once you have the roots mapped up and clearly “ringing” in your ears, I would listen for the chord quality – namely, whether the chord had a major or minor third, as that can help orient our ears to better be able to pick out individual notes in the chord voicing from there and determine more exactly what the chord is. When in doubt, you can look to the notes of the melody or if the arrangement has string or horn accompaniment and analyze the individual notes you’ve picked out in context with what you’ve identified in the chord to get more specific. It can be easier to pick out notes in the chord from horns or other melodic instruments in the recording because the timbre is easier to isolate from the other components you are hearing. Or, for your first harmony transcription, maybe choose a guitar pieces that contains a finger-picking style, so you can hear the notes of the chord plucked separately. Over time, the capacity to hear notes that are played at the same time increases, but hearing the notes of a chord played individually can be a good intermediary step.

Some good “first” transcription ideas:

Trombone Shorty (at age 13!) on “2nd line blues”

(solo begins at 1:27)

Sonny Stitt on “Chabootie”

(solo begins at 0:52)

Miles Davis on “Freddie Freeloader”

(solo begins at 2:13)

Fred Wesley on “Doin it to Death”

(solo begins at 1:26)

Curtis Fuller -Blue Train

(solo begins at 5:16)

Chet Baker – Autumn Leaves

(solo begins at 0:50)

J.J. Johnson - Laura



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