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How to Transcribe in 7 Steps

A style of practice that’s somewhat unique to jazz players is transcription. Because jazz involves a lot of improvisation, it’s not as straightforward as classical music when you want to play what someone else played. In some cases, you might transcribe a solo because you want to pull a piece out of what the original player did—or maybe you’re just trying to improve your ears. Either way, transcription is an all-round boot camp that makes a big difference in your playing.


But something Chad gets asked often is how to transcribe effectively. After all, you’re not just figuring out the notes, but you’re also figuring out the rhythm, and digging deeper than the average listener to find out what’s really going on.


By the end, we’re going to get into transposing a piece into other keys. And this is a fairly advanced technique, which Chad has covered with students in his Text Lessons Studio. Our Text Lessons are a great way for you to bring consistent challenges to your playing, with personalized monthly challenges, personalized critiques of your playing, 24/7 access to text Chad, and monthly mentorship sessions. Learn more about our Text Lessons here, and come be a part of the studio!


Let’s jump in—here are seven steps to level up your transcription.


Contents


Memorize the chord changes

Easy enough—our first step is just memorizing the chord changes for the tune you’re working on. So if you’re working on Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” you’ll want to make sure you know the changes all the way through. This is something that horn players sometimes forget to do, and it means that they might not be able to solo as intelligently over the changes as they want to.


There are several ways to go about memorizing standards, but one of the best is with Roman numeral analysis. Sure it takes a bit of theory to get the hang of it, but Roman numerals have a great practical application and can help you improve your ears. Plus, Roman numerals can help make tunes easier to remember. Instead of remembering all the individual chords, like C / Am / Dm / G7, you can just remember that the tune is a I / vi / ii / V — which is a very common progression that you come across often. This helps you memorize things as a whole, instead of as separate chords (where you have to remember major, minor, etc.).


Sing along with the solo

The absolute best way to be sure that you have a solo down is to sing along with it. You don’t have to be a good singer, but you just want to have it down so that you internalize the pitches. Once you’re comfortable, try singing without the solo behind you to see if you really got it!


Write it out!

Now we’re going to get into the meat of transcription—actually writing things down. This can also be helpful because then you’ll have sheet music to read off of, too. The important step here is that we’re working toward is total memorization.


That said, the best way for you to memorize the transcription is the the way to go. So if that means reading the transcription, do that. If it means writing it down, do that.


But ultimately, you want to get to the point where you can just hear a transcription and memorize it without having to write it down or having to read it.


If you do want to use written transcriptions, there are tons of resources out there. You can find books of solos from Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Dexter Gordon, and even for Chad LB!


Once you have it memorized, that will be helpful for the next step.


Analyzing each phrase

This step will take a bit more time, but it’s a game-changer. Like we mentioned, analyzing is going to be so much easier once you’ve memorized the changes, because you can really understand how each phrase sits in the harmony. We want to analyze how each note lines up with the harmony, so we can understand what the player was doing when they were improvising. So if we look at a Charlie Parker transcription, you’ll see that in the pickup bar to the solo, Bird plays D, E, F, Bb, Ab, Bb, Ab, F. Now you’ll notice that these notes don’t line up with the G7 chord that he’s playing against…like at all. So what’s going on here?

Analyzing Charlie Parker solo on Yardbird Suite

We can come up with a few solutions, like maybe he’s outlining G altered, or he’s playing diatonic in D minor. But from Chad’s point of view, the simplest solution is probably that he’s outlining a