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The Transcription Process

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

If you were to ask, is there one thing someone can do to get better at jazz, there would be a very simple answer. Yes. There is one thing. It isn't even a secret. The one thing that you can do to improve your skills as a jazz musician is to transcribe. That's it! This is a huge area. I could probably write six months worth of blogs on just this one topic and barely scratch the surface.

So what is transcription? For the uninitiated, transcribing is learning jazz (solos) by ear and copying them on your instrument. This hearkens to the time-honored tradition of learning this music. It is a direct line to Charlie Parker working out Lester Young Solos. Or Louis Armstrong copying King Oliver or Buddy Bolden licks. Transcription is the heartbeat of the tradition! And, it is something that scares away a lot of musicians for simply no good reason.

If you were to leave a first- year trumpet player to their own devices, that kid would transcribe. They would find a song they liked, grab a scratch piece of paper and start sketching out the letters of pitches to each of the notes so they could play for you later. In fact, that is exactly what my eight-year-old daughter did when she started piano lessons and wanted to play the Harry Potter Theme. She sat at the piano, plunked out the pitched and wrote the letters down in a long string on a piece of paper. Transcription! That's it. This months blog posts will focus on this topic. I will include what types of things to transcribe and recommend specific solos to get going. In this post, I would like to go through the process that I use and teach to my students.


To begin transcribing, we have to listen intently to what we are trying to play. This isn't just a quick once-through. This is active, repeated listening. Listening to a passage way past the point of being comfortable with it and rather listening to internalize and listening to be able to sing. When we do this, it is important to listen to the nuance and emotion as well as just the pitches.


This is the step that many people wan to skip over. That would be a big mistake. Singing is the truth serum as far as showing that you really have internalized a musical idea. If you can't sing it, you have only approximated the idea. Maybe you understand the general shape or some of the more prominent notes, but if you can't sing it, trying ot work it out on your instrument is going to be a very difficult task. The other advantage that singing has is that once a melodic line is in your head, it is pretty easy so slow it down or break it into even smaller chunks!


Once you are able to sing through an idea, work to match those pitches on your instrument. Here it is also important to emulate all the style and nuance that you are hearing in the recording as well.


This one can be a little controversial. Write or Memorize. I say both. It's a false dichotomy. You are working to memorize solos for sure, but writing them down helps you remember. It helps me remember at least. Writing forms a record of what you have done and allows you to return to the solo long after you have forgotten some of the finer nuances. You will quickly find that notating pitch is easier than notating rhythm. But don't let that get you. I generally recommend that students write the pitch, then draw some bar lines. Next figure out which notes fall on the beat and start to fill in the missing pieces from there.

Next week, I will focus on what kinds of things to transcribe. [Spoiler Alert - it's not always solos]

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