The Art of Transcription


Mel Martin

In my previous article, I discussed hearing in relation to artistic perception. In this article, we will deal with hearing as a specific act, namely transcription. Jazz and all other forms of music requires the player to listen closely and understand exactly what is being played. Transcribing music formalizes this process.

My early musical training, particularly in high school, involved classes in formal theory, ear training, orchestration and composition. This training helped me, early on, in the development of my musicianship. One of the tragedies of the vicious budget cutting in school systems across the country is that young musicians are, for the most part, not offered this training at precisely the time in their lives when they need it the most. These classes included interval identification, two, three and four part dictation of Bach chorales, study of orchestral scores in conjunction with hearing the recordings and encouragement to compose things based on these studies. All of this had the obvious benefit of allowing me to develop an acute ability to hear (perceive) the myriad of details involved in various styles of music. In developing the ability to take four part dictation, we were taught to first hear the melodic line and then the bass line and then the inner voices, all the while understanding that certain rules of voice leading, harmonic motion and inversions were in effect. This is essentially what the jazz musician does, the only difference being that the player is improvising the melodic line on the spot. The concept of developing a strong sense of relative pitch was emphasized, except for the rare individuals that had the gift of perfect pitch, although they, too, must work, maybe harder, at development of this important idea. In starting with interval identification, the player takes a sort of blindfold test where the teacher plays various diatonic and chromatic intervals for identification. If this is something you've never done, it would be extremely beneficial to work with someone help you. Without this ability, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do the types of things we will be talking about.

Many serious jazz students are encouraged to transcribe the solos of the masters and their favorite players. Unfortunately, in this day and age, many such transcriptions are commercially available. Why unfortunately? Because it makes it much too easy to simply purchase them and not use your ears to write them out . The use of these materials may afford some valuable practice material, but it is the act of transcription that will teach you the most. It's an investment of time and interest and a whole lot of work. In transcribing solos, it's important to have some very helpful tools namely a two or three speed tape recorder, particularly one with a variable pitch control for exact tuning. Cassette machines run at 1 7/8 ips and any slight variation in speed from deck to deck can result in major differences in pitch. You do not want to be in the position of guessing what pitches are being played. The need to change speeds is also crucial. Some cassette machines run at two speeds 3 3/4 ips and 1 7/8 ips. The slower speed is exactly one half that of the faster which will result in dropping the pitch one octave and cutting the tempo in half. Reel to reel decks may feature three speeds. Once when transcribing something by Eric Dolphy, I had to slow the tape down twice because the music was passing by at such a rapid speed. So a new or reconditioned reel to reel machine with variable pitch would be a worthy investment for serious transcriptionists. Also, mini-cassette machines routinely have two speeds although the fidelity is not as good as either cassette or reel to reel. In approaching the transcription of solos, the first step would be to begin to identify typical melodic intervals used by the soloist. This becomes easier once you have mastered the ear training exercise as described above. The next step is to develop a rhythmic understanding, and rhythmic notation, of the soloist. Some soloists are so precise in their rhythm that it is a breeze to get it on paper. Others play more "in the cracks" rhythmically and the notation cannot always accurately reflect what was played. In these cases cues may be added such as "lay back" or "anticipate". It is important that the beginning transcriptionist attempt simpler solos at first. If you attempt something so complex that you become frustrated it may turn you off. Visualizing rhythms is an important ability to develop, that is: actually seeing notated rhythms in your mind. This will not happen until you have done this a lot. In fact, many times it is possible to visualize the entire phrase. This is the quickest way to get something as opposed to picking it out note by note. Try to write down the general shape of the phrase, then go back and correct whatever needs correcting. This is also the best training for your retention and will help you as a player. Scoping out the changes is also helpful, although many soloists play notes that technically do not fit the given chord. This may give you the opportunity to see how a great soloist may resolve various unorthodox approaches that they may employ. Although analysis is an important tool to understanding, it is the more practical and direct results of learning to hear accrately that we are out to develop. Once you have completed a transcription, then attempt to learn it. Both Stan Getz and Phil Woods told me that they used to learn solos directly from recordings. Lee Konitz talked about learning all of Lester Young's early solos. Charlie Parker also spoke of learning Lester's solos so it isn't always necessary to write them down but actually learning to play them may be the most important part of this process. This should take place during the formative years, although the skills will stay with you. I have to add that many great players didn't use this approach at all or just learned fragments of solos. One doesn't want to become so enamored of a particular player that their playing only reflects another person's style. I once had a student that was so into transcription that he never really understood what it was to improvise. So this approach should be tempered with common sense and personal interest.

To my mind, the transcription of songs is the most valuable area to pursue. In my early years, there were few commercially available "fake books" available so we simply amassed a compilation of tunes that we would like to play. I used to hang with piano players a lot because they usually had the best changes and new hip voicings. In order to transcribe a song, you need to get the melody and the harmony and precise rhythms. If it is an arrangement, then that adds another dimension. Every tune contains it's own lessons and many jazz compositions are unique unto themselves. When Bebop and Beyond recorded the Music of Thelonious Monk (Bluemoon R2 79154), our intention was to capture Monk's actual structures as faithfully as possible so we all did transcriptions and compared the results, collectively listened to the recordings and generally arrived at a consensus that was recognized for it's accuracy. This is always the best way to learn a tune and keep it for posterity. Often, particularly with Monk, tunes that come from fake books and/or other sources are not always accurate or even completely wrong. A good example is the way many musicians blindly followed Miles Davis' versions of Well You Needn't, When Lights are Low and 'Round Midnight In each case, Miles took extreme liberties with the songs and ended up confusing generations of players.It is always best to go back to the original recordings, again particularly with Monk who recorded later versions of his own tunes differently. The original versions contain the original vision and inspiration. For a long period of time, I worked as a professional transcriptionist doing lead sheets for Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner and, in particular, Herbie Hancock. Once, I was assigned the job of transcribing for publication sixty of Herbie's most difficult tunes in sixty days. Needless to say this taxed my abilities as a transcriptionist to the max. I have spent a considerable amount of time since then, learning to play a lot of that music. Herbie's style presented many interesting challenges as his voicings were often fairly abstract and impressionistic and he rarely played the same thing twice. Once I had established the melodies and bass notes, then it was a matter of trying every possible chord within that context. Even though I am a reed player, I have found that transcribing the music of pianists is the most rewarding thing that I have done. Learning to understand voicings is an important part of any horn player's training. This is how you can get the music to "sound" as opposed to just playing from your instrument. This also falls into the area of orchestration and arranging as it is about the transfer of these voicings to horns or strings.

The transcription of orchestral scores, big band arrangements and small group ( quintet and above) arrangements is also an important study. The challenges as mentioned above are multiplied by the size of the ensemble involved. One approach is to attempt to follow each instrument separately and see how it all adds up. This can get difficult where voices overlap or become obscured by other sections. Another approach is to try to follow the different sections as units, paying close attention to the voicings employed. Again, the playback equipment used will have a dramatic effect on your ability to do this. Many times, it is better to use a high quality pair of stereo headphones in order to put your head "inside" of the music.

It is clear that the art of transcription is one to be mastered early in one's training. If hearing and listening are at the crux of playing music, then transcription is a definite path to follow. It can also stimulate the imagination and develop the ability to concentrate. The benefits are many and there is, of course, a great sense of accomplishment when you've successfully completed something. There is also the distinct advantage that you may have to call these skills into action in order to make a living in music. The training of any musician would be less than it should be without this background and it is ultimately the development of your ears and musicianship that will carry you through a long and, hopefully, fruitful career. In my next column, I will talk about learning and internalizing song forms.

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