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Playing By Ear - Transcribing Methods

Last Updated: December 26, 2010 / by Michael Kinney

In this piano lesson, we discuss the importance of transcription.  As with anything, when approaching your first transcription you should start with something simple. Don't attempt to transcribe the most difficult piano piece ever written. If you do, you'll just end up frustrating yourself and possibly give up on the whole idea.

So what should you start with then? My advice is to pick an excerpt from your favorite song with a single note melody. The melody line doesn't have to be from the piano. It can be a horn, voice, bass line or anything that strikes you. It is important to pick something you like so that when you've finished transcribing it you'll have more joy in knowing how to play something you really like versus something that you were told to learn. (You should apply this principle to all that you practice--find things about music that interest you and find out how to learn those things. Don't waste your time learning something you hate--there is too much good music out there!)

So once you've selected the excerpt of music you'd like to learn, sit in front of the piano, get a piece of manuscript paper out, a pencil and get your finger on the play/pause button of your cd player or ipod. You'll come to learn that you will be starting and stopping a lot through this process. It is also a good idea to write on your manuscript paper the time of the section of music you are transcribing so that you can easily come back to it (ex 2:11 through 2:49).

So now that you are ready with pencil in hand, press play and listen to the entire excerpt all the way through. On your second listen through, start by focusing on the rhythm. What time signature is the song in? 4/4? 3/4? 7/8? Try and count the phrases to establish a time signature. Once you understand the time signature it will be easier to lay out the notes rhythmically on the manuscript paper.  Next, identify what notes fall on the quarter note.  Once you can clearly hear what notes are falling on the quarter note, you can start to match them up with their corresponding pitch.  This is where the piano will come in handy.  Try to match the notes you are hearing on the quarter note with the correct note on the piano.  Once you have found them, write them in on the paper in their proper place on the staff.

After you've figured out the quarter notes, you can move on to filling in the spaces in between each.  Depending on the excerpt you chose, this may be more difficult.  If it is a simpler song, it might only consist of quarter notes so your job will be done.  It is important to get the quarter notes placed correctly because you can then use them as a guide to figure out the rest of the notes and rhythm of the song.  Count along with the song and determine what two quarter notes the target note is falling between.  Then determine how it is falling between those two quarter notes.  Is it an 8th note between?  A triplet?  A 16th?  When you figure that out, then find out what the names of the actual notes are by playing them on the piano.

When you've finished writing down the whole selection, next practice playing it in time on the piano.  It is helpful to use a metronome to ensure you are getting the time right.  Once you feel you've gotten it down, practice playing along with the actual recording.  Once you can play it so that your notes match up exactly with what is on the recording you can say you've officially mastered that song and you can move onto the next. 

Learning songs through transcription will give you the deepest understanding of what is going on in the piece of music because you are relying on your ear but you are also analyzing every aspect of the piece.  You know where the notes fall, you know the names of the notes, you know the time signature, and you know the key of the song.  As mentioned earlier, this process will be painfully slow in the beginning but hang in there!  The more you transcribe, the more trained your ear will get and you'll be able to identify certain rhythmic patterns and harmonies more easily.  Before you know it you'll be able to transcribe an entire album of your favorite songs.

About the Author: Michael Kinney

I have played piano since I was 5 years old. I started in classical and then quickly moved to blues and jazz. I studied at the collegiate level and have played professionally since I was 16. My favorite piano players (if I had to pick 3) include Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock). I own several keyboards but always prefer to play on a Steinway if one is available! I live to perform as much as I like to teach.

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