the hows and whys
by Darrin Koltow
I'm Darrin Koltow. I've been playing guitar since 1985. I have
made it my task to apply my knowledge of music, goal setting,
motivation and success strategies to help musicians reach their
I believe that these elements are at least as important to achievement
in music as the individual scales and exercises that are so freely
available. When more people become aware of these elements, there
will be greater respect for music and musicians, and the work
required to make music. More, participation in making music will
be seen as available to all, and not just to the "gifted"
me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Many musicians, on hearing how important it is
to transcribe music, groan with despair. Maybe they've tried
in the past to listen to a piece of music and record what they
think is happening, but they get caught up by several problems:
they can't hear the bass line, or the melody is too fast. Maybe
they can pick out four notes from a particular harmony, but
there's another note or two missing that makes the chord sound just right.
They'll spend a lot of time playing and replaying
the same passage to get that one elusive sound, feeling like
it's just about to reveal itself to them. They never get
that sound, and they angrily turn off the tape player or
CD, feeling defeated.
Using this approach produces some results
and builds some skill in transcription, but is ultimately self-defeating.
It misses the essence of the music, the smooth thread
that winds throughout the piece, making sense of everything
in its particular context. In missing this, the student using
this method may end up physically exhausted and despairing of
ever being able to understand and ultimately play what he or
This article offers one way of channeling that
frustration into a way for you to get results from your
transcription experiences. It talks about why to transcribe
and how to transcribe.
Let's talk about goals for transcription. What
are outcomes or results we can realistically expect from learning
a song by listening to it, from playing by ear? What have been
the results for musicians in the past, who made a habit of playing
There's little doubt that playing by ear makes
you a better musician: you understand what's happening musically;
you can communicate more effectively with fellow musicians;
you know why a song sounds as good as it does. That's
the root of it: transcribing is a way of finding out
why music sounds as good as it does.
And that's a realistic goal for transcription,
no matter what kind of music you play: to apply what you learn
from listening to a song to make that song sound as good as
possible. But here's what a lot of other music students use
for a goal when they transcribe: their goal is to write or play exactly what is being played on the recording. The student
who first begins transcribing with no prior experience in it
hears a piece of music and attempts to duplicate each sound
So, what's wrong with that?
What's wrong with that approach is that it
doesn't produce music, at least not consistently. Beginning
transcriptionists miss the real target, because they try
to get into the music, and not into the heads of the recording's
performers. The beginning transcriptionist unconsciously and
naturally uses the following type of model for approaching transcription.
We can call this the House Building model.
A master housebuilder builds a house, and it naturally
comes out structurally sound and attractive and having all the
basic things a house should have. This builder, besides having
built hundreds of houses before, has had specialized training:
he knows what materials to use, from whom to get those materials,
what order to assemble those materials in, and what tools to
use to assemble those materials.
Along comes a novice who wants to build a house
just like the housebuilder. He's a smart and determined fella,
and he's committed to building a great house. He's also got
some money. With this money he buys the house just built by
the master housebuilder. He then proceeds to take it apart,
nail by nail, board by board, brick by brick. He makes detailed
notes of everything he does. He takes his time; maybe it takes
him months to disassemble the master builder's creation.
Finally, the house is fully disassembled. The
novice has stacks and stacks of notes that he'll apply to rebuilding
the house. He arranges his notes in some organized way, maybe
by the date he made them, and starts to rebuild his house.
How do you think it will turn out? What's that
house going to look like when it's done? How will the novice
know when it's done? When there are no more nails to nail or
posts to post? And here's a question to drive "home" the point
this metaphor makes: would you feel safe living in the house
the novice built?
What does all of this have to do with transcription?
The student first learning to play by ear, with little or no
prior training in music, is just like the novice housebuilder:
the result he's unconsciously moving toward isn't a beautiful
piece of music, such as what he's listening to. Instead, it's
an uneven, unsteady, occasionally interesting collection of
Has the student learned something from
this experience? You bet. Maybe he even enjoyed the process
of listening and notating, listening and notating. The same
was probably true of the novice housebuilder: he learned something
about housebuilding using his disassembly method, and may have
enjoyed himself immensely doing it. But in both cases, the
result they wanted was not the result they achieved.
Enough about the ineffective ways of transcribing.
Let's bring in some other options that do give us the
result we want: music.
Let's coin a new term here, to help us approach
transcription in a way that's effective. The term is "cocomposing."
You can see that a big part of that word is composing, and that's
because a big part of this results-driven approach to transcription is composing.
When you decide to cocompose instead of transcribe
a piece of music, you're approaching things from the standpoint
of the piece's performers; in a sense, you're already thinking
like a pro, not like a novice. In this role as a pro, your
job has been reduced to a single, wonderfully simple - and enjoyable
- task: take what you know about how music works, and make some
more pretty music with it. And that's all you have to do
to get results from "transcription."
Let's break down that task, and discover what
we need to do to complete it. "Take what you know about how
music works, and make some more pretty music with it." Since
we're dealing with an existing piece of music, and not one we
want to create from scratch, we modify the task to read this
way: "Take what you know about how music works, combine it with
the ideas the performers on the recording are feeding you, and
make some more pretty music with it."
How does that sound? If it sounds like an engaging
and rewarding way to play by ear, you're right. Let's get more
specific, and list one possible set of steps that you can follow
to cocompose a piece of music. Bear in mind, these steps reflect
just one approach to cocomposition out of many:
Listen to the music.
Listen with your complete attention
to the whole piece
or song. Listen to it several times, without stopping it.
Go back, and listen to each individual phrase. Listen to where
each cadence or rest point occurs, and where the following one
Sing the melody.
The melody is like a thread that winds through the whole piece
and ties it together. Once you know the melody, the remainder
of cocomposing is just adding icing (harmonies) to the cake
Write your impressions.
Write what you feel
about the entire piece, and what
it's trying to communicate to you. For example: "This piece
feels dark, somber, brooding." Or, "This song makes me think
of two great beasts trying to rip each other apart."
Do the same for each phrase. Here are some examples:
Ask key questions.
- That 3rd bar in Section B sounds like a key center shift.
- That riff in the third phrase sounds like a restatement
of something in the first phrase. Create other riffs based
For each phrase, you're going to ask and answer questions like
Put chords to the melody. Give yourself several options.
- Where are the restful points?
- How should we distinguish this phrase from the preceding
one? Should we move to a minor key center that's a third
up from this one? Maybe we should move to a key center that's
a perfect fourth up.
- For this rest point, what notes besides the melody does
my voice gravitate to? Once you get two or more notes for
a particular chord, you can begin intelligently fitting
different chords to those notes.
Put the chords in a table like this:
D- or Fmaj
G7 or D-
Cmaj or A-
F or D-
B or G7
E7 or D7b5
How do you choose chords to fit the melody? There are lots of
approaches to this. Here are some simple ones.
- Determine what key center the phrase is heading for. Then,
make the phrase into a 6251 progression that fits that key.
Example: in bar 4 of phrase 1, it feels like we're going
to C major; that's what my voice gravitates to when I sing
the phrase. So, I build a 6251 progression that will take
me from A7 in the first bar to Cmaj in the last bar.
- As Mark Levine explains so clearly in his Jazz Theory
book, "think key, not chord." That is, fuss later
over what the specific chord for a bar is. Just "rough"
the chord in based on the key center. For example, treat
A min7, C maj and E min7 all as viable options. All of these can have a tonic sound and they're all in C major.
- Choose a chord based on the bass note or notes. If you
can't hear the bass note, sing or play one that sounds good
Take a break and do this:
- Learn how music works. Among other possible avenues, that
means reading theory, and reading sheet music. It also means
memorizing songs. Your aim is to learn how songs are put
together. Even though learning a song by reading it on paper
doesn't build your ear the same way that cocomposing does,
it does give you a sense of how music is put together
- especially when you memorize the song. And the greater
the variety of songs you memorize, the more options you
give yourself to cocompose a new tune with.
- Train your ear in another way where you can learn exactly what the performers are playing. Here are two ways to do
this: book and CD transcription kits from music publishers
like Hal Leonard or Alfred Music; and ear training software,
like EarMaster or other titles.
Whether you use these steps or create your own,
remember the key to successful transcription: you are not a soulless robot or drone whose only job is to record note for
note what the performers are playing. You are a Composer,
in partnership with the recording's performers, to compose more
good music based on what's on the recording.
Let's return to the house building example, to
show you how the novice builder finally got a house built that
he could be proud of and that he could live in.
The novice got wise to his former way of building
a house. It didn't look right. So he went to the master carpenter's
house and interviewed him. He asked him how he could learn to
build houses, and the master told him: become an apprentice
house builder, read books about how houses are built, and take
some carpentry classes.
The novice was a bit daunted at the idea of doing
all this. But, since he loved building houses so much, he did
all of the things the master carpenter had recommended. He helped
many other people build houses, making many mistakes along the
way -- but he had fun.
One day, he finally got around to building his
own house. It didn't look exactly like the one the master carpenter
had built. But it was just as functional, and at least as sturdy
as the master's house. More important, it was even more beautiful
and comfortable than the master's, because he had built it.
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