William Flynn

Guitarist | Composer | Educator

So How Do I... Learn From Jazz Transcription?


I was recently asked about my approach to transcribing jazz solos and learning from those transcriptions. In my opinion--and this is an opinion I share with countless others--the transcription process is one of the most significant and effective means of learning the various elements of the jazz language. Transcribing a great jazz solo gives us the opportunity to internalize so many different aspects of the music: the player's approach to phrasing and articulation, the player's approach to navigating the chord changes, the player's approach to motivic and formulaic development, etc. In the following post, I will address two things regarding jazz transcription: 1) my approach to transcribing an improvised solo, and 2) my method of learning from the solo once I've transcribed it.

The Jazz Transcription Process

I transcribe using Seventh String Software's Transcribe! program ($39). I like this software for a few main reasons:

Organization Transcribe! allows me to organize and label the solo's various choruses, measures, and beats, therefore making it very easy to navigate the solo during the transcription and analyzation processes.

Playback The pause, play, and playback function are all very accurate and easily operated. I can choose to pause and playback from a certain point in the solo (if I want to hear something over and over again), or I can choose to pause and continue from the same point (like normal). 

Manipulation It allows me to manipulate various elements of the audio file and therefore achieve a more accurate interpretation and rendering of the soloists's ideas. I can choose to alter the speed without changing the pitch (if I want to hear something slower/faster), alter the pitch without changing the speed (if I want to hear something in a different key), and enhance/remove certain frequencies (if I'm having trouble hearing, for example, a bass line). 

I am currently working on Kurt Rosenwinkel's solo on "Steeplechase" from saxophonist Joel Frahm's 2011 album "Live at Smalls". To give you an idea what working with "Transcribe!" is like, here is a screenshot of the file I am working with while transcribing the solo.

As you can see, there's a lot that can be done with "Transcribe!", and to be quite honest, I haven't explored everything the program can do. But to give a brief tour of the things I have explored, here is a little about what you're seeing in the picture above:

  • The big yellow bar in the middle of the program window shows the audio file itself. Below the audio file is a piano. You can click on the keys of this piano at any time to hear reference pitches, or, you can have the piano analyze the frequencies of the audio file at any given paused playback point to give "guesses" as to what pitches are occurring.
  • The colored markers on the audio file are delineating the formal aspects of the solo itself. The green markers indicate measures and the blue markers indicate choruses. So at this point in the solo, we're nearing the end of Kurt's third chorus and about to begin his fourth. The red triangle indicates the playback point, and the line in between C29 and C30 shows me where we are within the playback. The recording was paused when I took this screen shot, so if I were to hit the spacebar, playback would start over again at the red triangle. If I were to hit the comma key, playback would continue at the line.
  • As far as manipulation goes, the two sliders on the right side below the piano control the playback speed and playback pitch. As I said above, the cool thing about Transcribe! is that either can be manipulated without affecting the other.

Now, I've heard a lot of people say that you should avoid speed manipulation while transcribing and simply "do it the old fashioned way". Although there's definitely much to be said for transcribing music at the same speed it was originally played, I've found that slowing fast passages down has helped me hear them better at the original speed. There are many lines I often hear in improvised solos that I am now able to recognize because I transcribed and analyzed them at a slower tempo.

Another controversial issue regarding the topic of transcription is whether the transcriber should write down the transcribed solo or just commit it to memory straight from the recording. Like most all controversial issues regarding methods of learning the jazz language, the correct answer to this "should I or shouldn't I?" question is ultimately a personal one. To me, this issue is about how you learn from the solo. If you are able to learn more from the solo by writing it down and analyzing it, then that is what you should do. If you find you're able to learn more by committing the solo straight to memory, or if you find that writing it down is a distracting task that's just getting in the way, then you should definitely not write it down. Since this post is about my personal take on the transcription process, I can tell you that I write down the solos I am transcribing almost 100% of the time. You can probably glean this from all the notated transcriptions on my Transcriptions page. I find that writing them down helps me better understand, analyze, and internalize the improviser's ideas.

Now speaking of learning from the transcribed solo, in this next section I'll discuss some ways I like to get the most out of my transcriptions after I've completed them.

Method of Investigation

So how does one get the most out of the transcription process? To me, the ultimate goal of transcription is to increase your vocabulary as an improvising musician. Analogies are often drawn between learning to play jazz and learning to speak a language. As the speaker of a language, expanding our vocabulary helps us to better communicate our ideas and express our feelings. The same is true as an improvising jazz musician. Expanding our musical vocabulary helps us better express our ideas and communicate our musical ideas, and we do this in the same way that we learned how to speak a language--through listening, copying, repeating, internalizing, etc. So what are the steps we would go through as the speaker of a language in learning a new word or phrase? Let's examine several of these steps and correspond them to the steps of learning from a transcribed solo.

1. Learn to Pronounce It

If we were learning a new word or phrase, the first thing we would do is learn how to properly pronounce and intone the word or phrase. I am writing this on December 11th. The "Word of the Day" today on merriam-webster.com is "nimiety". I have no idea what this word means, let alone how to pronounce it. To me, the most frustrating thing about this is the fact that I can't pronounce the word. Have you ever been reading a book and come across a word like this? It's pretty frustrating, right? Not only do you have no idea what the word means, but you cannot even conceive of a way to physically or mentally speak the word. So the first two things I did after seeing the word "nimiety" were read the pronunciation, and click on the little speaker icon to listen to the lady pronounce it. After hearing the lady say it and decoding the little pronunciation guide, I was now able to physically and mentally say the word "nimiety".

We can draw a comparison between this process and the process of technically learning to play an improvised solo. Most all the artists I transcribe have much better technical facility on their instruments than I do, so one of the ways I grow from transcribing them is by treating the solo as a technical etude through which I can improve my command of the instrument. The next time you transcribe a solo, ask yourself what technical strengths and weaknesses your ability to play the solo reveals. Is the artist able to cut eighth-note lines at much faster tempos than you are? If so, what kind of eighth-note lines are they? Are they chromatic or diatonic? Are they step-wise or do they contain skips? Is the artist able to control their intonation in certain registers or at certain dynamics better than you? If so, what registers? Is there something about the artist's tone that is particularly appealing or alluring? If so, what is it?

Use the answers to these questions to create technical exercises for yourself. Isolate a specific element of the solo that you are having technical difficulties with, analyze what it is, then extrapolate upon that analysis to create as many exercises as your creativity will allow. I will expand more on this idea in the second point I have to make...

2. Learn Its Meaning

Okay, let's go back to this new word of mine. After I learned to correctly pronounce "nimiety", the next step was learning what it meant. According to merriam-webster.com, "nimiety" is a noun which means "excess, redundancy". So now I know what part of speech the word is, and I also know its meaning.

Learning a word's meaning is analogous to analyzing a transcribed solo and understanding it in terms of the basic building blocks of jazz improvisation: chords, scales, arpeggios, enclosures, rhythm, etc. To elaborate on this, let's take a look at a lick I transcribed from a Lage Lund solo on "Stablemates" (which can be found on my Transcriptions page).

So the first question to ask yourself is, "How can I understand this idea in terms of the basic building blocks of jazz improvisation?" Well, aside from a few skips in the line, everything is conjunct and step-wise, so it's safe to say this is some type of scale-based idea. The next questions to ask would be, "What type of scale? A diatonic scale? A chromatic scale? A symmetrical scale? Does it contain chromaticism, or only the notes of the scale?" If we examine Lage's idea, we can see that it is very clearly a diatonic idea in the key of Db major. For the most part it is a descending line, but as we noted, there are a few skips in it. The line begins on a Db, skips up to the third of the key (F), then descends stepwise to the third an octave lower, after which it leaps up to the fifth then down to the second.

Now, after analyzing it in this way, we have a fairly good "definition" of the idea: a descending major scale line beginning with an ascending leap of a third and ending with both an ascending leap of a third and a descending leap of a fifth. That's all well and good, but what if we're still having trouble "pronouncing" the idea? As I mentioned above, anytime you find an idea difficult to execute on your instrument from a technical standpoint, rather than only practicing the idea you are having trouble with, analyze the lick or phrase and extrapolate from it other exercises that you can practice to strengthen your technical command of the idea. Now that we've analyzed and "defined" Lage's Db major idea, we can extrapolate from it a series of synonomous ideas. The following example illustrates the "definition" of Lage's original idea applied to all 7 notes of the Db major scale.

So, by devising a series of musical synonyms to the original phrase, we can practice a broader range of ideas and therefore internalize a more comprehensive technical understanding of the original phrase.

What else can we do with the original idea and its synonyms? I'll let you do the work, but here are a few ideas:

  • Transpose them to all keys.
  • Alter them to fit other tonalities (Dorian, Mixolydian, Melodic Minor, Lydian, etc.).
  • Invert the ideas (play them as ascending ideas, beginning with a descending diatonic 3rd).
  • Practice them in triplets.
  • Begin the ideas on different parts of the beats (and of 1; 2; and of 2; 3; etc.).
  • Your creativity is the only limit to the amount of bullet points this list can contain.

3. Learn Its Usage

Okay, let's briefly get back to our new word and draw one more analogy between learning a spoken language and learning the jazz language. We now know how to pronounce "nimiety" and we understand what it means. The only thing left to learn is how to use the word. One way we can know how to use the word correctly is by understanding what part of speech it is--in this case, a noun. Another way we can know how to use the word correctly is by reading it within the context of a sentence. The example sentence used for nimiety on merriam-webster.com is, "The artist's ingrained nimiety results in cloying pictures of cute kids holding even cuter animals." Now that we know which part of speech the word is and have also seen it used in the context of a sentence, we have a solid understanding of how to use the word correctly.

This process is analogous to learning how to properly use a lick from a solo (or any lick, for that matter) in an improvised solo. One of the most important things you can do at this stage of the process is analyze how the notes of the solo relate to the underlying harmony. If we take a look at Lage's solo, we can see that he uses the idea twice: once in m. 43 over a Gbmaj7, and once in m. 59-60 over a ii-V-I in Db. Given the fact the line is in Db major, both of these contexts make perfect sense. Gbmaj7 is the IVmaj7 chord in the key of Db major, so Db major ideas played over a Gbmaj7 chord will have a Lydian quality and sound very nice. Additionally, due to the fact that the ii-7 and V7 chords in a key are pulling to the Imaj7 chord, playing Imaj7 ideas over the ii-V progression will sound very consonant.

So in what other contexts can we use this idea? One way to answer this question is to play it over various chords and evaluate the resulting sound. What would this idea sound like over a Bb-7 chord (vi-7 in the key of Db)? What if we were to raise the Gb to a G? How would that now sound over a Dbmaj7? What about over a G-7(b5)? How would that now sound over a Bb-7? What about over an Eb7? What if we were to lower the F to an Fb and thus turn it into a Db melodic minor line? How would it now sound over commonly-used harmonies found within Db melodic minor (Db-6, Emaj7(#5), Gb7#11, Bb-7(b5), C7alt.)?

To sum up all of this, here are several questions you need to ask yourself when deciding how to use a lick:

  • How did the improviser use this lick? (i.e. what chord did they play it over?)
  • What other harmonies could the notes of the lick fit? Create a list of harmonies to experiment with the lick over.
  • If one or several notes of the lick were altered, what new harmonies would it fit? Add to the list from the previous step.
  • How is the lick affected if you add or subtract notes to it? How does this affect the amount of uses you can find for it?
  • How is the lick affected if you alter the rhythm?
  • Are you able to improvise a way into the lick and a way out of the lick?
  • Does the lick fit over a ii-V? If not, can it be altered to fit over a ii-V? The ii-V progression is the most common progression found in jazz, so it is important to develop as much vocabulary as possible over the progression.

The goal of this part of the process is to find as many different ways to use the lick as you can. The more contexts you can reinvent the idea in, the less it sounds like a lick and the more it becomes an organic element of your vocabulary.[divider]

These are some of my personal thoughts and approaches to the transcription and analyzation processes. Hopefully they've given you some insight into how I like to do things. At the end of the day, however, transcription is a very individual thing--everyone comes up with their own ways to go about it and learn from it.

Do you have any questions about my approach to transcription? Do you have any thoughts on the transcription process that you'd like to share? Leave your comments below!