Transcription Tips From Dylan Bell
Posted by Dylan Bell

Vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Dylan Bell is earning his Masters Degree at U of T Jazz. In this post, Dylan shares some tips for transcribing.

Since the Renaissance, a central part of a visual artist’s training was copying the works of master artists: by painstakingly recreating a masterwork by Da Vinci, an advanced art student would learn all the master’s theories and techniques firsthand: light and shade, colour mixing, form and composition. The same is true in arranging: transcribe a great arrangement, and you’ll learn these techniques in a way that no class or book can ever teach.

Dylan says: In all my years of music training, I have never taken a vocal arranging course. In university, I got summer job lifting vocal parts for a musical: I was given the original Broadway recordings, and asked to score the parts for the four singers. It was challenging and exhausting, but I learned more about 4-part TTBB harmony than anywhere else. When directing my university jazz choir, I started lifting Take 6 charts, and this is where I learned almost everything I know about vocal jazz writing.

Transcription is basically a learning-by-doing process, but there are a few tips and tricks to make it easier.

Preparation
Buy a good pair of headphones. You’ll want to really hear “inside the music” to grab those inner parts, and reduce outside distraction. You’ll be listening to the same five seconds of music over and over again, and if you don’t have headphones, your roommate/spouse will hurt you.

Give yourself a good chunk of time. Transcribing is one of those things where it takes a while to get in the zone, and once you’re there, you’ll want to stay there. Until you’re experienced, it’s not easy to leave in the middle and come back.

Assemble your materials: a big pad of score paper (preferably with large staves), pencils (I said PENCILS! No pens! You’ll be doing a lot of correction and scribbling-out-stuff here), erasers, sharpeners. And, yes, you’re going old-school here: no computer notation. You need to be able to scribble things down quickly and messily, while listening, before your short-term memory loses it. Computer notation, even if you’re fast, is still too kludgy for this.

Prep the score. Score preparation usually involves carefully measuring out the number of barlines per page, et cetera, but we don’t suggest doing that here. This isn’t a final product: this is a rough sketch, and you’ll need as much space as you need for a complicated bar of music. Just do the basics: designate staffs and systems and key/time signatures. If the piece has parts that move around all over the place (guitars in the verse, keyboards in the chorus), don’t do this yet… wait until you’ve done the “structural listening” below.

Have a keyboard at the ready. I usually find it easiest to check a part by singing it back in my head, but you’ll probably want to check stuff, especially harmonies, against a keyboard.

Choosing Your Song
You may already be planning to lift a specific piece, but if you’re doing this for practice, I suggest choosing a piece of music, or something by a particular group, with a fixed number of parts. Why? It’s much easier to transcribe if you know how many parts there are. A lot of transcribing is about filling in the missing pieces, so if you know how many pieces there should be, it’s all the easier. Try something like a barbershop quartet or an early Nylons recording, where there are almost always four parts, and the harmonies are straightforward. If you’re a jazzer with good ears, try Take 6. Their writing structure is almost always the same: bass, melody, and four BGs. If you try to lift a complex, who-knows-how-many-overdubs contemporary recording, your roommate/spouse will likely find you hours later in the fetal position, headphones still strapped to your head, the same four bars on endless repeat.

Note: although not entirely legal, you can sometimes find other people’s transcriptions of a cappella arrangements/recordings through the internet. If you do get your hands on one, we strongly recommend you stay away from looking at it until you have completed your work, or at minimum only a page at a time once you’re done. The temptation will be great, but you’re not going to learn as much if you rely entirely on someone else’s work. And there’s no guarantee that their transcription is accurate anyway.

Shallow Listening
Listen to the song a few times over and over, just to get a feel. Don’t analyze just yet: let your mind unconsciously absorb the bigger-picture elements like form, key, any major changes in texture, and so on. Your subconscious will absorb a lot more than you think: if you listen a few times over and get a sense of the chord changes, lifting the bassline will seem easy. Harmonic changes won’t take you by surprise, and you’ll be aware of little changes in the inner parts, or where the lead part changes.

Structural Listening
Now it’s time to listen a little deeper and take note of any structural changes in the parts. In a homophonic chart, it’s pretty straightforward, and you may be able to skip this step. In an instrumentally-based vocal chart, take a note of who’s doing what, and how many parts are involved. Example: “verse has ‘guitars’… sounds like 3 parts. The chorus adds a ‘keyboard’ part, sounds like 2 more voices. In the bridge, it’s all vocal, 4 parts”. Take your time, and write this all down as point-form notes. You’ll need this information to know how to score the piece, and to help with the detective work, mentioned below.

Lift the Outsides: Melody, Then Bass
Do this first: melody and bass are the heart of the song, they’re the easiest parts to hear, and the other parts are determined by it. You can lift the melody in sections, but for most pieces, we recommend doing it all the way through. Same with the bass. With these parts, it’s good to stay focused on a single voice/part.

An important note: work in small sections. And we mean really small… like one or two bars at a time. Listen over and over, and make sure it’s right before you move on. Our brains are pretty sophisticated predictive machines, which can work for us, or against us. On first listen you might hear something, and say “I’ve got it” and your brain fills it in with something close, something that makes sense… but isn’t actually right. It’s especially true with melodies, but also true with basslines: you might hear the chord progression correctly, but connect them incorrectly. And remember: even if what you wrote works just as well, in transcription, accuracy is the name of the game. Years from now, some smug smart-alek will find your chart and sniff: “Ha! A mistake! What a fool! And get a load of me: I noticed it!”

Lift the BGs, In Sections
You could do these all the way through, but we recommend going section-by-section. The inner parts are both harder to hear, and dependent on each other. So, if you’ve spent half an hour lifting one part in one section, you’ve also spent that half hour hearing the other part(s), and they’ll come to you more easily. Also, if you can’t get though the whole piece in one session, you’ll at least have a few completed sections, rather than a whole unfinished thing. You’ll have a better sense of accomplishment, and it will be much easier to get back into it later on.

Start with the second-from top part: next to the outsides, it’s the easiest to hear, and usually easy to cross-check against the melody. Get a verse (or maybe a verse-and-chorus) down, and move to the next part. In a four-part chart, there’s only one more part. Knock yourself out.

If there are more parts, it’s usually easiest to just keep going down the next part. Make sure you don’t just go for the part you hear the most easily: it may not be the next part down, and you’ll be left with mysterious holes in your chart. In some charts, it’s easier to work “outside in”: go for the part directly above the bass, then keep alternating next-highest, next-lowest, until you’ve got them all.

If you’ve chosen a piece where the voices are imitating instruments, go by instrument. Lift the guitar parts (or whatever the instruments are), highest to lowest. Fortunately, you made notes earlier, right? They may not be 100% correct, but they’re a good start.

Vertical Transcribing: Being a Harmonic Detective
Ever watched a movie where a cop is chasing a bad guy? The cop’s got him clearly in his sights. He turns a corner… and the bad guy’s gone. Disappeared into thin air.
Vocal parts do this too. You’ll be happily lifting someone’s part, and it will seem to disappear. Don’t worry: with some harmonic detective work, you’ll probably find it.

Much of the time, you’ll be doing “horizontal transcription”, lifting one vocal part at a time, following its own melodic contour. When you get to more complex inner parts, especially if the music’s relatively homophonic, it can be harder to hear an individual line, and you’ll need to do some “vertical transcription”. In this case, you’re listening for chords, sonorities, and looking for the missing pieces.

For example, you’ve got a big-band style shot: quick, dense, and hard to grab. You managed to catch this much so far:

Sop 1 E5
Sop 2 C#5
Alto ?
Tenor ?
Baritone G#3
Bass E2

Remember all those seemingly pointless, out-of-context ear training exercises? Naming intervals, major/minor chords, and all that? Here’s where it actually helps (and if someone had actually told you that, or realized it themselves, maybe those exercises would have made more sense at the time. Oh well…). Go back and listen to that shot, over and over. Don’t worry about picking out individual notes just yet. Instead, absorb the overall sound, and ask yourself…

Is it major or minor?
Answer: since your baritone is singing a major chord tone, you think it’s major. (If it turns out it sounds minor, it’s possible your baritone transcription is wrong. More on crosschecking later).

Is there a 7th sound in there somewhere?
If so, does it sound major, or dominant? Major 7 chords tend to sound happy and sunshiny, dominant 7 chords a little more meaty and bluesy. Let’s say you hear meaty/bluesy, and conclude there’s a dominant 7 in there. This looks like a E-something chord, so it’s probably a D-natural. Got one so far? No… which means it’s one of your Mystery Singers. Which one? Let’s say that D sounds like it’s nestled in there somewhere. Well, if your Sop2 is singing an C#, a D would be squashed right up beside it. You’d hear that friction pretty strong, so it’s probably not the Alto.

Play what you’ve got so far on the piano: this is a great way to do it, because you can actually see the holes. Where’s good place for that D? How about above the G#? That puts it in a logical tenor-place, and nestled in the chord just like you hear it. The Tenor has the D. Sweet. One down, one to go.

So, this chord is a E7 “Something Something”. What are the Somethings? Well, you’ve already covered the 3rd, 7th, and your Sop2 is singing the 13th. What’s left? 9s/2s, 4s and 5s… or doubled notes. (This is starting to sound like a poker hand, isn’t it?) If your ears are used to the sounds, you might be able to pick out these color notes. If not, here’s a simple process of trial-and-error: Your Alto’s note is somewhere between D#3 and C4. So, just play the chord on the piano with all those possibilities.

D#3 Doesn’t fit.
E4 Could be, but it really sounds like there’s more going on.
F4 Interesting sound… check it against the recording. No. Too pointy.
F#4 Possibly.
G4 Like the Db: interesting, but too funky.
G# it doesn’t add anything, and it’s in the chord elsewhere. Probably not.
A4 Doesn’t fit.
A#4 Too pointy.
B4 Like the C, it fits… but there’s still something missing.
C4 Nope.

So, it’s either a doubled note (E, G# or B) or the F#. So back and listen just for the F#. It sounds like it’s there. So, the alto’s a F#, and your chord is built. Break out the champagne.

But wait… Let’s check the whole chord to be sure. I know you’re exhausted. But remember Mr. Smug Found-Your-Mistakes Guy? Let’s not give him any ammunition.

Cross-checking is fairly simple. Listen to the chord, and play the chord on the piano. Anything sticking out as wrong? No… good. Now, play the chord from the recording, and hum the soprano note softly. Is it there? Does it fit? Yes… move on the S2. Make sure you’re not adding any new notes… just because it sounds nice doesn’t mean it’s right. Once you’ve done the whole chord, pop the cork on that champagne.

This may have seemed painful, but it’s not very likely you’ll need to do this a lot. And sometimes a completed vertical stack is like an oasis in the desert of a partially-done transcription, and can help with the horizontal part too. If you know the Sop2 line ends on an A4, you can trace the part backwards and forwards from there… sort of like musical forensics.

Yes, unless you’re captivated by obsessive detail work, transcription can be boring. And you will likely break your pencil in two out of frustration. However, like a budding engineer who takes apart an engine to see how it is built, there is no better way to understand the inner workings of an arrangement. Pick a song you like and an arrangement you respect, then use the process of transcribing to figure out what makes it great.

When you’ve done this a few times, your ears will develop a vocabulary. You’ll hear the quality of a chord, without all the trial-and-error. Fortunately, a lot of arrangers use the same voicings over and over: there’s only so many combinations that work with any given number of parts, and you’ll start to hear them as whole units. More importantly, these voicings, sounds, and techniques will start to make their way into your own writing. And if you’re a real nerd, you may become hooked on transcribing.

By Dylan Bell

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