Transcription: A Necessary Process

I received a couple of questions on the sight reading post that bear some further comments. Most of them are answered by transcribing music.

Transcription is an important tool for all musicians in all genres. In some genre, all that is needed is listening and learning some music by ear, without writing it down. In others, it should be written down. This alone is valuable for sight reading improvement but there is more.

You should spend at least some of your transcription time learning music from instruments other than you own. For example, guitars and bass guitars share some similarity. Learning a guitar solo if you are a bass player is usually quite doable. But a saxophone may easily play some passages that are very difficult on bass. Make sure you transcribe some music from other instruments like trumpet, sax, flute, etc. It will teach you new ways to expand your fingerboard knowledge.

When I was in college, I hated transcribing. It always seemed to be akin to the old adage about walking and chewing gum at the same time. It was tough and frustrating at first but I forced myself to continue. But the true purpose of transcription is listening and learning music in an in-depth manner.

There are a number of “fake books” around and they’ve been around for decades. Most are legal now but at one time they weren’t! Fake books often contain mistakes and rarely cover the entire tune, especially when it comes to jazz standards. But let’s look at a few steps to make transcribing easier.

  1. You should become familiar with treble clef and bass clef. Tenor clef is also useful for some instruments but most everything is covered by treble and bass.
  2. Start simple. Start with common melodies like children’s songs, tv themes, etc. Identify the intervals, rhythms, etc. Use the lyric to remember them. Once you discover some of the common intervals, you’ll start to recall the words when similar intervals appear elsewhere. Use common tunes like Joy To The World, which is just a major scale down and up. Learn to sing the intervals, which was for me, hard at first.
  3. Start working through some music you’d like to learn. Pick something that sounds fairly simple and work it out. Get the first note, the first two, the next 2, etc., until you cover the whole thing. Just right it out on blank staff paper and use pencils, several of them.
  4. Once you’re comfortable with steps 1 and 2, start working on things that will improve your playing. The best way to understand another musician’s style and thinking approach is to carefully transcribe some of their works. I remember transcribing Havona in college and having a real “light bulb” moment. After spending quite a few hours on it, I began to see how Jaco approached things. Not only did I learn a lot about what could be played on bass, I also got an insight into Jaco’s thinking. I went through the whole album later and it was truly an eye opener.

So try these steps and let me know of any of these are helpful.




About Dwight Mabe

I've playing music since the age of 5...a really, really long time. I've been teaching bass guitar and double bass for over 30 years, writing about music and bass guitar for nearly as long.
This entry was posted in Advanced, Basics, Chords, Intermediate, Music Theory, Scales, Tips and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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