Is Transcribing Effective for Everyone?-2
Transcribing (learning licks and solos by ear) has become such an accepted sacred cow of the jazz education world that few bother to question its effectiveness.  But is it really an effective practice tool for everyone?

In a word, no.

Before you gasp at my sacrilege, hear me out:  I’m not anti-transcribing.  First of all, I have done quite a bit of transcribing over the years.  I did my first few transcriptions in high school. The first solo I transcribed was an Ellis Marsalis piano solo.  I also remember doing a Carl Fontana trombone solo, and a Bill Evans solo piano arrangement of All the Things You Are.  Solo piano is NOT easy to transcribe, and it’s generally much more difficult than transcribing a horn solo.  I didn’t do a ton of transcribing in high school, but I remember doing at least those three solos.  I later did quite a bit more transcribing in my twenties.

In my mid-to-late twenties, I did a fair amount of transcribing, including the two big band transcriptions that were performed by groups at the Great Basin jazz camp.  Those big band transcriptions took about 40 hours apiece.  The 2nd big band transcription was easier than the first because I had already done it once before.  Here’s another example of a Miles Davis solo I’ve transcribed.  Horn solos are super fast for me to transcribe now, after doing a couple big band charts.  Not that I have a lot of time for transcribing now…
I Don't Always Transcribe

For the Bill Evans solo piano transcription, I remember putting in about 12 hours of work into that solo, learning around 2.5 minutes of the solo piano piece.   My mom, a classical piano teacher, stepped into our piano studio and posed the question as to whether transcribing that solo by ear was the best use of my time, given all the school work I had, not to mention the classical piano festival coming up…

Unfortunately, I didn’t transcribe much for the next 7 years or so.  I say unfortunately because I do think transcribing is good for me.  It is a very good thing for some people.  But not for everyone.

Transcribing takes a lot of time.  In my mom’s mind, the time spent transcribing those laborious bars of music wasn’t worth the small increments of progress.  Was she right?  Or was it an effective use of time for me?  It’s generally not wise to say your mother is wrong… so I’ll sidestep it and just say that transcribing those early solos probably helped set a foundation for me to train my ear…but so did all the other things I was practicing and listening to.  The transcribing helped my ear, but so did the Suzuki violin lessons I took in 3rd grade.  So did writing out 4-part German chorale harmonies by ear on college music theory tests, not to mention just playing a lot of jazz. People say I have a good ear now, but it’s hard to say that’s just the result of transcribing jazz.  Although, I did notice that my ear was actually noticeably stronger after the two big band transcriptions I did in my late 20’s.

With all these transcriptions under my belt, you wouldn’t think that I would question the effectiveness of transcribing.  I do.  

 Understand that my perspective is of a jazz musician and music educator in the trenches.  My job is to make kids fall in love with the music and to succeed at their own levels of talent and commitment.

 I perform regularly, but my day job is teaching jazz to junior high, high school, and college kids.  They have a great time, but most of the kids don’t want to be professional musicians, and that’s ok!  From my perspective, there are seven problems with transcribing:

1) Transcribing is extremely time-consuming.

Transcribing is a slow process, particularly in the early stages.  Even if you are good at it, it’s a slow process.  I remember seeing a Jaleel Shaw clinic almost ten years ago in which he demonstrated the process of transcribing. He didn’t write the solo down (the “scribe” part of “transcribe”), but he learned to play a significant chunk of a Miles Davis solo in front of an audience, phrase by phrase.  Jaleel has a fantastic ear and was lightning fast, with a great memory, but it was still a slow process just because transcribing itself is, by nature, slow, when compared with reading music.  And if you haven’t developed a great ear yet, then transcribing is REALLY, painstakingly slow.

2) Transcribing isn’t fun for some people.

Listening to jazz is fun.  Playing jazz is fun.  Transcribing isn’t fun for some people.  It’s hard work!  It pays off for many people, but it isn’t the only way to learn jazz language.

3) Transcribing is very hard for some people.

I don’t believe transcribing it is an effective use of time for some people.  If someone doesn’t have a good ear and tries transcribing for a long time without producing any noticeable results in their playing, then they may want to try to try other ways to learn jazz language.  Either that, or transcribe easier solos!

4) There are other important things to learn.

This is a important concept.  I live in the real world with real limitations, teaching jazz to normal public school kids.  In addition to my gig as a public school music teacher, getting to teach some jazz in addition to everything else, I also teach jazz as a part-time adjunct professor.  I also have a few college music majors as private jazz students, but I have just as many college students who simply like jazz but are majoring in something else.  My job is to help all of these people learn jazz and enjoy playing it within the time constraints of their lives.  My job is to help students regardless of their background.  

My problem with teaching transcribing is this:  it doesn’t work so well unless a student is willing to put in a TON of time.  

If a student has a very limited amount of time, then I don’t think it’s the most helpful way to spend their time unless they are already fairly advanced.  

Alas, jazz isn’t the top priority for everyone.  If you’ve got a 9th grade kid who has committed 30 minutes a day to practicing music, then transcribing may not be the best way to spend their time. 

When given the choice between helping my beginning jazz piano and guitar students learn to voice chords and comp vs. transcribing single note lines, I’ll prioritize voicings/comping until they are up and running.  It’s more foundational to playing with other people, and we have performances to prepare for.  If they had four hours a day to devote to jazz, then it would be a different story.

When given the choice between helping a student learn to read music vs. transcribing a solo, I will prioritize reading music (yes, even when my students are guitar players) because reading music is a more foundational skill. When given the choice between helping a horn player transcribe vs. learning to play in tune, I’ll have them learn to play in tune first.

It is fairly difficult to transcribe a jazz solo.  I view transcribing as a great thing for a talented student with a good ear and a lot of time to practice.  Transcribing can help many people, but I think there is a time and a place for transcribing.  I don’t think it’s for everyone.  A certain degree of proficiency with an instrument is a prerequisite. And I don’t think it’s wise to only focus on transcribing while neglecting other skills.

Transcribing takes a lot of time, and so transcribing solos only begins to show it’s benefits to students who are willing to put in a LOT of time.  That brings us to our next point:

5) Transcribing doesn’t help with every goal.

Whether or not someone should spend a lot of time transcribing should depend on their musical goals and their level of dedication.  People have lives outside of jazz, and that’s very ok.  Not everyone has the goal of playing at the Village Vanguard, but jazz is still a great hobby for them.

I have seen young musicians transcribe so much that they never really learned to read music.  This is a problem.  Reading music is important.  Even if some musicians don’t read music on every gig, the time will come where a jazz musician who doesn’t read music will wish they did.  They will inevitably feel their limitations because some gig will require it, like the “jazz lore” story in which Vic Juris had to turn down a Michael Brecker gig because he couldn’t (yet) read music.  Vic then made reading music a priority and learned to do it well!  Ideally you can read music well AND have also spent countless hours transcribing.

If a person’s goal is to become a professional jazz musician with a serious command of the language of other jazz musicians, then transcribing is a great path to that goal.   Transcribing is also NOT the only path to success as a jazz musician.  Oscar Peterson, Fred Hersch, Mulgrew Miller, and Ambrose Akinmusire are notable examples of famous jazz musicians who reportedly didn’t spend much time transcribing, if any.
Advanced high school and college players can benefit a lot from transcribing to help them understand jazz language as played by other musicians. Younger players can benefit also from transcribing.  I’ve had students as young as sixth grade transcribe solos in their private lessons, but they already had a few years of playing classical music under their belt first.

My guess is that most professional jazz musicians have spent at least some time transcribing, but not all.  But becoming a professional jazz musician isn’t the goal of every musician.

Let’s be real here.  Many people who play jazz are hobbyists with families, day jobs, mortgages, and countless adult responsibilities.  Transcribing is very low on their priority list.  They just want to play music and enjoy it.  Many people just want music to be a fun hobby, and if transcribing is a part of that, then great!  If not…

6) Transcribing can, in some cases, kill a passion for the music.

This is by far the biggest problem I have with transcribing, and the jazz religion it has become.  There is a large sub-culture in jazz that seems to believe that transcribing is the only way you can learn the music, which just isn’t true.  I’ve seen serious jazz students who transcribe a lot get frustrated and want to quit.  Was there a correlation between transcribing and wanting to quit?  Perhaps in some cases.
Transcribing can have a detrimental psychological effect in some cases when people spend so much time comparing their own inabilities to the abilities of the Greats.  Who compares favorably with John Coltrane?  Very few people…

I’ve seen musicians become very discouraged through the transcribing process.  If transcribing kills your love of the music, don’t do it!  There are other ways to improve.  I happen to believe that playing your instrument should be fun.  There are other ways to improve your ability to improvise, and there are alternative ways to improve your ear.

I am not against transcribing.  The way I see it, as someone who has done quite a bit of transcribing, there are three main benefits to transcribing:

  1. Transcribing helps expand your vocabulary of musical ideas and helps you understand what others have done before you.  
  2. Transcribing helps to improve your ear.  
  3. Transcribing helps to improve your technique.  

The thing is, each of these goals of transcribing can be accomplished in various other ways that don’t involve transcribing.  Learning jazz etudes, written transcriptions, learning bebop tunes, practicing licks, and just listening to music can all help with learning jazz vocabulary, which is one of the primary objectives of transcribing.  There are multiple paths to learning the jazz language.  Transcribing is a good path, but not the only one.   The other two main objectives of transcribing-training your ear and improving technique-can also be accomplished in many other ways.

Many musicians benefit from transcribing, but for some people it can be a very frustrating experience.  I’d much rather have my students listen more and transcribe less if transcribing is going to kill their passion for the music.

7)  The Bigger Issue is Listening.

I can tell you from my experience in the trenches teaching jazz to junior high, high school, and college kids, is that getting kids to be excited about the music and listening to jazz at all is a more important battle in the full scheme of things.  While some students are interested enough to put in the time to transcribe, a bigger concern for many jazz educators who aren’t at magnet schools or music conservatories is just getting kids excited and listening to jazz at all.

I’m not anti-transcribing.  I’m anti-drudgery.  I’m anti-things that make people hate music.  Practicing music should be fun, at least the majority of the time.  If transcribing is a joy to you, then get after it!

If transcribing is effective for you, then great!  Learn all you can from it.  Transcribing requires a great deal of practice time to pull it off, in most cases.  If you are able to “swing” it, then go make Count Basie proud!

But if you know deep down that transcribing isn’t your thing, I encourage you to develop other practice techniques that will help you keep your love of the music alive.  Give yourself permission to give it up if it just isn’t working for you.  Transcribing isn’t the only way to get better at jazz.  A good healthy dose of listening to jazz and just playing a lot can be a great alternative.

Music should be fun.  Always enjoy the journey!

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

2 COMMENTS

  1. Your points are well taken. When I was taking my first and only jazz improv class in college, I had 1 week to transcribe 1 chorus, so I selected Miles Davis' solo on All Blues. I know I spent a few hours and I wrote the notes down to document the assignment, but we had to play it from memory for the class. It was a great experience, but unfortunately, with all the other things to do for my classes, I did not have time to transcribe anymore. I still listened and tried to pick out melodies but I never worked on improv. because I knew how much time the process takes. I feel that not transcribing impeded my growth with improv skills. The Dos XX meme says it nicely. By the way – we should not neglect the importance of learning jazz etudes with audio tracks when we don't have a lot of time to transcribe. Besides, jazz etudes may be more accessible than the monster pro players.

    • Hi Henry,

      Yes, that's a great solo to transcribe! As you know, doing more transcription would help you, but I think letting go of the guilt that can be associated with not transcribing is healthy. You're right, jazz etudes are another great way to learn! Some people really like to see ideas written out, and jazz etudes or even written out transcriptions can help visual learners.

      In addition to 1. Transcribing solos yourself and 2. Learning jazz etudes, here's a third category: written out solos that someone else has transcribed. I know some people who think that reading a solo that someone else transcribed is missing the point, and maybe there is more value in transcribing something yourself. However, I think that reading a solo that someone else has written out can be good for you, too. You work on your reading, chops, and studying a written solo can actually help you to construct better solos. It becomes like an etude "composed" by a master! In this case, you should always listen to the solo, though, instead of just reading it!

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