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Transcribing Jazz Solos: Is It Better to Write It Down or Learn It Only By Ear?

Ok, so you’ve probably been hearing that you need to transcribe jazz solos for a long time, but what is the transcription process?  And what is the benefit to transcribing?  Why would one take all that time to learn a solo?  Or learn a melody by ear?  We’ll discuss all of these questions, but first let’s talk about what transcription is on a basic level.

Transcribing, in a nutshell, is either:

A) Learning to play a jazz solo (or lick, or tune) by ear

OR 

B) Writing down a jazz solo (or lick, or tune) that you learn by ear from a recording.

You can also combine these two basic approaches, and hit multiple levels of learning by both learning to play the solo first AND THEN writing it down.  There are benefits to both approaches, and combining them will reinforce your learning.

Here are some of the benefits of transcribing in general:

  • Transcribing helps build your ear
  • Transcribing helps build your vocabulary of jazz licks
  • Transcribing helps your technique-especially if you learn to play along with the recording!
  • Transcribing helps you analyze how others approach the changes to a tune.
  • Using transcription you teach yourself how to improvise better by learning from the masters.

Here are some of the benefits of learning to play a solo by ear (without writing it down):

  • You will REALLY learn the solo, and will remember it longer than if you just write it down.
  • There’s an intangible thing that happens-the solo becomes a part of you.  You internalize it, and the solo becomes part of how you conceptualize a particular tune.
  • The way you approach soloing over the tune you transcribed is influenced on an unconscious level by the solo you learned over that song.

Here are some of the benefits to writing down a solo:

  • It is easier to analyze the solo when it is in written form.
  • It is easier to reference in a teaching situation.
  • You can save it for later in case you forget the solo.
  • You can pass it out to others so they can play it or analyze the solo.
  • You may be able to learn the solo faster, (though you may not internalize it).
So here are some options:
1.  Learn the solo on your instrument completely by ear
2.  Write down the solo (for analysis), and don’t learn to play it
3.  Write down the solo, and then learn to play it
4.  Learn the solo first, then write it down
5.  Use the 80-80-80 Method:  Listen 80 times, Sing 80 Times, Play 80 Times
(perhaps this would be the 800-800-800 Method…whatever you need to do!)
The approach you use should depend on your goals.  For instance, if you are transcribing a particular tune, you might be transcribing in order to put the melody and chord changes in front of a band for a gig situation.  If that is your goal, then option #2 will suffice.  If your goal is to learn some new licks, you can learn small parts of the solos of other people and transpose them into all 12 keys.  Maybe writing them down might help you in that process, but you may not have to.  Perhaps your goal is to transcribe a solo for other people to learn, such as in a teaching situation.  In this case, writing it down is the way to go.

Let me stress that an intangible thing happens when you learn a solo without writing it down.  It becomes a part of you as you learn to play it.  Still, transcribing by notation is great for analyzing a solo and learning cognitively.

For this reason, I think the maximum benefit you can get out of a solo would be to use the 80-80-80 method  (as described above), and after you’ve THOROUGHLY learned the transcription and internalized it, then you can write it down and save it for posterity (for your teaching studio, for your own benefit if you want to relearn it again at another time, etc.)

I think a balanced approach is good:  transcribing with a purpose in mind.  Transcribing adds ideas into your playing, improves your ear, and increases your technique.  I prefer to learn a solo by ear without writing it down because I think it helps you internalize the solo better.  I’m a piano player, so I’ll add in my own comp over the changes.  It’s good to be aware of a variety of approaches to transcription, try out a few of them, and use whatever method works for you.

Camden Hugheshttp://camdenhughes.com/
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at www.camdenhughesmusic.com.

8 COMMENTS

  1. sing it , play it all by ear the entire piece, then notate it right after to Ocasionaly Play the entire solo in 2 or 3 keys by ear !

  2. Hi Camden,

    First off, I want to say thanks for this article and your amazing website. I’m learning how to play guitar, mostly blues-rock oriented, and in trying to make sure I access all possible learning resources think yours is one of the best I’ve come across.

    My question/comment is that the concept of 80-80-80 can’t be literal, can it? To listen to almost any song 80 times doesn’t seem like the best way to spend your time. I know this may make me sound like I’m not getting it, but for someone like me, I really tend to ask myself how many times I should listen to a piece, then sing, then play, and so that’s why I’m asking what may seem like a pretty basic question.

    Best,

    Dan

    • Thanks Dan! Glad you like the site, and thanks for your excellent question. 80-80-80 is conceptual. How many times do you need to listen to it before you have it in your head? It could be 20-30-80, or it could be 800-800-800. It just depends. The point is to give yourself enough repetition so that you KNOW it. You can probably jump ahead and fudge on the listening part and start singing the solo earlier, but you definitely want to know what it sounds like. It could end up being 10-50-400. Whatever you need to do to make it work. Working it out on your instrument (the last 80) can be the most difficult part early on, but once you have the sounds in your ear, the process becomes much easier. I hope that helps!

      Also, some guys like to just listen to an idea, then learn a few notes. They’ll then play along to what they know of the solo, and then learn a few more notes. Eventually they have the whole solo. That’s another common way to transcribe. Again, find what works for you.

      Brent is also a guitar player, and he started off as a rock guitarist in high school before he fell in love with jazz. That’s a pretty common path for guitar players! Enjoy the journey!

      Camden

    • Dan,
      Just wanted to add a little to what Camden was saying about the transcribing/lifting process.
      Guitarist Lage Lund,(if you dont know him check him out! Hes a big force in the modern jazz guitar scene) from what I have heard from one of his students, doesn’t start learning a solo on his instruments until he can literally sing the solo note for note away from the instrument.
      This I think is the best way to truly learn a solo. We must realize that the development of our ears is the most important aspect of improvisation.
      The music comes from inside you and the instrument is simply a tool on which to express it.
      For me at least, it can take a hundred or more times of listening to that solo until I can really hear the whole thing in my head.
      I listen to it in the subway, walking to the park, sitting at home, while cooking dinner, you name it as long as I can internalize it.
      So its true that it has potential to take up a lot of time, but I think the results are worthwhile!

  3. I use to write it and learn it by parts. I start writing the first A (for AABA structured songs in this case), then I play it in the instrument repeatedly ’till I memorize it. Then I start writing the second A and go to play it several times ’till I memorize it, and so on and so on and so on. Then I play the whole piece.

  4. Yes, I got the 80-80-80 method (80 times listening, 80 times singing, 80 times playing) from Bruce Forman in a masterclass. It’s a pretty great concept-transcribing solos by internalizing them through singing before you even try playing one note! If you can sing the solo perfectly, that will make it easier to play once you start the third 80-playing the solo with your instrument.

    The implicit concept behind the 80-80-80 method is “playing what you hear.” If you can sing it, then you really should be able to play it. Transcription helps bridge the gap between your ear and your instrument.

  5. Transcription has been very valuable to me as a player.
    I once was at a master class led by young L.A. guitarist Graham Dechter who is currently in the Clayton/Hamilton Big Band, and he taught a similar idea to the 80-80-80 method.
    The point of it being, its best to have the solo internalized in you ear first before you start transferring it to your instrument.
    Very valuable information here. Great post!

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