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How I Transcribe Jazz Recordings

David Berger

First of all, I never studied this or read about how to create written scores from listening to recordings, I learned by doing. When I was little, I used to pick out the melody to songs on the piano. When I got interested in jazz, there were very few transcriptions of solos and few publications of jazz tunes or charts that I listened to on records, so I started transcribing what I heard. It was slow and painstaking, and I wasn’t very good at first, but I stuck with it, because I wanted to become a good jazz player and writer. Here are some things that it takes to become a good transcriber:

 

  1. A love for the music that makes you curious to know what other players and writers are doing.
  2. Listening to the same passage over and over until you get it right. Sometimes you can’t get it, so you come back later.
  3. A good ear. The ability to write down the correct pitches and rhythms of what you hear. Perfect pitch and relative pitch are very helpful.
  4. A selective ear. The ability to focus on different instruments, pitches and rhythms going on at the same time, so that you can sing them. Hearing something is usually much more difficult than writing down what you hear.
  5. Notation skills. Knowing how to organize the music on a score and parts using the jazz conventions that have evolved over the last 100 years, so that your music will be clear and sight-readable by experienced players.
  6. As much knowledge of harmony, orchestration and arranging as possible. In a well-written chart, every note makes sense, but so often I see and play transcriptions that have mostly the correct pitches and rhythms, but the parts, voicings, orchestration, etc. aren’t always logical.

 

Here’s my advice: Start by transcribing something within your grasp. It could be a folk song, or a Lester Young tenor solo. Something that doesn’t have a lot of notes, is basically diatonic and doesn’t involve tricky rhythms. Get the pitches and rhythms correct and notate them properly. Then gradually increase the difficulty: more chromaticism and tricky rhythms. Then see if you can also hear counter-lines, harmony parts and bass lines.

 

Here is how I do it:

 

  1. I make sure that I have the proper recording of the piece and the correct take. A few times I was asked to transcribe a piece and wasn’t aware that there was an alternate version, which was what the client wanted. Also sometimes you can hear things on alternate takes and recordings that you couldn’t on the famous recording.
  2. Do a little research and see if the score and parts exist somewhere. There are archives all around the country where original scores and band libraries are deposited. Also there are many transcriptions of varying degrees of accuracy available through publishers and band leaders.
  3. Look at a discography or liner notes to determine the instrumentation and personnel. You may only hear 3 saxes, but the record company said there were 5.
  4. Print out score paper with the appropriate instrumentation.
  5. I always start with the bass part. On big band recordings the bass can be obscured by all the horns, especially if there are low saxes and trombones in the bass clef. I use a digital computer program called The Amazing Slow Downer. It enables me to start, stop and repeat passages easily. Because it is digital, speed and pitch are not linked to each other. I can slow down or speed up the track without altering the pitch and vice versa. I begin by listening to the recording an octave higher. This makes the bass part very audible. This can be deceiving at times, so it’s a good idea when you have finished the entire bass part, to go back to the beginning and listen to it at normal pitch.
  6. While you are doing the bass part, put in the double bars and rehearsal letters for each 8 or 12 bar phrases. You may also put in some of the chord changes in the piano part, since the bassist will generally be playing the roots of the chords.
  7. Next I generally write down the lead trumpet or lead alto sax part. This depends on who is playing the melody and who is easiest to hear. The top parts are usually the easiest to hear. I’m big on grabbing all the low-hanging fruit before I climb the tree. Lead trombone parts are frequently easy to hear as well.
  8. I generally listen for the bottom sax and trombone next. This gives me the parameters of the sax and brass sections. I then know that the other voices are between those pitches. Since I know how many players there are in each section, in most cases (except unisons, of course) I will listen for one note per player. Sometimes not all the players in a section will play a passage. Maybe someone is resting because they just played a solo or have a solo coming up. In my experience it is very rare that players within a section will double each other on harmonized passages with the exception of 2-part harmony, where there might be 2 players per part. This was a feature of Billy May’s writing as well as Quincy Jones and Billy Byers.
  9. On occasion an inside part will be disproportionately loud and stick out. Maybe he was closest to the microphone and will remain loud throughout the track. This can be used to your advantage. Figure out what instrument it is. If it’s a tenor sax, is it the 3rd or 4th reed? Follow that part as long as you can. If you have the lead part and one other part, listen in the areas where the other parts must be. For instance if you have the lead alto and the baritone sax, generally the other 3 saxes will be voiced between those two outer parts. Say it’s an F chord and the lead alto has a G and the bari has an F on the bottom, I’m going to listen and see if I can hear an A, C, and either a D or E. Being an experienced arranger helps a lot.
  10. I usually start at the beginning of a track and work in sequence. Sometimes a figure or passage will be repeated. Listen each time to determine that they are exactly the same. Also sometimes when I get to the repeat, I realize I got it wrong the first time, so I’ll go back and change it. Remember that players are not infallible. They might not have played it exactly correctly the first time, but nailed it the second time around.
  11. After I’ve finished transcribing all the written horn parts, I will transcribe the solos, then the piano part and lastly the drum part (since he doesn’t deal with pitches). While making a final proof of the score (Always check your work), I put in the dynamics.

 

I’ve transcribed nearly 1000 big band charts and hundreds of small bands from Jelly Roll Morton to Wynton Marsalis. Not only has transcribing improved my ear, but I’ve also learned a pile about harmony, composition, arranging and orchestration. The process of transcribing gets you so close to the piece that it’s almost like you are the arranger or composer.

 

I have heard musicians say that if they transcribe, they will wind up sounding like the person they transcribe. Well, yes to a certain extent. You learned to speak English (or whatever language your parents spoke) from your parents and older siblings, and you probably sounded pretty much like them (in a simplified way) until you started watching TV, played with friends and went to school. When you heard other people speak, you picked up the words, pronunciation and content from them as well. Your personality became a conglomerate of all the things you liked from all the people. Because of personal preferences and experiences, everyone has their own personality. When I hear my brothers speak, I am reminded of how much we sound alike. Some of this is genetic, some is from growing up in the same house and going to the same elementary school. But our vocabulary and content are vastly different. This is as true in music as it is in speech. Jazz is a language. We need to learn grammar, syntax and artistic content and construction from our elders. Choose wisely who you emulate.

 

30 years ago I was teaching arranging in a leading college jazz program. One of the students asked me how I thought of such good musical ideas in my arrangements. I told him that I only listened to the best music I could find. That music seeped into my subconscious, so that when I wrote, I aimed high (Ellington, Gil, Stravinsky, Mingus, et al). When I inevitably missed my mark, I wound up still doing pretty well. If I listened to mediocre or poor music (even just a little), this lowered my chances of writing authentic well-conceived and integrated music, and when I fell short of the mediocre models, my music would be poor.

 

I just told this story recently. Forgive me if you’ve heard it. On the first 30-city Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra tour in 1992 we were all standing outside our hotel waiting to board the bus. Roland Hanna was first to board the bus. He put one foot on the first step and heard the pop music being played on the loudspeaker in the bus. He looked up at our friendly driver, who was seated at the wheel and asked him to please turn off the music. The driver asked, “Why?” Roland said, “Now, what would happen if tonight when I’m on the bandstand, that music came into my head?” You are what you eat doesn’t just pertain to food.

 

I once wrote a chart called Mangez Juste, which in French means eat wisely. We are so lucky in this Internet era to have many, if not most, of the great recordings of the past at our disposal. We can’t go hear Bird live, but we can hear thousands of hours of his recorded music without leaving home, no matter where you live.

 



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  • River Bergstrom on

    This is all so great, David, thank you for taking the time to write it all down. I have been preaching the same stuff to students for thirty some years! Some things are almost too easy for the young people these days. They want to buy a book and immediately play out of it, and immediately sound like one of the masters! I keep telling them that you have to listen first…then begin the process. And to view it as a process! Nothing is going to happen right away. You will struggle and not be very good at it at first. But if you love it , and stick with it, you will get better! Thanks again, so much!

  • carlos oliveira on

    Very good suggestions, it is clear that nowadays with the advent of internet and and all access sometimes us musicians tend to lean on laziness, since somebody else is doing the work for us. Still, transcribing, ear training, melodic dictation are a challenge. Thanks for the tips.

  • Cath on

    Thank you!

  • Chris WIley on

    In the late 80s, I was lucky enough to play trombone in your band at William Patterson. It was the earlier Ellington repertoire you had transcribed, and it was a great experience working on the Tricky Sam Nanton solos. I’m glad some of your work is available here! The insight into your transcribing process is quite valuable. I seem to recall that once you commented that you transcribed the solos first, but, well, that was some time ago.

  • Nina Schwartz on

    Brilliant!



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