Transcribing and Ear Training

One of the best ways to train your ears is to transcribe music from recordings.  However, it is not enough to tell someone to “transcribe”, there’s in fact a way to transcribe that you will get more out of than if you just do it note by note, slowing the recording down, playing a game of hit and miss.


1)The Material-As your ears grow you can do melodies, harmonies and even rhythms.

I recommend beginner’s start with a song that has lyrics and not one that is purely instrumental.  I recommend this because you want/need something you can sing and hum fairly easily in the beginning.  The reasons for this will become apparent below.

2)The Method-The most common method is to play the material, try a few notes, then rewind, then try a few notes until you just so happen to stumble upon the right ones.  While this is better than nothing, I don’t believe this will give you all of the benefits of transcribing.

Instead do this-listen to the phrase as a COMPLETE SENTENCE, meaning listening to a phrase just like you would say or sing it.  Listen to it over and over until you can sing/hum the phrase, at this point don’t try to play it on your instrument.  Don’t try to play until you can accurately sing the phrase, this includes pitch and rhythm.  You will find in the beginning that this takes a ton of listening to the same phrase over and over.  Only after you can sing the phrase try to play it on your instrument.  (This is why I say don’t start with banjo rolls, you can’t hum a banjo roll very easily :P)…start by plucking out basic melodies.

3)Try different genres and instrumentations-Even if you can hear intervals, chords, and more there is still another element-Timbre of the instruments.  For example, I can more readily recognize chords on my own instruments than I can say one I haven’t played before.  Right now I’m working on transcribing orchestra works onto the keyboard.  I’m doing this so I can hopefully someday hear more than one part at once accurately internally.  It’s been a challenge sometimes to hear the lowest registers of the bass, the middle range of the viola or the highest parts of the flute.  The more instruments and timbres you try, the more sensitive your ears become to pitch in general, to the point that the instrument doesn’t matter as much anymore.

4)One of the biggest benefits of transcription is ear training; however, you shouldn’t let it stop there.  You need to take the material you got and try to use it in your own playing, writing, etc.  Music Theorists call this Analysis.  Analyze the material (what did the person play, why?, how can I incorporate this into my own music?) and then put it to use.  Write a song or solo around the bit of knowledge you gained from the transcription.

Lastly, as you transcribe, analyze which notes are accented, what is the tone of the notes, are they smooth? jagged? sharp?  How is the dynamics? Did they play quieter or louder in spots? How was the rhythm? Try to match it by playing along with the recording.

I see A LOT of people posting videos of them playing someone else’s solo; however, a lot of these people never post themselves playing anything they created themselves.  This tells me that somewhere in the middle of the above steps they stopped.  That is a shame and you are missing out on the creative aspect of music.

Jody Written by:

Professional Musician of 27 years. I've played Banjo and Acoustic Guitar on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, and The Ryman Auditorium. I've also played in six different countries.

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