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Transcription is the Prescription

Music is a language, a worthy analogy used often. Like many languages, music uses sound to convey ideas or emotions. Also, like language, the fastest way to gain fluency is through immersion. So how does one immerse themselves in musical language? The answer is transcription, or learning musical ideas that other people are doing. If you want to learn to play like a certain music what better way is there than learning their actual lines? Especially in the world of Jazz new players are often admonished to go transcribe other musicians, which is great advice with the caveat that transcription is a bit of an artform in and of itself. In this article I’m going to break down how to effectively use transcribed ideas so that you can actually implement them into your compositions and improvisations effectively and creatively.

For starters I want to both reinforce and undermine some classical thinking on transcription. For one, every musician should ear transcribe music. Developing your ears is an essential. This is not an article on how to ear transcribe, but I will briefly say that it’s still great practice to transcribe ideas that are easy and clear for you to hear. I also highly suggest using a slow downer, or the playback function on youtube to hear parts played back at slower speeds (it retains proper pitch at low speeds). Here is where I’ll depart from a lot of teachers and players and say that I think it’s perfectly fine to not transcribe whole solos. I’ve heard some prodigious players say that they never transcribed whole solos, and others who did it non-stop. If you would rather transcribe ideas or small sections, I encourage you whole-heartedly to take that route and feel no shame in doing so.

Many think the point of transcription is just to get the idea from your ears onto paper. I would put forward that this constitutes, at best, about half the work. The back end of transcription is where things really start to get interesting. But if getting the notes down on paper isn’t the point, then what is? It’s to understand what a person played, in the context they played it, and how they played it. Furthermore, it is extremely beneficial to get creative with a line and figure out how we can use it in other contexts.

Below is a single line from a Charlie Parker on the tune “Bloomdido” written out for guitar (my instrument of choice).

This tune is a 12 bar jazz blues in the key of C Major. This particular line comes from the 7th bar of the form on a I7 chord leading towards a E7b9 that acts as a V7/VI chord before the turnaround. This line can be broken down into two basic ideas, a chromatic approach note into an E-7 arpeggio, then descending linearly down the scale neatly landing on G# (not in the above notation) the major 3rd of the following chord.

The scale wise motion is pretty straightforward, but the beginning is interesting. First we can look at the chromatic note. Here we have an approach not that starts a half step below the E-7 arpeggio, and, importantly, it’s placed on the upbeat. This is common in jazz, to have chromatic tones on upbeats and scale or chord tones on the downbeats. It isn’t exclusively done that way, but it’s good to know what is employed more often, especially when you run into another idea that places a chromatic note on a downbeat, you can then see if you can figure out why it works in that context. For now let’s focus on what we have in front of us. So why did Parker use an E-7 arpeggio here? Well, let’s look at the notes of the chord against the underlying harmony. In an E-7 we have E, G, B, and D. The E is the 6th or 13th degree of a G7 chord, the G is the root of a G7, and the B and D are the 3rd and 5th respectively. Now we’ve extrapolated an idea we can use further in our playing; on a dominant chord we can play a -7 arpeggio starting from the major 6th chord tone. Let’s see if we can employ that idea over a VI7-II7-V7-I7 in the key of G:

Sounds like it works well to me! It seems like an idea with broad application, though it will require experimentation to see if it works well in all contexts. For instance, you might run into issues where a strict diatonic context might have a subdominant where the underlying key doesn’t have the major 6th interval for that chord, (VI7, III7 for instance). In the case of the VI7-II7-V7-I7 above the instability of all the dominant chords makes the idea work, but you’ll have to play around with the idea to get a better feel for where it works and where it doesn’t.

Now let’s look at the line as a whole. Again, if you are familiar with jazz, this idea of a chromatic approach-note into an upper structure arpeggio then descending with a scalar run that connects with the next chord is common. If you are new to the idea though, how can we implement this idea into a different, yet common, chord format. Let’s say we want to try this using a ii-V-I. Here I’ve worked this concept so that it motivically fits over this very common progression.

You can see in this example I’ve used the core of the idea but played around with the line shapes a little bit to make it flow nicely over the bar. I’ve also added a chromatic passing tone to the end of the second bar to nicely resolve to the 3rd on the final bar.

This idea of taking the core concepts and expanding them in different ways is the real crux of how to use transcription. Being able to actually integrate ideas into your playing, and learning how to permutate them in ways that will make them useful for other contexts will vastly expand your vocabulary and your creativity.

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