Transcribing is a time-honoured approach to learning jazz improvisation, part of the educational toolkit for many students and teachers. Legendary jazz educator Jamey Abersold says “Transcribing solos or portions of solos off recordings is one of the best ways to find out what the professional is doing to make things sound so good”¹. Saxophonist and teacher David Liebman lauds transcribing as the most effective way to “learn tone, nuance and develop a true and believable jazz sense of rhythm”².
But what does it mean to ‘transcribe’? And how much is enough? The answers to both questions are, to an extent, ‘it depends’.
What does transcribing mean?
Firstly, transcribing does not have to mean actually writing anything down. It simply means to learn something by ear. Many students of jazz learn, by ear, solos or parts of solos by musicians they admire or are studying. You can also transcribe a tune, learning it by ear.
The benefits of transcribing are suggested by the quotes above. More than just ear-training (though that’s a benefit too), it teaches the vocabulary, style, sound, feel, approach, and nuance of the artist you transcribe. There is a lot of information in a performance that is not captured or conveyed by notation. Transcribing is a way of recapturing that detail.
Could there be any drawbacks to transcribing?
There may be one drawback too, albeit minor. If you learn a tune only by transcribing just one version by one artist, then you may not be aware of the diversity of ways of playing it that might exist. Or the version you transcribe may actually be unusual, such as an uncommon key, form, tempo or style. Not knowing that might make it harder for you to play it with others. The simple solution is to listen more widely.
Whole solos or selections?
Transcribing several complete solos by an artist will give better insight into the nuances of their approach – not just the theory-aspect of it, but their personal way of performing. However, it is also very time-consuming and maybe less-effective for the study of techniques or harmony in a more general sense. It can often be more effective to learn selected phrases or licks, study their context (such as what chord progression they are used with), and then quickly apply them in other settings, thus incorporating them into your own playing. It is certainly a mistake to get bogged-down by never finishing long transcriptions and giving up. Whichever way you do it, it will be wonderful practice for you.
Transcribing is a powerful and useful tool that every jazz student can benefit from.