THE COMPLETE TRANSCRIPTION PROCESS by DAVID LIEBMAN
How does one learn tone, nuance and develop a true and believable jazz sense of
rhythm? Certainly there are exercises and method books which can help a student attain
these goals, but there is a built in elusiveness to these concepts since they are virtually
impossible to notate in any convincing fashion. The best approach is exact aural and
tactile imitation-the first stage of all artistic growth. For jazz, the most valuable form of
imitation is a direct master-apprentice relationship in which the live model (master)
demonstrates directly to the student demanding immediate and exact repetition until
mastered before moving on. Learning in this way becomes a natural outgrowth of
constant exposure and reinforcement on the spot. But without that opportunity, I have
found transcription is the next best method. Some musicians object to transcribing as
stealing other people’s ideas. My contention is that in one way or another, whether it be
as detailed as I will describe or as casual as Charlie Parker supposedly standing outside of
a club in Kansas City hearing Lester Young and then going home with phrases in his ear
and mind to practice and recall, most artists have done something of this sort. And the
best players are usually the ones who will tell you immediately that so and so was their
main inspiration and they began by copying him. This is a process-a means to and end
and to my mind very necessary.
I have a DVD titled “The Improviser’s Guide to Transcription” (Caris
Music Services) which describes the process in detail with actual demonstrations.
Transcribing involves a three part learning process: body, mind and spirit-in that order.
Being an auto didactic system, the process involves a student 100% in their own work
with tangible and measurable rewards. If present, the teacher can serve as a guide, but in
any case this process can all be accomplished without the aid of an institution. It is
exhaustive, complete and very satisfying with results immediately perceived in most
cases via an improved time feel and more subtle use of nuance for starters. Transcribing
is like learning how to speak a language, similar to the experience of traveling to a
foreign country whose language may have been studied in school. Finally a student can
hear the way the language is actually used and pronounced rather than written by being
immersed in a foreign culture on a day to day basis. The so-called intangibles in jazz,
outside of the specific notes and rhythms, cannot be notated exactly. This includes but is
not limited to the subtleties of rhythmic feel and how the artist interprets the beat as well
as the use of expressive nuance in one's sound, aspects of which are usually lumped
under the word “phrasing.” In transcribing, a musician is forced to hear and duplicate
everything. As well, with the notes written out it becomes possible to analyze the thought
process of the improviser. This can help the student initiate his or her own ideas and
inspire one to go further in their own research.
In my opinion, it is the most efficient and productive technique for learning to
improvise in the jazz tradition, or in any tradition for that matter. It is the closest one can
come to the age old master apprenticeship system which existed for centuries as the
accepted method for learning the arts and crafts. As mentioned above, transcribing a
master is the next best thing to having an accomplished improviser present in real time in
front of a student as a model to copy and inspire. Transcription is an unbeatable tool as a
means to an end. The end being artistic creation, musical freedom and hopefully, a
recognizable style of playing. Knowing what came before is the only way to realize what
there is left to do. Imitation as a stage of learning is timeless and inevitable.
In general the three part process involves at first saturated listening to the chosen
solo with the first goal being to sing along in scat fashion. A student should arrive at the
point that with or without the recording playing he can reasonably sing the solo. The
important musical skill acquired and honed in this process is pitch control without the
crutch of the instrument at hand, which will come later. This also reinforces a strong
sense of rhythm as we expect the student to keep the correct pulse without the aid of a
metronome or having the recorded version to reference at all while singing.
Next is the time consuming process of writing out and playing the solo. In some
cases, depending upon the proposed solo and individual skills of the student, the exact
sequence of events can be changed accordingly, meaning learning the solo first on the
instrument followed by notation. But in any case the goals are exact duplication of every
aspect of the solo including all nuances besides the pitches as well as having it written
down accurately. It is in this stage of imitating the solo that the acquisition of subtleties
such as tone color, nuance, variations of time feel, etc., is subconsciously absorbed, not to
mention improved technique. It’s like a reservoir being filled for eventual use by the
student in the real world of his own playing. This is the most important stage. There
should be little or no difference to one’s ears between the original and the student’s
version when this stage is completed.
Here is an MP3 of Jessica Lee playing a Joe Lovano on "Passion Dance"
Here is an MP3 of Berklee student Hailey Niswanger playing along with part
of my Fancy Free solo from "Live At The Lighthouse " with Elvin Jones (1972)
HERE is an MP3 of Guitarist Chris Guilfoyle (son of Irish bassist/composer Ronan Guilfoyle) playing Coltrane's "Nite Has 1000 Eyes"
Live At The Plugged Nickel
Pianist So Young Park from the Master's Program at Manhattan School of Music
singing AND playing (at the same time) a very hard and uptempo solo...Herbie
Hancock on "Milestones" from Live at the Plugged Nickel (Miles Davis
seminal live recording).
Aside from the obvious technical rewards of having to carefully and accurately
notate the specifics of rhythm and pitch, I have the student write out the solo so that it can
be analyzed and used for further study. This third part of the process is where, depending
upon the solo, a certain amount of harmonic and possibly compositional knowledge may
be necessary for understanding what was played. Certainly a teacher can be of benefit at
this point with their experience. The goal here is to first try and understand the thinking,
rationale and concept of the improviser under study as much as can be deduced after the
fact about an improvisation. Though there are of course inexplicable events which occur
musically, with analysis at least some patterns and repetitive ideas reflecting the thinking
process of the artist in question can be discerned.
To digress for a moment, the unitiated might consider improvisation in jazz as
what it appears to be-completely spontaneous and in the moment. But we know that what
is actually being played (outside rare moments of fresh inspiration) is a result of habit and
experience to a large degree, albeit cast in the moment. Though one’s phrasing may alter
from idea to idea or day to day depending upon the player’s temperament and response in
relation to the surroundings, audience, venue, accompanists and more, the content itself
will be less sensitive to change. Of course content hopefully evolves with time as in the
case of great innovators like John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis whose styles
changed monumentally in different ways over varied amounts of years. For other artists it
may be more gradual and at a slower rate. In any case this analysis procedure is crucial to
understanding the intellectual component of the musical material being played.
What are we specifically looking for in the analysis stage? A short list might
include specifics of scales and chord types used, melodic motifs and their variations,
overall structure of the solo in regards to both content and emotion, rhythmic diversity,
uses of patterns and other repetitive devices, passages of lyricism versus harmonic
complexity and much more. We are trying to put ourselves into the mind of the
improviser who is far removed from present time without any concrete idea of what was
on his mind that day. This “second guessing” can have far reaching consequences for the
Following this analysis we get more involved with the tools that were discovered.
The student isolates melodic lines which belong to certain harmonic progressions, at first
those that are most common in jazz like the II-V-1 or I-V1-II-V, etc., and then compose
variations that still retain the integrity and core of that particular chosen line. Also with
the aid of a teacher if needed we try to sort out qualitative differences between lines that
were played. For example noticing the differences between those lines that used only
chord tones or blues notes compared to more complex examples using harmonic
substitutions and more. In other words we try to develop within a student an objective
way to judge the musical sophistication of a line in order to get his mind and ear up to a
level of knowing the difference between merely good lines and great ones. Criteria such
as contour, rhythmic variation, varied pitch choices are some elements that are involved
in these evaluations. The student should choose some of the better lines to use as models
for composing variations as well as transposing them to other keys and tempos.
Other extended exercises consist of taking lines from different sections of the
solos and cross referencing them, in a sense constructing several alternative versions of
the original material. Also I will have the student compose several “perfect” choruses,
meaning within the style using the best material that he has developed in the line
variation exercises. Then of course the student must play spontaneously with a rhythm
track or accompanist (even with drums only) in the style of the original solo but using his
own material, which by now should be considerable. By the way, vocalists and
percussionists should also be doing some form of this transcription process.
All of this work will hopefully result in absorption of the feeling and content of
the solo. The student has not only observed what was played but after spending so much
time with the solo should naturally feel akin to the spirit and temperament of the soloist
him or herself. This in-depth study can be revealing on many levels. There is something
very honest and validating about studying the past in this manner. It gives a student a
sense of being connected to the tradition and of having earned his or her way.
For the first solo the student will probably spend a few months involving several
hours a day to go through the entire process. This will speed up with each solo. A student
can eventually work concurrently on several solos possibly singing one while playing
another and analyzing a third. With this much commitment it is important that the correct
choices of material and soloist be carefully thought about for the obvious reason of
It is beneficial to have the student transcribe material that can be of practical use
in the future. For example, transcribing a blues, rhythm changes and well known
standards will be of more benefit at this stage than an original tune played only by a
particular artist. At the least what will be gleaned from the process will be of use in the
real playing world on these types of tunes which are so common in the repertoire.
Concerning which artists to transcribe I have found that the metaphor of a tree is an
effective tool in trying to organize the prodigious amount of recorded history available
for a student to discover. Where does a student begin?
A tree has six parts: root, trunk, limb, branches, twigs and leaves. As we progress
up a tree we get further away from the source which are the actual roots in the ground. In
any field of endeavor there is a similar historical architecture. Simply put, without the
roots (originators) there would be no further story; the trunk symbolizes the main sources
of discovery and stylization; the limbs are people who created their own direction
stemming from the sources and spawning a whole other area; whereas the branches go off
in their own singular direction. Twigs are less dramatic developments while leaves fall to
the ground each season to be forgotten. If we trace the history of jazz or even just the
saxophone or piano for example we could have some very interesting discussions filling
in parts of this metaphorical tree. Suffice to say, if we had unlimited time it would be best
to transcribe from the root up but this is not realistic. So I urge my students to begin with
the bebop tree and work their way through hard bop into modal and free jazz meaning
the music of the 1950s and 1960s for the most part, a period rich in recordings and
innovations. What we are after at the beginning stages of transcription is a solo with good
eighth note lines and a great rhythmic feel. There are abundant examples on blues,
rhythm changes and standards to choose from during the recommended historical period.
The student should choose a solo that he loves and if he could, would play
tomorrow. This is important in order to keep inspiration fresh. I don’t choose a solo for
my students but I direct them to the group of artists who would fit under the guidelines
described. The solo need not be complex or fast. It should be something challenging but
not so much above the student that it will frustrate him. Early Miles Davis through “Kind
of Blue” is a great place to start as is Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon, Wynton Kelly, Wes
Montgomery and others of that ilk. Beginning on the student’s home own instrument
at first is advisable because at least pitch recognition will be more directly related to this
familiar sound and sonority of his instrument. Eventually other instruments are important
to transcribe because the technical aspects of transferring material to one’s own
instrument will challenge the student to come up with different responses, fingerings and
techniques hopefully all aimed at trying to be free of cliches.
With any massive study project it is important to see a light at the end of the
tunnel. After a few transcriptions most students feel really great about the undertaking
and certainly sound better at least on the tunes they transcribed and probably on a lot of
similar material. A tremendous sense of reinforcement and accomplishment is felt. But
there is a danger of using transcription as a source of ideas rather as a means to an end.
After all, the goal as an artist is to find an individual voice. There is a point where it isn’t
artistically honest to keep using other people’s material, even with the transformation
process described in detail below. My recommendation is that students transcribe a blues,
rhythm changes, a standard, a modal and free tune with possibly a few more of particular
interest. But in any case two years is the maximum amount of time one should transcribe,
assuming it is done as described. As stated, when the process speeds up and becomes
routine the student will be able to devote less hours to transcription and return to other
studies. Selective transcription on the other hand goes on forever. That is taking off a few
bars or chorus of something that intrigues you. The same goes for all the transcription
books available in that they should be used like an encyclopedia for reference, sight
reading and to satisfy one’s curiosity.
In summary, transcription involves three basic areas of our musical faculties:
1. Notation through saturated listening to the selected solo, the student internalizes (by
singing at first) the notes and undertakes the painstaking, necessary craft of notating the
rhythms and pitches of the solo.
2. Playing - with repeated instrumental practice, the solo is exactly imitated in every way,
including dynamics, articulation, nuance, time feel, tone coloring and of course, the
rhythms and pitches.
3. Analysis - using the classic methods of theme and variation study, motivic analysis and
form structure concepts, etc., the student deduces to the best of his ability the thought
processes represented in the work. By isolating passages and phrases, learning them in
different keys and tempos, creating variations and using them in other comparable
harmonic situations, the student begins to transform the transcription process from
imitation to creation.
Playing and duplicating the solo
1. Use half speed for practicing synchronization with the original as well as for study of
nuance and expressive techniques used. For symbols used in the transcriptions, refer to
the "Definition of Symbols".
2. Eventually, try to play the solo along with the original at regular speed.
3. After playing with the original, play without using a metronome, with an accompanist,
or a play-along of the same track to check how well you know it. You can even make
your own play-along on a cassette.
4. Play the solo in different keys and tempos.
5. Use the solo as a point of departure to improvise on your own within the chord
progression. Stay close to the style and feel of the original but initiate your own thoughts.
Creating your own ideas
1. Extract a line, pattern, motif and transpose it to other keys and tempos.
2. Categorizing, transposing and composing original lines. Put all the lines that are from
the same progression or chord change type on one page. This is to see the similarities
and differences when a soloist encounters a specific chord or progression. With the help
of an experienced musician choose the “best” lines using criteria of choice of notes,
rhythmic interest and overall shape. See "John Coltrane's I-VI-ii-V Sequences....as well as "COltrane ii-V Lines...(below)
A. Transpose it to other keys and play/memorize it at different tempos. Put the line into a
tune at the same harmonic place.
B. Place it at the top of a page and write variations using typical theme and variation
techniques (augmentation, diminution, syncopation, sequence change, displacement both
melodically and rhythmically, neighboring tones, etc.). Do these "new lines" in other
keys and at other tempos. Try to place them in other contexts where the same progression
appears. See "ii-V Variations-Shorter and Longer (below).
3. Use a graph of the solo written out horizontally with all the same bars lined up
vertically from the top of the page down. In this manner, you can see what was played on
each chorus in a particular bar. By skipping around between choruses, you can create new
and unique combinations from what the soloist did. See"Transcription Graph" below.
Example A #1-6 - This represents Charlie Parkers first 4 bars from his original solo on
confirmation (6 choruses).
Example B - These are possible lines made up of a bar of different choruses with original
bars interjected by the student.
Example B #1 - Bar 1 from Charlie Parkers (Birds) chorus. Bar 2 is taken from bar 2 of
Bird's 3rd chorus (B.C.3 = Bird Chorus 3). Bar 3 is also taken from Birds 3rd chorus,
while the 4th bar is an original idea from the student.
Example B #2 - This time there are no original ideas from the student, but bars 1 and 2
are taken from Bird's 5th chorus, and bars 3 and 4 are taken from Bird's 4th chorus.
Example B #3 - Here bars 1 and 3 are taken from Bird's 4th chorus, while bars 2 and 4
are original ideas from the student.
Example B #4 - Bar 1 is taken from Bird's 2nd chorus and bar 4 is taken from Bird's 5th
chorus. Bars 2 and 3 are original ideas from the student.
4. Compose an original solo.
By the time you are done with all of the above, not only will everything be naturally
memorized, but the process of internalizing will have begun. This means that what you
practice today find its way into your playing without having to think about it in the near
future. Depending upon the material, its difficulty and your ability to absorb the
information, this process can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, but you
can be sure that eventually it will occur if you have done the work.
Suggested Solos (from the 60s/late 50s-some of my personal favorites)
Adderley, Cannonball: Milestones (Milestones-Miles Davis)
Coleman, George: Autumn Leaves (Miles In Europe)
Stella By Starlight (My Funny Valentine)
Coltrane: Softly As In A Morning (Live at the Village Vanguard); So What (Kind of
Blue-Miles Davis); Oleo (Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet); Blue Trane (Blue
Trane-J.Coltrane); Impressions (Impressions-J.Coltrane); Resolution (A Love Supreme-
Corea, Chick – Matrix (Now He Sings, Now He Sobs-C.Corea)
Davis, Miles - Bye Bye Blackbird (Round Midnight-M.Davis); So What and Freddie
Freeloader (Kind of Blue-M.Davis)
Hancock, Herbie - Autumn Leaves (Miles in Europe-M.Davis)
Mobley, Hank: Pfrancing (Someday My Prince Will Come-Miles Davis);
No Blues (Miles Live at Carnegie Hall)
Powell, Bud: Cherokee (Genius of Bud Powell)
Rollins, Sonny: It Could Happen To You (Sound of Sonny-S.Rollins); Sonny Moon For
Two (Night at the Village Vanguard-S.Rollins) Surrey With the Fringe On the Top
(Newk’s Time-S.Rollins) Tenor Madness(Tenor Madness-S.Rollins)
Shorter, Wayne: Speak No Evil (Speak No Evil-W.Shorter); 81 (ESP-Miles Davis)
Stitt, Sonny: No Greater Love (Boss Tenors-G.Ammons and S.Stitt); Eternal Triangle
(Eternal Triangle-Gillespie, Rollins, Stitt)
Tristano, Lennie: Line Up (Lennie Tristano); East 32nd St (The Complete Lennie
Tyner, McCoy: Night and Day(Inner Urge-Joe Henderson);Passion Dance(The Real
McCoy M.Tyner); Speak Low (Inception-M.Tyner); Pursuance(Love Supreme-