Transcribing (learning other people's music by writing it down or sometimes just committing it to memory) is one of the most important and serious ways to improve your jazz playing and your ear. The problem with transcribing at first is that it can be pretty difficult, but don't worry, it gets easier the more you do it. Here are some benefits of transcribing:
-Forcing your ear to recognize specific notes
-You learn the style and specifics of a particular musician
-Difficult passages really make you listen "harder" to figure out exactly what is being played
-Did I mention your ear will drastically improve?
-Adding licks and trademark quotes to your vocabulary
To start transcribing, just choose some music you REALLY like. Now figure out the first note using your instrument and write it down (including where it is rhythmically) now do the next note and the next note and the next note. After a bit you should be able to do small passages at one time.
When I started transcribing I really struggled, I think I managed about 8 bars of a song over the course of a few hours. But the next transcription I did was 4 pages! Ever since I have transcribed numerous solos and song melodies and I think it's one of the main reasons I am a "harmonious, melodious, tuneful, you hum it, I'll play it Musician".
Here are some specific types of transcribing I do:
-The main way is writing down a passage, or entire solo, and then committing it to memory.
-You can do the same as above without writing it down (but you might forget it at some point)
-Writing down from a few lines to a page of solo WITHOUT USING AN INSTRUMENT, purely by ear... then check it on an instrument (this is like steroids for your ears!).
-The hardest is learning a solo without writing it down or using an instrument. It's tough but it really improves your musical memory.
Now it is possible to learn jazz from transcribing. But it is also possible to over-rely on transcribing. I have seen people transcribe the hardest, fastest solos but when I asked them to jam they couldn't play squat. This leads me to my next point...
Absorb what you transcribe. You really should figure out what makes the particular player you are transcribing unique and should be able to copy it rhythmically, melodically, and dynamically. Then, try to develop that style into something more "your own". You can also transcribe other instruments. If you want to become more melodic, transcribe horns. Do you find yourself not listening to the bass player's lines? Transcribe some bass lines and I bet you will start paying more attention.
I went through a big transcribing phase of my life and still do it occasionally. Nowadays I like to spend a few hours just trying to absorb a style rather than writing it down. That's how I learned the depth McCoy Tyner's style (though I did transcribe 3 or 4 solos to get started), instead of spending 10 hours transcribing, I spent 3 hours listening then playing then listening more then playing more. But it really depends on the artist... for example, if you want to learn Eric Dolphy's style I would say get out the pen and paper but, I think you could get Ahmad Jamal's unique sense of space and placement by extended listening.
Final Thought: If you aren't satisfied with your current ability and haven't done much transcribing, you had better start. If you have transcribed and still aren't happy, transcribe more (more instruments, whole songs or albums)
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