You have a melody or solo you want to learn by ear, so how do you go about doing this? There are 6 steps that you can do to get the most benefit from this. 2 of the 6 are optional, but I recommend you do it for maximum benefit. So what are these steps?
Step one: Listen. This is the most important part of transcribing. Do you think a deaf person could transcribe? Open your ears and listen to what the musician (or singer) is playing. You can listen as many times as you want before you start. Keep in mind, this step will be continuous. It will never stop. Even when you are on step 2 – 6, you will still need to listen very carefully. This is the foundation for the rest of the steps.
Step two: Sing. This is one of the optional stages, but it does help. Once you listen to the melody or solo of choice try to sing with it. Depending on the difficulty of the piece you may need to cut it into smaller sections to sing with it. This will help you hear it better. It will help you memorize how it sounds. Humming works too, but singing is in my opinion better.
Step three: Put it on your instrument. Once you hear what it sounds like try to figure out how it lies on your instrument. This part helps build the connection between ears and fingers. Someone who transcribes a lot can play melodies they hear in their head without sitting down and working it out. This is an important part of the transcribing practice. This step is also connected closely with step 4 and 5 of transcribing music.
Step four: write it down. This is optional, but for certain genres of music this is almost necessary. For learning a 4 measure rock solo I don’t think this step is necessary, but for a 32 measure jazz solo it is. This will allow you to analyze what the musician did, his note choice and rhythms. It also is beneficial because you can go back and review it later. Everyone forgets their transcriptions after time. This gives you the option of reviewing that cool lick that you forgot existed.
Step five: Memorize it. This is a necessary step for all styles of music. When you come across a new word, does it help you at all if you go “word” and don’t look it up or try to memorize it? You won’t remember it. So memorizing your transcriptions is an important part of transcribing.
Step Six: Analyze. As mentioned earlier under writing it down. Analyzing the solo is a useful step. Even if you don’t write the transcribed piece of music down, you should still try to analyze it and figure out what he is doing. What scale he is using, what rhythms he is using. This will make you a more educated musician and you will know exactly why you do something and why it works.
These 6 steps are a great place to start if you want to start transcribing music. You will slowly change and alter these steps to go along with your own personal practice routine. Everyone is different; there is no concrete thing in music. This is one of the great things about music. You get to be yourself. Take these steps and utilize them to get the best benefit you can. If you find something works better than something else for you, take it and run with it. Best wishes!