The art of transcribing – Part 6

As always, be sure to read parts 1, 2, 34, and 5.

I am now switching to a video format for some of these blogs. You can listen to it as if it were podcast, since the video isn’t too important in this one.

In this video, I show you how I figure out music 100% by ear without any instrument or reference other than the music. This is an important aspect of ear training; it is essentially listening to music intelligently by engaging your mind. People often ask which solos they should transcribe. That’s not the right way to think about it. When it comes to developing one’s ear, one should generally go for what one likes. Since you and I may have different tastes, it wouldn’t be advisable for you to figure out the music that I personally liked. At least, not unless, you, yourself, like it. It’s certainly important to have an open mind and to give new things a chance, (or many chances, even – it took me a while to learn to appreciate certain modern jazz) but the thing that will stick with you the most is the stuff that you love. It makes sense doesn’t it?

Furthermore, it’s not enough to  just “lift” solos. If you’re just spending time lifting note by note, then you have missed many of the most important points of ear training. Don’t get me a wrong, it’s still better than not doing anything, but you’re basically going to the gym and working on your chest while neglecting every other body part!

People often talk about “playing by ear”. This is an expression that is often abused and used in the most lazy fashion: “I don’t know theory, I play by ear/feel”. True, any one can play by “ear/feel”, but without proper discipline, what comes out of your instrument will often sound terrible to people who have truly developed their ears! Playing by ear is not an excuse to neglect many important aspects of music.

Think of it as a language, even the most illiterate person who has never gone to school has a strong grasp on the language that they speak. Whether they know the grammar (theory) behind the language is irrelevant, they can converse with great ease. You can have an intelligent and meaningful conversation with them, and they will have the intelligence to respond accordingly and in a logical way.

For instance, let’s say you talk to someone about the history of Tajikistan. That person may not be familiar at all with it, but they can say something like “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about it”. Now , someone who “plays by feel” would be akin to someone who has absolutely no idea what they’re talking about, so you can have the same conversation about the history of Tajikistan, and their reply would be “I’m Idaho! The chicken played the chimney of the elephant downstairs!”. This is what many people who “play by ear” sound like to me.

So, let me be clear, I’m not saying you have to understand the grammar (theory) of a language, but you should at least know what you’re talking about, and the same rule applies for music. If you’re improvising over a song, then you should have good enough ears to know what’s going on in the harmony. Whether you know the names of the chords or not doesn’t matter, but you should know in your ear/mind what they sound like, and you should be able to hear what you want to play over them.

In the Sinti Gypsy community (Django Reinhardt, Bireli Lagrene, Angelo Debarre, etc.), many musicians play purely by instinct in this manner. Bireli barely knows the name of his chords. He has no idea that he’s playing an altered scale over D7, but he hears it in his head. How? Simply because he listened to music very intelligently from a young age, and knew how to relate the melodies he heard to the harmonies. He learned many songs without knowing the names of the chords or the functions of the chords, but after learning so many songs, his brain started to understand certain patterns. If you tell him I VI II V, it might not mean anything to him, but if you play those actual chords, he will understand right away. This is what I call intelligent ear training.

So, it’s not about “just transcribing”, it’s about engaging your brain. If you work this way, you don’t even have to transcribe entire solos; you can take just the bits and pieces that you like, and then experiment with them. In fact, nowadays, I just listen and I understand the concept, so I don’t even lift the phrase, I take the concept, and experiment with it. For instance, in this solo, you’ll see that Django likes to superimpose IIm6 over V7, so that would be Bm6 over E7, or Em6 over A7. He does this a few times in the solo and with a very specific shape. Rather than take that exact shape, I HEAR the actual concept, and try it all over the guitar.

When you listen to a solo, before even figuring it out on your instrument, try to figure out the chords first or have someone teach them to you. Once you have the chords memorized, listen to the solo, and instead of lifting one note at a time, listen to it phrase by phrase or chord by chord. Try to engage your brain, and guess what might be going on. In the case of this video, I already knew the chords to the song. I know the first chord is G which happens to be the root chord. I then heard Django play an arpeggio. I could hear that the arpeggio notes corresponded to the G chord; it was basically a G arpeggio. Since I know the chords, and I have the root in my head, I related what he played to that root chord. He played D G B (5 1 3 in G), then I heard him play a longer arpeggio that was voice led to the next chord (Eb7).

This is another important step: how the musician connects the chords in his improvisation. This is called voice leading. I’m not just listening one chord at a time, I’m listening for how the musician connects the chords. This solo is full of beautiful voice leading, and when I listen, that’s what I’m trying to visualize in my head.

Good luck!