Transcribe music to improve your ability
Transcribing guitar music (or any music) is the process of listening to a track and writing down the notes and chords in either tab or musical notation. In an age of guitar tab apps and sites, transcribing is a dying art-form – and it’s a real shame. Because transcribing music happens to be a great way to hone your musical ear and learn songs inside out.
The following steps are a basic way for transcribing guitar music and help develop both you music ear and knowledge of the songs you’re learning.
Use our transcribing template
We’ve created a simple template that you can print out to use for your transcribing. This one is based on tab notation, so download and print a few for your project ahead.
Get yourself in tune with the track you’re learning. Does the band/musician have a standard tuning? Is the tuning Eb (this is where every string is tuned down one semitone…a very common tuning. Do they use a capo? Maybe the song is tuned in an unusual way, such as open C? If you’re trying to learn Dire Straits Romeo & Juliet, you’ll need to tune to “open C” with a capo on the third fret. Goo Goo Dolls song Iris is tuned to D-D-D-D-D-B!
So find out the tuning and get your guitar setup right.
Set up your gear
To transcribe a song, you need to have your equipment setup in a particular way. Setup your transcription paper/device in an accessible position that means you don’t have to reach or strain yourself. If you’re constantly leaning or reaching, you’ll either get a sore back, drop something or just get sick of things and give up.
If you’re playing the track through a mobile device, disable any screen saver or auto-sleep settings, so that your device doesn’t switch off while you’re transcribing.
Just Listen for a while
Play the track 3 or 4 times and just listen to the music. Ignore the voice if you can and pay particular attention to the fills, riffs and nuances in the guitar track. Even if you’re really familiar with the song, it’s a good idea to sit and focus on the notes for a while, because when your mindset is to transcribe, you’re likely to pick up something new that you hadn’t spotted before.
Find your starter
Now comes the fun part. Start the track and stop after the first few notes or chords. Find those notes and chords on the guitar and note them down. If they’re chords, are they open chords? Are they bar chords? Play different variations of the chords until you find one that sounds right.
If they are notes, try playing those notes on different parts of the guitar until you find that right sound.
This will help locate the part of the neck that the song is played and should make things easier once you get further into the song.
Note by note, part by part
Once you’ve found that start, continue the track, starting and stopping to write down the notes and chords. Take your time and rest if you need to.
As you finish a section of transcribing, try to play it through…does it sound right? If so, play along with the track. If it’s not sounding right, start again and go slower, looking for those extra notes that might add the missing elements.
There might be some sections of the song that you can’t figure out. Don’t worry, leave that section open and you can come back to it as your transcription skills improve.
Transcribe your final copy
Once you’re done, you’re likely to have multiple pages or versions of the transcribed song. At this point, start a fresh sheet and transcribe the music clearly and neatly. Skipping this step means that you could go through all the hard work of transcribing, but be left with a messy and sometimes confusing record of your hard work.
While the notes and chords are clear and fresh in your mind, take the extra time to turn this into a top quality transcription…you’ll thank yourself later!
Optional advanced step
If you want to take this one step further, an advanced step would be to analyse the song from a music theory perspective. This is hugely valuable for coming to understand not just how the song is played, but how it was written and why it sounds great or different.
If you’re interested in this extension, here are some things to focus on:
- What key is the song played in?
- Where are the key changes?
- What is the time signature?
- What are the scales and modes used in riffs and solos?