March 2nd, 2012

If You Can Sing Happy Birthday…You Can Transcribe Your Favorite Solo

By Eric

Transcription can be a real struggle sometimes. Some days it feels like you can spend an hour trying to learn a few measures, and after a dozen frustrating attempts, you end up in exactly the same place you started.

If this feeling rings a bell with you, you are definitely not alone. Many of the questions that we get every week have to do with this exact problem. How exactly do you make the transcription process easier?

In a perfect world transcription would be a breeze. You would hear a solo that grabs your attention, bring it into the practice room, and figure it out in a matter of minutes. The entire process would be seamless and easy: hear it, sing it, and play it; translating those harmonies and melodies right to your instrument and on to your solos.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, this is actually closer to reality than you might be willing to believe. You can get to this point in your playing, however, the path there is not what you may be expecting.

Getting simple with it

With any complex technique, advanced skill, or in-depth harmonic knowledge that you wish to acquire as a musician, the process has to begin with a very simple concept. A small exercise or idea that you expand, explore, and expound upon. You take this simple idea and master it; building it up step by step, until you are playing at an entirely new level and using skills you never thought possible.

“If only simplicity were not the most difficult of all things. It consists of watching objectively the development of any fragment of fantasy.”~Carl Jung

This sequence is true for any musical skill, and it’s especially relevant when it comes to ear training and transcribing. But for some reason, we tend to think about these aspects of our practice in terms of black and white – either you have them or you don’t. Either you have great ears and you can instantly pick up any line or melody or you don’t, and the simple act of learning a tune or transcribing a solo becomes this insurmountable struggle.

But does it really have to be this way? No, of course not! From simple beginnings and limited skills you can produce fantastic results. It just takes some focused practice and a willingness to work on the right areas. Simplicity before complexity.

Therefore, if you can sing Happy Birthday and you can play it by ear on your instrument, you have all the basic skills you need to transcribe any solo. And yes, you heard me right…Happy Birthday.

Start at the origin of the problem

If the process of transcribing feels like the description above, a constant struggle and a daily source of frustration, the obvious culprit is your ear. You aren’t hearing the intervals, you are missing those lines and melodies, and there is a troubling disconnect between your ear and your instrument.

Coming to this conclusion isn’t the hard part, you’ve probably realized this already. The hard part comes in trying to fix the problem.

When we hit that skill barrier, the first thing we try to do is more of the same – repeating the same broken process that isn’t working over and over again. If we’re not getting the notes of a solo, we continue to hammer away at it hoping for any sign of progress. If we still can’t seem to figure this solo we jump to another one and start all over again.

In these situations, it make seem like you are focusing on your problem areas by starting the transcription or learning process over and over again, but in reality you’re running away from your musical weaknesses. As soon as something gets hard you jump ship and start a new project. That weakness is always going to be there unless you focus on it and get to the root of the problem.

When things get tough and you’re feeling frustrated, take a step back from yourself and look objectively at what is going on. Instead of trying to force that solo by any means possible, look for a better solution.

“All things are ready, if our minds be so.”~William Shakespeare

Transcription is a process that demands some skills from you as a musician. You need to bring something to the table mentally as well as aurally. When you don’t seem to be getting the notes of a solo, it comes down to the fact that you’re trying to achieve the end result without the necessary skills or preparation. You’re jumping to the final level without any of the preliminary work.

This is like trying to run a marathon after laying on the couch all winter and once you’re in the middle of the race, wondering why you’re hitting a wall after the first mile or so. Without any training, preparation, or skill building you aren’t going to see the results you want, you are just going to get frustration and failure.

You can keep trying to start that marathon or solo transcription over and over again, hoping that this time will be the one you finish, but until you prepare yourself for the demands that this effort places on your body, you’re going to get nowhere.

Transcription can be an enjoyable part of your practice routine that leads to continuous musical growth and language or it can be a frustrating struggle that always seems to lead to a dead end. It all depends on the skills you’ve developed and your approach to this integral process.

The key is to start simple, build up your skills, and then you can aim for the end result.

Building up your skills step by step

You may not be able to transcribe your favorite solo right now. You may be having a hard time learning jazz standards. But one thing I’m pretty sure you can do is sing Happy Birthday.

If you can sing this simple melody then then you shouldn’t have to much trouble playing that melody on your instrument. And, if you can figure out Happy Birthday on your instrument, then you can transcribe your favorite solo. You just proved it to me.

Right there, in the above process, lies the foundation for transcription. The cycle of hearing, singing, and playing. It all goes back to your ears.

Let’s assume that you’ve done some basic ear training exercises and can identify the basic intervals in a chord or melody. The first step on your path to making the transcription process easier is to pick a simple tune that you know by heart. Not something that you have to think about to sing, but something ingrained so well that you can easily sing it perfectly on a moment’s notice.

This could be a favorite song or a melody that we remember from our childhood. We all know Happy Birthday, so why not start with that. The first step is singing. Not approximating, but singing each note perfectly and locking in each interval. Try it right now, sing each note of Happy Birthday.

Now slowly take a few notes at a time and identify each interval. The first interval: major 2nd, second interval: perfect 4th, and so on. Go through the melody and hear and sing each interval. If you ingrain the melody like this, you can play it in any key and translating it to your instrument will be a breeze.

Once you’ve got the shape and intervals of the line down, play the melody slowly on your instrument. Then, play the melody in all 12 keys. Remember to hear it first, before you try to play it or guess the notes at random. If you’ve got the melody like this, then translating it to other keys should be surprisingly simple as well.

With this simple process (taking a familiar melody, singing it, identifying the intervals, and playing it on your instrument) you’ve laid the groundwork for transcribing any piece of music that you come across…all with a tune as easy as Happy Birthday.

Simple beginnings produce big results

The great thing about Happy Birthday is that it is already ingrained in our ears. You are starting with a melody that’s internalized and by translating this melody to our voices and our instruments, you are strengthening that vital connection between your inner musician and your instrument

Happy Birthday seems like an easy, inconsequential melody because we’ve been hearing it and singing it since we were children. But, it’s just a melody like any jazz standard on your favorite record. If you can sing Happy Birthday and play it on your instrument, you can do the same with the countless jazz standards or solos that you’re trying to add to your repertoire.

Think about it, every jazz standard or musical line that you encounter is just another melody. If you can sing Happy Birthday, you can most definitely sing There Will Never Be Another You, or Body and Soul, or Oleo. If you can hear, identify, and sing each interval of Happy Birthday and you can play it on your instrument, then there is no reason why you can’t transcribe some lines from Lee Morgan’s solo on Ceora:

YouTube Preview Image

It’s just another melody – everything is a melody.

Once you have it ingrained in your ear and you can sing it, you just have to translate this melody to your instrument. The process is the same for any melody or solo that you learn, whether it’s a nursery rhyme from your childhood or a chorus of a Charlie Parker solo.

Just remember that you can’t just jump right into complex bebop solos or chromatic melodies right off the bat, you need to start simple and build up your skills. There is a natural progression to follow here:

Happy Birthday—> Simple Jazz Standards —> Bebop heads —> Transcribing Solos

The progression looks pretty simple, right? You start out with a basic melody and slowly work your way up until you are transcribing solos from the records of your musical heroes. Each step of the way you gain and refine essential skills that will allow you to achieve your goal of effortlessly hearing and transcribing complex lines.

I think you’re starting to see the process here. As these melodies get easier to hear and sing and play, start introducing more difficult melodies like bebop heads or highly chromatic melodies. Each step of the way, you use the same process that you used to figure out Happy Birthday. Sing it, identify the intervallic content, rhythm, and melodic direction with your ears, and translate this to your instrument.

It’s all the same stuff

The key to transcribing any solo lies with your ability to learn melodies. However, as you advance musically, these melodies become much more complex and fast than your average jazz standard, but you’re still learning a melody. As you progress from simple melodies to solos, don’t be afraid to slow down the tempos so you can clearly hear and sing each interval. If the tempo of the solo or a double time section is too fast to hear, slow it down with a program like Transcribe.

Remember, if you can’t hear the melody or sing it note for note, transcribing that line is going to be terribly frustrating, so do yourself a favor and slow it down.

When you look at the entire process like this, it becomes readily apparent how ridiculous it is to jump from no ear training skills to transcribing lines from a complex solo. Of course you can’t go from zero or limited ear training skills directly to transcribing the lines of your favorite solos. You need to progress step by step and gradually improve, building on your skills daily.

It will take some time to build up these skills and everyone starts at a different place. But as a preliminary exercise, take a second and look at your own musical skills and level of ear training. Can you sing the melody to Happy Birthday perfectly? Can you play this melody by ear on your instrument? Can you play it in all 12 keys?

Now what about a simple jazz standard like There Will Never Be Another You? Can you sing the melody and then play it by ear on your instrument? If that’s easy, try it with a bebop head like Confirmation or try Confirmation in another key.

Lastly, listen to the clip above of Lee Morgan’s solo on Ceora. Take the first few bars: sing it, lock in all the intervals, and then try to play it. You’re probably starting to see a pattern here – it’s all the same skill! Each step of the way you’re using the same basic musical skills.

As the melodies get more complex it will take more time and effort to learn them, but each step of the way you’re utilizing the same aspects of your musicianship.

If you can’t do the first step, you’re not going to be able to do the second or third step. If you haven’t built up your technique or ears, you’re setting yourself up for failure. If you can’t sing Happy Birthday…you can’t transcribe solos.