What is the best way to get better at jazz improvisation? What is the best way to improve your vocabulary as a musician? What is the best way to pick up musical patterns and phrases for your own solos?
If you gather popular opinion among jazz tutors, you will get an answer something like this:
Transcribe, transcribe, transcribe!
The point of transcribing solos is to pick up ideas for soloing through active listening to good examples.
But what does it mean to transcribe a solo?
A college experience
Back in college I volunteered to play in a student jazz combo. I was the only guy there who was not a music major, but I passed the audition and they could not find a piano player elsewhere, so I jumped in. Just for the fun of it.
Halfway through the semester we received an assignment to transcribe a solo from an audio recording.
It was a trumpet solo by Chet Baker over “Tangerine”:
I loved the tune!
But I remember my bandmates moaning and groaning. “Don’t we have enough on our plates already?”
It turns out I was excited because at the time I had no idea what “transcribe” meant.
When the due date came around, I promptly sat down at the piano and played Cher Baker’s solo to the band, my very own interpretation of it, complete with left hand comping.
The band seemed to like it, and I thought I did a good job.
When I finished, the mentor said: “Nice rendition of the solo. But can I have your submission?”
I was a bit puzzled that everybody else handed in a sheet of paper.
Once it dawned on me what was going on I said: “I must have misunderstood the assignment. I never thought you wanted us to write down the solo. I thought we were supposed to learn it.”
I learned that the “scribing” in transcribing actually means “to write”.
Here is a phrase taken from the Tangerine solo (around 1:48), transcribed in music notes.
image[tangerine, a phrase taken from a trumpet solo by Chet Baker over Tangerine transcribed in music notes]
Writing this melody down serves two purposes that I can think of:
- Writing forces you to listen closely to get the notes and rhythm
right. This in turn will help you with memorization. (Any of you
ever take notes in school?)
- You also end up with a physical note of a piece of musical
vocabulary, and if you keep it in a safe place you may refer back to
This sounds like a great way to pick up and gather musical vocabulary, and many people have obviously used the strategy with great success.
But the music students seemed to hate it!
I wondered why.
To find out, I decided to finish my transcription assignment (even though I didn’t get a credit for the class).
To my disappointment, transcription didn’t turn out to be a very enjoyable exercise indeed.
Transcribing the entire solo from beginning to end took the better part of my weekend, even though I was already able to play the melody. And I hardly got to play any piano in the process. I just used the keys to confirm the notes before writing them down.
Looks like the music students were right. Transcription can be a massive chore. And quite frankly, I found it rather boring, because there is no room for creativity whatsoever.
I wondered what exactly it is that makes transcription such a pain.
Everybody likes listening to their favorite jazz solos, and trying to copy the masters while playing is equally fun and engaging.
I concluded that what gets on people’s nerves is the process of writing itself.
Why I am not a fan of writing music
Let me clear something up first.
I am not here today to talk you out of learning to read or write music notation.
The invention of music notation was nothing short of a game changer, and it is among the greatest intellectual achievements of mankind, right on par with the written word.
For the first time in history, we were able to “preserve” music for future generations without exclusively relying on memorization.
As a consequence, we have amassed a collection of millions of pieces of music over the last few centuries, and we are able to gain knowledge and inspiration not only from our immediate ancestors but from all musicians who have ever contributed to musical literature.
One of many reasons why you absolutely should achieve fluency in music notation is to gain access to this vast collection of cultural treasures.
I myself have a background in classical music, and reading and writing sheet music was my daily bread and butter. I can’t imagine where I would be today without it.
This being said, let me explain why I deem music notation unnecessary for the purpose of learning jazz improvisation.
For one, jazz is hardly a written language.
If you compare classical works with a jazz lead sheet, you will find that a lead sheet only represents the bare minimum to vaguely reproduce a tune.
99% of jazz is never written out in music notes to begin with, because
it is made up on the spot rather than “manufactured” beforehand.
Writing someone’s improvised solo down on paper seems to fly in the face of this philosophy.
Moreover, should you decide to write down a solo despite this, you must admit that it is more often than not a slow and cumbersome process.
Even modern tools such as music notation software hardly make the process any easier or faster (one could argue the contrary, actually).
In fact, even if you are an expert, writing music is orders of magnitude slower than writing (or typing) words.
It is this imbalance of effort vs. results that throws me off as a casual jazz piano player.
And I am likely not alone with this sentiment (my college bandmates surely felt the same way).
I realize that transcribing solos may be a good strategy to internalize the elements of a solo, if you are the type for it.
But why go through the painful exercise if you find absolutely no joy in it?
If transcription is not your cup of tea, might there be an alternative way to engage with a solo that is equally effective?
I think there is.
Transplay instead of transcribe
To work around the hassle of music notation, here’s what I suggest you do:
Start with a small piece of a solo, and listen to it with all the concentration and focus you can muster. This part is identical to the transcription process.
Now, instead of transcribing the melody on paper, try to catch it in your ear, until it is stuck in your head.
Next, try to reproduce it on your instrument as faithfully as you can. I don’t know if there is a formal term for this process, so let’s call it “transplay”.
The “transplay” process of learning is in many ways equivalent to the transcription process.
You listen actively to a stretch of a solo with intent and focus, until you figure out the notes and rhythm. Similarly, reproducing what you heard on your own instrument will help you with memorization.
Now here comes the trick:
Let's use that lick from Chet Baker's solo again:
image[tangerine, a phrase taken from a trumpet solo by Chet Baker over Tangerine transcribed in music notes]
Instead of going through the process of writing down the lick, simply pull out your phone and record yourself playing.
This will leave you with a physical note for future reference, just like a transcribed piece of sheet music, but you will get there in mere seconds!
Here is my rendition of the above lick:
The audio recording of your piece of music is a powerful tool in itself.
For one, you can test yourself now by comparing your recording to the original solo. Below is the phrase played by Chet Baker himself. Listen in and double check if you got everything right.
Did you get all the notes right? And more importantly, did you get the rhythm, feel and accentuation right?
(I believe I still have some work to do. Can you get any closer to the original?)
Listening to your recording and comparing it to the original is a good use of your time in lieu of writing down the snippet of music.
In fact, your transcription won’t be able to give you a very detailed feedback at all, but your recording will!
If you choose this approach, you will also enjoy the neat side effect of giving your ear training a double boost. The source of your lick was an audio recording and your personal note is also an audio recording.
If you stop worrying about written music and exclusively use audio
recordings instead, active listening will become the main medium by
which you interact with music.
This way your mental bandwidth will no longer be wasted by processing visual information, and you can focus 100% of your attention on the actual sound.
By the way, this is also the reason why visually impaired musicians seemingly have no problems (or even an advantage!) learning music compared to sighted people. Some of the best musicians out there (Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Diane Schuur) have achieved great success through primarily relying on their ears.
Once you have transplayed a lick and created an audio recording for your reference, the real fun only begins.
The next exercise you can do is what I call "instrumental gymnastics".
Take some time and work with the lick you learned from the solo.
Can you come up with different ways to play the lick? Can you change bits and pieces of it and bend it into a different shape? Can you alter the melody? Can you rearrange rhythm and punctuation?
The goal of this exercise is to create variations of the lick while
sticking to its musical theme(s).
This is how the grandmasters come up with a seemingly endless supply of musical material.
If you listen to the above lick again, you may be able to make out two themes: In the first half, Chet uses a pattern of one 4th note followed by two 8th notes. The second half of the lick is a scale.
Using these themes, let me give you some examples of what your variations might sound like.
Variation 1: I keep the rhythm for the most part and change only the melody.
Variation 2: I play around with the first rhythmic theme (4th-8th-8th) throughout.
Variation 3: I start with the scale theme first and finish with the 4th-8th-8th theme.
By coming up with variations on a theme, you gain exposure to the same musical vocabulary from different angles. This will slowly but gradually knead the material into your memory.
If you are a slow writer, your time will be much better spent doing these "instrumental gymnastics" instead of transcribing the lick. (And as a bonus, you will find it hard to get bored!)
This is a form of creative learning, and it comes with a double benefit:
The more you play around and experiment with a snippet of
music taken from a solo, the more familiar you will get with the
central musical theme(s). This is a powerful way to train your ear and to
really internalize musical vocabulary from solos.
Coming up with variations on a theme is in itself a
key process during improvisation. You take a theme and you come up
with variations on the spot. Thus, on top of vocabulary, “instrumental gymnastics” will
train real life improvisation skills.
This is great! But the game does not end here.
Once you come up with a few variations of a lick, make sure to record yourself again.
How do your variations compare to your “original?” Which one do you like best?
Your variations themselves can now serve as a starting point for even
From here on, you can follow your intuition wherever it takes you. The possibilities are virtually endless.
After a few iterations of variations, and variations on variations, the licks you come up with may only be vaguely reminiscent of the original lick you started with. But they will be your own, and you will have a good chance of actually remembering some of this stuff during a real solo!
The LickStack can help you stay organized
No matter if you write licks on paper or record them, sooner or later it will be rather difficult to keep track of your notes.
This is where the LickStack can help you.
The LickStack is designed as a repository for short snippets of music
in audio form.
If you create a (free) account, you will be able to upload the recordings of your licks and variations here. This will keep your musical vocabulary safe in one place and you can easily find your notes again later.
Any licks uploaded to the LickStack will also be shared with the community. This way our collective musical vocabulary is available to all of us.
If you don't feel like working through first-hand solos just yet, feel free to start with the musical vocabulary you find in our collection here. It will go a long way!
In summary, we have seen that transcription can be replaced by a more creative form of learning:
Listen to a lick, play it by ear and come up with variations.
If on top of this you use audio recordings for feedback and record keeping, you end up with a fun and powerful way to acquire musical vocabulary and practice improvisation skills.
Next time you are bored or frustrated by transcriptions, give this approach a shot. You will not regret it!
I look forward to hearing your licks and variations.