Transcribing Music By Ear 2.1

by Matt on December 19, 2011

Hi, Everyone

Surprisingly, I’ve gotten quite a few requests to write more about transcribing music by ear. Let me first say thank you to those of you who took the time to read the last post and left a comment.


First off, you will do yourself a giant favor if you purchase a program to slow down and repeat phrases of music. There are many on the market if you care to take a look. I have a stand-alone unit that I use from Tascam called a GT-1. I’ve gone through three of them so far. I love them. It’s crucial to have the ability to loop little sections of music. Sometimes you may have to hear a small section over and over until you can understand all the rhythms and notes in the passage. These units make that very easy and it helps tremendously.

Also, on the theory end of this whole discussion, paramount to everything that is written here, is the need to learn what is called solfeggio or the musical intervals. Learning to identify the distance between two notes is the key to transcribing music for anybody on any instrument.

Ok, that being said, when I realized I was going to write about this again, I had to take a couple walks and think through how to teach something that I, myself, had developed over such a long period of time. There is such a blend of theory and just listening when I figure out music. I wanted to think of a way to lay this out logically for somebody to try to alleviate a lot of the mystery behind it. Here’s what I came up with:

It occurred to me that there are essentially two skills you must possess to lift songs off of a recording. I’ll talk about the first with this article and follow up with the latter (chords) in a different one.

The first level involves learning to repeat single-note lines. Like I said in the last article, this level is very similar to the popular 80’s electronic game, Simon. Simon was a game about copying an ever-increasing sequence of tones and blinking primary colored buttons. The better your memory…the better you did with the game. Same here.

There are several ways to go about this but one of the best ways at first is to find a good TAB transcription of a song you know very well but have never learned to play. One little caveat…don’t look it over. Part of figuring other people’s playing out is to be, for lack of a better word, unbiased or uninfluenced. The only information you need from the first page is the guitar tuning usually in the upper left corner. It is absolutely vital that you know the correct tuning in the beginning…down the road…not so much.

Next you should locate the first single-note melody you can in the song you have chosen and ask yourself where that cluster of notes could be on the neck. Listen and learn one note at a time and find a cluster or small group of those notes anywhere you are able. The best and worst thing about the guitar is that there are so many ways to do the exact same thing on the neck so there are lots of places with the right answer. When you’ve accomplished this, ask yourself what the rhythm of the notes is. If it is strange to you, try to find a word in your language that has a similar rhythm to help you remember. For example, if you hear a measure long riff that has a 5-note cluster of notes and then maybe a 4-note cluster…then maybe two 2-note clusters, it may be hard to remember even when you’re are sure you know the notes individually. But, you could think something silly like (hipp o pot a mus…mo tor cy cle…mo tor cyle…t shirt…t shirt) and it’s likely to all fall right in place. Now that sounds silly, I’m sure, but I can’t tell you how many people that has helped…including myself.

At the point, you feel you know the notes and the rhythm they are played in, the next phase is logistics. Ask yourself if the way you’ve figured the notes out facilitates doing them up to speed perfect ten times. It may very well be that you’ve figured out all the right notes in the most awkward way possible. You don’t have to be genius here. It’s really a matter of common sense. If the way you’ve chosen isn’t possible slowly, you will never get it up to speed in a normal amount of time. Remember what I said about the guitar’s strength being that there are so many ways to do the same thing? Here’s where you come in. Find a way of doing the notes that feels smooth and consistent above all. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it the same place as the original artist. You’re just trying to learn to hear and repeat. You will find quickly that bends (if any) and open strings in the phrase you are trying to copy are sometime arrows or tells, so to speak, as to where a lick is done. Considering the fact that bends are usually done on the E, B, and G-strings, you can quickly hone in on the place something was most likely played on the neck. In the end it doesn’t matter where…it just matters if it sounds right and can be delivered seamlessly.

When you’ve covered the above criteria and you’re pretty certain you have it right, then go back and check the tab. See how a professional interpreted the same thing you did. No matter if you are completely wrong, you will only learn here. This is how TAB is most effective when learning to transcribe. Remember too, your version of how to play something may be better for you than the pros. Everybody’s hands approach the guitar differently based on your skill level and familiarity with the instrument. Also, I can’t tell you how many TABS I’ve seen that were completely wrong in sections if not entirely. Any of my students will tell you that is a pet peeve of mine, ha! In time, doing this regularly, you will start to see that certain riffs like the Chuck Berry riff, for example, are usually only done one way. And when you know how, you will start to identify it by just hearing it. It’s a steep hill to climb but it has a peak like all mountains do no matter how big and you can have the sublime pleasure of having tea at the top if you want to do the work.

At any rate, I hope this helps those of you who are trying to learn. I will be back soon to discuss the more difficult side of this coin…identifying chords. Until next time…

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Matt Venus


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Cholesterol diet December 25, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Just wish to say your article is as surprising. The clearness in your post is just great and i can assume you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission let me to grab your feed to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please carry on the rewarding work.


Matt December 26, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Thank you very much. I apprecciate it.


Makendra January 5, 2012 at 7:12 pm

You’ve got to be kididng me-it’s so transparently clear now!


Wednesday January 5, 2012 at 3:35 pm

This article ahcvieed exactly what I wanted it to achieve.


Matt January 6, 2012 at 6:15 am

Good. I hope it helped.


Tanja Fisher December 30, 2011 at 8:37 am

Einige wirklich interessante Punkte, die Sie geschrieben haben. Aided mir sehr viel, genau das, was ich gesucht habe: D.


Matt December 30, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Vielen Danke, Tanja!


Jetsin January 6, 2012 at 10:34 am

I’m out of league here. Too much brain power on display!


Matt January 7, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Ha, Ha! Thanks.


Tessica January 6, 2012 at 12:18 pm

We definitely need more smart people like you around.


Matt January 7, 2012 at 2:20 pm

You are too kind. Thank you.


Milly January 6, 2012 at 9:16 am

What a joy to find such clear thinking. Thanks for posting!


Matt January 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm

You are most certainly welcome. Thank you.


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