Tricks for Transcribing

by Mary Galime

Denis Wick artist, Paul Nowell, is known by most of his fans as Paul the Trombonist. If you are one of his thousands of Youtube and social media followers, you have probably witnessed him play a transcription of a song, whether it be a solo from a jazz standard, or something currently being played on the radio. How has he approached transcribing so many different styles of music?

There are many ways to transcribe a song. You start with a recording of a song or solo, and end with a transcription of that music on paper. So how do you get from the starting point to finish?  While the goal is to transcribe the music, there are some other goals that sometimes get forgotten along the way. Transcribing music, if done correctly, builds a relationship between you and the song. Paul Nowell describes this saying, “The more you get into a song, the more you take from it.” While transcribing will put the notes on paper, what you are able to do with those notes is largely determined by what relationship you built with the music during the transcription process.

Another asset Paul connects to the transcription process is how it will improve your sight-reading skills. While it is basically the opposite function, it trains your ear and your mind in the structure of learning music in a very slow methodical process. Tai Chi translates to “Supreme Ultimate Boxing”. However, for those of you familiar with Tai Chi, you know it is a martial art based on very slow flowing movements that, to the untrained observer, do not seem like they would be very useful in boxing. However, the success in Tai Chi is not in each movement, but the connection between the movements and the transfer of energy in your body as you change positions. Studying your structure and movement in a slow methodical process like this creates a flow that can make you lethal when applied to combat.

In the same way, Paul stresses the importance of the prep work that leads to transcription. Paul has designed these steps so that when you actually get to transcribing the music, you do not stumble over the pitches, but rather the pitches flow out of you. If you have been frustrated in previous attempts at transcription, try one more time with Paul’s instruction.

"Transcribing music, if done correctly, builds a relationship between you and the song." - Mary Galime

Method for Transcription: Paul Nowell, Paul the Trombonist 

1. Listen to the song/solo. 

Listen to it over and over again. Listen to it so much that every detail and nuance is implanted in your brain. If you turn off the music, can you sing all its details by memory?

2. Study the structure. 

You want to create a skeleton of the music. Map out the structure of the song and the chord changes, and anything else that helps you define the skeleton of the song.

3. Add the rhythm 

Not the pitches yet – just the rhythm.

4. Finally, add the pitches.

“If you’ve done enough prep work, the pitches will just flow out of you in a smooth way that would not happen if you had skipped the first steps. If you submit to the prep work, the transcription will just flow from you.” The only way you get to smoothER, is by building a relationship with the goal through every slow methodical step, and preparing the way for the song. If you’ve never tried transcribing a solo before, Paul suggests starting with the Miles Davis solo from Freddie Freeloader. For more tips and suggestions from Paul the Trombonist, make sure to find him on Youtube and Facebook for his daily videos and posts.

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