Why you shouldn’t transcribe

Holding a SaxophoneWhy not?

OK, that sounds a bit radical. Transcribing is of course useful, but it can be so much more useful.

One of the most common pieces of advice we see regarding learning to improvise is about the importance of transcribing. This means listening to and writing down someone’s improvised solo.

Surely this is how you learn what they are playing?

Well, you would learn the notes and licks they are playing for sure, but does that mean you can then improvise? Or understand the concept behind the solo or the story they are telling?

I’ve also heard it said that rather than writing down the solo, it’s much better and more useful to learn to play it by ear. This would of course mean you are in more of a position to play (live) what they played and so possibly get a bit closer to improvising. But then you are merely repeating somebody else’s music rather than creating your own.

I believe that neither writing down a solo nor learning it by ear is the complete answer, or even close to the complete answer unless you also understand the creative process that is going on to create that solo.

So what do you need to do?

Transcribe and Analyse!

A solo analysis doesn’t need to be a heavyweight academic thesis, but it does need to look at various aspects of a solo in some depth. In many ways this is easier with a written down transcription because you may not have a good enough memory to listen to a phrase at 3m 38sec and tie it in with what was played at the beginning.

So for example, you might be able to spot a melodic or rhythmic fragment that repeats or develops on something that was played earlier. It is this kind of thing that can somehow make a solo have a shape or feel like it is unfolding a story. These kinds of devices are sometimes engineered by the improviser and sometimes subconscious. The effect on the listener may also be obvious or just something that they hear subconsciously and somehow feel the solo is more than a random collection of notes, phrases or scales that happen to fit the chord changes.

By analysing you will notice how some great players use various melodic and rhythmic devices to not only make their solos interesting, but also have a much greater emotional impact through subtle use of tension and release.

Use  of Tension and Release

On a very simple level this can mean resolving a discordant or altered harmonic device to something which is harmonically simple or at rest. Even a straightforward G7 to C perfect cadence involves tension and release. However there are many other ways to do this which you may not even notice but can have a subconscious effect.

Tension can be built up gradually over an entire solo, building to one climax which is then resolved. Or it could be smaller instances of building tension. In addition to complexity of harmony it could be rhythmic displacement, repetition, dynamics, extreme use of tone colour or effects, surprise changes of style and many more devices – it’s up to you to think about the solo and discover these methods and concepts. It doesn’t matter that often the improviser is not consciously using these devices, you are still learning the difference between a good solo and a great solo. And even if you think you are being too contrived by using such devices you’ve discovered, it will gradually become an intuitive part of your improvising.

It’s Not just Jazz

You might think that such devices are the exclusive realm of jazz. Think again!

Check out the solos and analyses of blues, especially the great Rock and Roll solo Walking With Mr Lee by Lee Allen

So don’t just transcribe to learn the licks, write the solo down, learn it by ear but above all think about it and analyse it.


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