When I was studying jazz bass, I had a teacher named Cristoph who gave me a homework assignment that I never forgot. And I’m convinced that it was responsible for the most important musical skill I’ve ever learned.
All he asked me to do each week was to transcribe 32 bars of the bassline to a jazz song of my choosing. I had my doubts about this process. “I want to learn to play the bass, not to listen to the bass,” I thought as I loaded up my bass into my car after my first lesson, after not having played a single note.
When I showed up the next week, I played through the section of On Green Dolphin Street that I had transcribed. Christoph pointed out mistakes and suggested taking things up and down an octave. Once I was done, he asked me tell him the chord changes based on the bassline. After a few missteps, I was able to identify the chord changes and after that, I was able to improvise my own bassline for the same song!
Ahmad Jamal-On Green Dolphin Street
Most people think of ear training, the ability to reverse engineer a song from listening to it, as something that you are either born with or not. I am here to tell you that this is definitely not true. I went into Cristoph’s lessons with no better ears than anyone else and I still, to this day, I can fairly quickly pick out a melody that I hear on the radio or in someone else’s track. Of any real musical skill, I have to say that this is the most crucial (for me) and also the most irreplaceable with technology.
Good ear training allows me to listen to a sound or track that inspire me and pinpoint the melody and chord changes EXACTLY. It also lets me go from a line that I hummed into my iPhone while driving to a finished melody in Ableton with a minimum amount of fuss. It’s basically the most important thing in the world, ever (hyperbole alert).
Basic Ear Training
Here are a few ideas to get you started with your ear training. You can start right now even if you have no idea about scales, chords, etc.
1) Put Your Instrument Away. The most important thing that I learned is that you have to sing or at least hum. I am no brain genius, but there is something about the process of listening to something, humming it and, only then, trying to play it on a keyboard, guitar, etc. Part of this, I’m sure, is that singing or humming makes you isolate the different melodic phrases in a piece of music. While we experience music all at once (polyphonically), we can only sing one note at a time (monophonically). I also think that melodic phrases are easier to retain if you sing them. My opinion is that this is because of magic.
2) Switch Parts. It is probably more important for you to transcribe (or at least play) multiple different “parts” within the same 30 seconds than it is to try to play back an entire song. So, once you’ve got the melody down, try the bassline. This will do two things for you. It will make you appreciate the complexity of any piece of music, no matter how Lady Gaga-esque. It will also give you more information for number 3.
3) Learn Music Theory. Or at least the basics of chords and scales. In reality, this whole process of reverse engineering a song, is more of a process of deduction than anything. And the more you learn about Music Theory, the more you’ll realize that in, most musical situations, there are really only 4 options. Once you know some Music Theory, how a song is put together starts to resemble chess. From the outside, the options look infinite, but they are actually very finite. If you don’t want to lose, that is.
Do any of you have any experience transcibing music or doing ear training? Let me know if ye olde comments!