Transcribing Songs: The Best Ear Training a Songwriter Can Do

When I was a teenager, I had a somewhat limited knowledge of music theory and how it worked. I think that’s typical for most young people. I played trumpet and a bit of piano, so I could read notes in the treble and bass clef, but I had a very rudimentary understanding of what chords were. I knew that if I heard a C, E and G being played together, I was hearing a C major chord. But that was about it for theoretical knowledge.

I was a member of a band that played down at the Halifax, Nova Scotia waterfront for tourists back in those days. And because the music was mainly for visitors out for a stroll, songs by The Carpenters, Beatles, and a few self-composed tunes were typical of the kind of stuff we were playing.

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Because the group included trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, etc., (and because we weren’t very good at improvising) we needed music written out on paper. That job fell mostly to me. The process was time consuming. I’d listen to recordings, going moment by moment figuring out the melodies and chords, then writing simple arrangements for us to play.

No doubt my arrangements were pretty weak. But as I worked on transcribing the songs, something was happening to my musical ear that I didn’t really notice at the time. It became easier and easier for me to recognize the chords and melody notes I was hearing.

At first, I’d play the first few beats of a song, plunk out the notes of the melody on a piano until they sounded right, and then wrote them down. I could hear when chords changed, but I had no ability to hear what those changes were.

So I’d listen to each chord change and try to find all the different notes forming those chords. Eventually, I’d figure it out. Once I knew what notes were making up the chords, my low-level of theory told me what the actual chord name was.

It would usually take me several days at first to transcribe one song, but things got easier and faster as I worked. My ear was improving, and actually, so was my knowledge of theory… of how music works.

By the time I auditioned for music school, I still had a fairly rudimentary understanding of music theory. But my ear was much better.

First year ear training at university was easy, and I finished with a mark close to 100. But not because I was an amazing musician — it was because I had done what is arguably the best ear training exercise a musician can do: pick up a pencil and transcribe music.

How to Transcribe Songs

As a singer songwriter, your overall musicianship will benefit immensely by transcribing songs. But if you’re like I was, with only a basic knowledge of theory, how do you transcribe a song? Here are some steps that should work for you, assuming you can read music in treble and bass clef:

  1. Play a recording and play along to a song until you can do it with ease.
  2. Concentrate first on getting the melody right. Get at least a few bars of the tune down. If you aren’t sure of the rhythms or note durations, take a guess at it at first.
  3. For each fragment of melody you transcribe, play it and make sure the pitches are correct. Your ear should be able to tell you that.
  4. Now work on the chords. Go back to the beginning of the fragment, and listen carefully to the recording. If you’re not sure what the chord is, loop a short 1-beat-long section, listening carefully to the background and seeing if you can hear the various notes making up the chords. If this is a tricky step, you’ll find a comprehensive chart for simple chords here at the website.
  5. Keep working forward in the song until you get the entire thing.

You can likely get a song right without transcribing it in this way, but the benefit of writing it down is that it develops your ear. At first, you’ll find that it amounts to a guessing game: you’ll hear a note in the melody, and you’ll go searching for it on your guitar or keyboard until you identify it.

It will seem like a painfully slow process, but each time you correctly identify a note or chord, your musical ear learns something, and it starts to get easier.

I recommend trying to do this once or twice a week as an ear training exercise. Don’t get impatient — it’s not easy. But the benefits to your ear and overall musicianship will be incalculable.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

How to Harmonize a MelodyDo you know how to add chords to that melody you just thought up? “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you how to do exactly that. It shows the secrets of harmonic rhythmidentifying the key of your melodychord function, and more. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.

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  1. In step #1 you say “play along to a song”. How do you do that when you haven’t figured the song out yet…that is the point to this exercise…figuring out the song, right? So what do you mean by “play along to a song.”?

    • Hi Rick:

      Yes, that’s exactly it. Play along, and at first it’s going to sound a bit rough. Most songwriters will have a bit of an idea what’s going on, enough that they can butcher their way through it. Each time you do it, and with each new song, you’ll find that you get a better idea of what’s happening, and you’ll find your fingers moving to the right notes more quickly.

      When I do this exercise, I concentrate mainly on the melody as a first step. At first, you may find that you’re only able to hear when it’s moving up or down, but not have much success with the specific notes. So you’ll hear yourself making a lot of mistakes. And then, as that melodic fragment keeps repeating throughout the song (as most melodies do), you’re going to find that you get lots of chances to fix the mistakes.

      Then with each attempt and with each new song, you find yourself being able to identify the notes more quickly. At some point, it’ll feel like jamming with a band, where each time you do a run-through it gets better and easier.

      Thanks Rick, and I hope that helps.

  2. As a journeyman songwriter /singer /guitarist I play cover songs to keep the folks buying beer and I’ve taught myself many songs by ear.
    The only thing I would add is to learn how to use a capo.
    Once the key is known, then you can figure out where best to place the capo. The key of Bb is little difficult to navigate but capo 3 and play G – hey, we all can play in the key of G.
    As a
    Different chord structures of the same chords.
    Good article, thanks

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