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Often times we find ourselves enjoying a piece of music that, for whatever reason, we are unable to find appropriate documentation/tablature for. What are good practices for transcribing music by ear if one does not have perfect pitch? Is there a specific piece of musical anatomy (such as the key) that will make figuring out the rest much simpler?

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Do you mean transcribing? Transposing is changing a piece to a different key. –  Ben Alpert Apr 26 '11 at 21:01
    
Truth. Thanks! I was sure I had mixed up my words. –  Nathanus Apr 26 '11 at 21:02
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I find that the hardest task for me when I'm transcribing is figuring out the middle pitches of chords. Sometimes it seems like a pitch is there, so you write it in, but then after a while you realize that you're really just reinforcing a fifth redundantly. –  Rei Miyasaka May 22 '11 at 19:22

8 Answers 8

up vote 15 down vote accepted

For transcribing music, one does not need "perfect" pitch, just "good enough" pitch. And practice. If you can identify chords or harmony progression, a very common set of chords will be I, IV and V (so for the key of C major, those would be C, F & G). One thing you'll need to memorize is the circle of fifths (and how to fill out, or derive, a scale from the name).

Because a lot of western music uses I, IV & V chords, you should/will learn to recognize them.

Sample songs with typical chord progressions:
I, IV, IV (then back to I) - La Bamba (Richie Valens)
I, IV - You Can't Always Get (Rolling Stones)
IV, V, I - Mr Tamborine Man (Bob Dylan).

So when you're listening to something and you hear a lot of Eflat, F and Bflat chords, then it is extremely likely that you're listening to something in Eflat major.

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Accepted for examples and reference to circle of fifths –  Nathanus Apr 27 '11 at 15:17

I highly recommend interval training.

I was essentially tone-deaf before starting interval training, and now have no problem recognizing notes and playing songs by ear. It provides a major advantage because you only need to figure out one note of the song. The next note can always be identified if you can recognize its interval from the previous note!

I also recommend trying to play along with the song. It's difficult for those without perfect pitch to just hear a note and write it down, but it's easy to recognize when you're playing the correct note and then you can just write down they note that you're playing. There's only so many notes you can try before finding the right one, although it gets more difficult with chords and such.

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Just sitting and listening to music (without playing your instrument) and trying to write it down while listening can really help your ear with intervals. I can't believe how "off" I used to be. Great answer! –  Evik James Apr 30 '12 at 21:54

The more music theory you know and understand, the more quickly you'll recognize common patterns and be able to transcribe them accurately.

In addition, you can use software that slows the music down without changing its pitch. I've used both Capo and Amazing Slow Downer, and both work well for this purpose. In addition to slowing down the music, they also allow you to loop a specific section of the music over and over so that you can zero on a difficult passages until you get them right.

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Learning intervals have a part to play. However, personally, I feel that by the time you analyzed the intervals, the music would have gone far, far ahead in real time....unless you have already memorized the tune and are playing it back from what you have heard; or you are rewinding over and over again just to listen to the relevant parts.

For me, having taught 5000+ people to play by ear over the last 25 years, I prefer to use "active sensing" to find the right keys. Of course, it takes time and making a lot of mistakes initially to acquire that ability. However, once acquired, you tend to zoom to the right notes quite quickly or at the least, nearby.

Learning the rudiments is great and that's what I did but I find that other than the rudiments, the rest are not really that helpful until you have gone through the experience first and then when you look back, then only you understand how it was applied. It's easier to understand that way. That's why I take the student through the experience first and then only tell them the theory behind it. Otherwise I would bore them to death. (This is also the reason thousands upon thousands of wannabes gave up music - theory first, practical later or never at all).

What I mean by "active sensing" is: Each and every note in the scale (doesn't matter what key) have a character. Like learning to recognize faces, you learn to recognize sound. As you hum the scale, LISTEN and FEEL the character of each SOUND. Taking Note 1 as the reference point, you will notice that Note 2 tends to sound SMALLER (More comfortable visualizing it as smaller than bigger); Note 3 seems to rise up to a level closer to Note 1; Note 4 is VERY STRONG - higher than Note 3; Note 5 drops down to a level close to Note 1; Note 6 rises up a little and Note 7 DROPS A LOT and then Note 8 goes back to a level like Note 1 except of higher pitch.

There are finer things inside each note (maybe you won't be able to describe them but you can feel them) that you will notice as you go through the range. As you go along trying to find melody notes, you will UNCONSCIOUSLY hit the right notes as you go along. And it works faster this way than interval and theory.

These variations of the 7 notes also are the building blocks for your expression. Singing or humming out the character of these notes adds to the expressiveness of your song if you sing them with awareness of the characteristics. For a simple start, try it out with Love Me Tender or Aura Lee and see if what I say is true or not.

These characteristics are also the building blocks of your chords. Notice that Chord 1 consist of 3 notes of Middlish strengths; Chord 4 consist of 1 very strong note and 2 Middlish notes and Chord V7 consist of 3 weaker notes and only 1 strong note that tends to want to push you to finish on Chord I? In that respect, these 3 chords creates 3 different expressions that are fundamental to almost any songs.

These strength and weakness are relative to each other in a scale. People will ask me: Based on this theory, won't the expression spiral upwards or downwards with no ending? It is a mystery I am not able to explain as yet. Somehow they seem to fit like a close fitting ring with lots of components inside and end up in circular motion (instead of spiral).

Whatever it is; try to develop these awareness described above and see if that would help you.

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This is fair. It's how I learn songs on guitar and bass, anyways ... it just gets complicated when there are effects and the like that change the sound of the note. –  Matthew Read May 5 '11 at 14:30
    
Totally agree with this. If the song stays in the same scale, you can feel which notes belong. It'll work with easy songs. But for more difficult songs (fast/temporary switching between scales, out of scale notes/chords, heavy effects etc) I prefer slowing it down or just looking for a tab to get me started. For example, I was trying to transcribe pardon me using the piano, I just couldn't figure out what was being played in the verse, I had to freeze the notes and try to find the matching note in my keyboard haha. –  Jerahmeel Dec 19 '13 at 8:14

The easiest way for me, if I can't get the chords right off, is to start by holding a tuner up to a speaker, to see which notes/chords comprise the progression.

Then I usually turn off the music and work as much out as a I can from memory.

Finally, I turn it back on and play along with it, listening for the more subtle chord formations hinted at by leads or riffs (if something sounds off).

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How to Play a Tune by Ear on Piano

A. Work out the basic tune.

  1. Pick a tune. Start with simple tunes that use one to three primary chords (I, IV, V)
  2. Work it out in the key of C – Everything is easier in C. You can always transpose it later. Begin by playing the C major scale to get the sound of the key in your ear.
  3. Find the home note – Sing the song in the key of C to determine the “home” (tonic) note, which is the same as the key of the song. Work backwards. The last note of a melody is nearly always the tonic. Make sure this is the note C.
  4. Find the first note – A lot of people get into trouble by assuming the first note of the song is the home note but that’s not always the case. (Mary Had A Little Lamb starts on the third note.) With the sound of the key still in your head, play up a C scale until you find the first note.
  5. Hunt and peck the melody – When you get stuck, ask yourself whether it goes up or down. Sing it, sing it, sing it. The answers can be found in your voice. Memorize and be able to play it with a steady beat before even thinking about chords.

B. Add Chords – Melody implies harmony

  1. Look for chord tones in the melody. When the notes on the strong beats in a melody match the notes in one of the primary chords, there’s a good chance that that chord will fit.
  2. If the melody has a note on a strong beat that is in more than one chord, test which one you prefer. (e.g. Twinkle)
  3. Put the melody and chords together. Play whole and half note primary chords using the common inversions in the left hand. Get used to changing the chords at the right time in the melody.

C. Add Style

  1. Beginning students combine a left-hand pattern appropriate to their level with the right hand melody. Pick a pattern that seems to fit the character of the tune or fits your taste and ability level.
  2. Intermediate students add stylistic embellishments to the melody.
  3. Advanced students include harmony in the right hand alongside the melody. Harmony notes should always be below the melody.
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I've removed the signature from your post; interested readers can already click on your name to see your profile and more info about you. –  Ben Alpert Jul 20 '11 at 4:49

First. Get fluent with chords. If you are fluent with chords then you can play along using chords with any piece of music.

Second. Play out the tune.

Third. Play out the tune. Add the chords

Third. Improvise to get your piece the same as the piece you are imitating. (Or improvise to your liking)

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I'm not sure familiarity with chords will help initially. Being able to play them doesn't help if you can't figure out what you're hearing. –  Matthew Read Apr 26 '11 at 22:46

There's an extremely detailed tutorial on this forum that covers every step of transcribing, including software you can use to help with things like figuring out key signature (they recommend audio recognition software Widi Pro).

One other thing recommended in that forum is to use something like Adobe Audition to adjust frequencies, slow down the song, and isolate channels to help you hear each part clearly.

Software can only take you so far, though; as others have already said here, investing in interval training or an advanced music theory class will be much more beneficial than anything else.

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