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Is there some consensus/study on whether one should slow down music which one cannot play just by hearing it a couple of times (if the goal is to improve as a musician)? If I got a fast run, I can either slow it down and get it easily, or attempt to transcribe it at full speed, resulting in often listening to it dozens or hundreds of times.

On one hand, there's the idea that if something's making your brain hurt, you're probably doing the right thing, as stepping outside your comfort zone is going to make you improve the most.

On the other hand, there's the prevalent idea in ear training that students should be helped in every possible way - i.e. playing the interval over and over, slowly, not pressing the student to answer right away. This seems to suggest "going outside your comfort zone", at least on some level, is not a good idea for ear training.

So: slow down or go at full speed? (if the latter is even possible, which sometimes is not)

  • This question lists software that can be used to slow down music for transcription. – Dom Apr 22 '15 at 13:21
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Always keep in mind the goal is to be able to more effectively write, improvise, and perform music. There's no street cred or punk rock points for the way you practice at home if it doesn't lead to a better performance. Both methods you outline are obviously valuable. The main benefit in slowing the music down, however, is not a matter of making it easier.

I find the one thing that gets glossed over in transcription is also the most important thing: Rhythm.

By slowing a piece down you make the rhythm far more obvious, playing the rhythm at slower tempos forces you to be far more exacting with the placement of the notes and their articulation, and I find it leads to a quicker comprehension of the phrase structure.

A general rule of thumb is practice slow to play fast. Getting the rhythms flawless with zero tension is the goal. You will tense up less with it slowed down, which will lead to the ability to improvise similar lines at any tempo you choose.

It doesn't require fancy software either. I use Windows Media Player because it came free with the computer.

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I think there is a limit to how much you should position yourself out of your comfort zone. The time you waste on the really hard bits of what you are transcribing could be put to use in something else.

I don't have any studies to back me up here, but I do remember some great jazz artists saying that they would transcribe without 100% accuracy, so they could move on to the next record. The "wrong" phrases would still help them out in developing their own language. They could always return to those later, with better ears.

My advice to someone in this position: If you are trying to figure it out for several minutes without any success, you should allow yourself to slow it down a bit.

Just remember that full speed is your standard.

The really hard sections of a piece shouldn't be your focus when you first start transcribing, because they can strain your progress. Concentrate on what you can do. This means slowing down what is too hard so you can dedicate yourself to transcribing what is possible for you at full speed. With practice, everything will become easier and you will be able to concentrate on those hard bits without slowing down.

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    I feel like fast practice helps with muscle memory, and when used sparingly (but intensively) the quest to nail a fast passage WITHOUT slowing it down can be hugely beneficial. On the other hand, too much of this - or not stopping in extreme frustration IMMEDIATELY when you start to make a mistake - will teach you bad habits faster than it will teach you to improve. – Darren Ringer May 20 '15 at 15:59
  • "I think there is a limit to how much you should position yourself out of your comfort zone." A bit of wisdom with more general application than this one: "skiing" leaps to mind. :) – BobRodes Mar 18 '16 at 19:07
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It's very hard to try to learn something at full speed in the beginning. Of course it can be done, but it's definitely not the fastest way.

So in a lot of cases (and depending on your ability) you may have to resort to slowing down to be able to practice. Also - this will enable you to transcribe better as well.

And lastly - if you practice something at different speeds - your skill will improve at the intended speed as well. This is a strange learning effect that works for all types of skills (e.g. if you learn a new language then your other languages will also improve etc.).

Our company owns a have a nifty tool on desktop and ios to slow down songs - it's been around since 2005.

  • If you are affiliated with Riffmaster you should make that clear. It's not clear who "we" is in your last sentence. – Todd Wilcox Mar 18 '16 at 12:58
  • @ToddWilcox I've made it more clear now. Sorry, I thought it was clear the way I put it. – user1914292 Mar 18 '16 at 13:14

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