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I sometimes find musical gems that I'd like to jam with but upon discovering that sheet music for them don't exist, I take on a transcribing challenge because it's such a good exercise. I don't have a degree in music, but I have a strong understanding of scales, chord degrees, harmony, and the range of extended chords that you can find based on the the scale. I typically start out by listening and writing down the lyrics, then playing along with a piano until I can mark chords above the text. Only when I'm confident with that, I take it to a sheet music software where I have to also figure out the rhythms, durations, and expression. The most common type of music I probably transcribe tends to be a 70s-80s recording of black music; The recording technology isn't always the clearest, and you hardly ever hear pure minors or majors that would only consist of three notes.

Many times, I've been playing along and writing down those chords and it sounds okay, but later, I lose confidence in it, because on its own some places don't sound quite right. In confusion, I start meddling with the lines that don't sound right, and I may tweak it even more off, just to return back to the previous version where I can't quite pinpoint what's wrong. I suspect that with the very complex harmonies typical to black music, the same chord enharmonically either contains multiple individual chords, or ones that are very close, so what you hear in it isn't as obvious as if you were listening to something of the level of "Twinkle twinkle little star". The warm fingerprint of a tape recording with some vinyl crackle on top also don't really help with the clarity.

I'm suspecting my technique, feeling frustrated and stuck. What do you think is the best order of steps to take on getting this right, what should the workflow really be? How do you deal with the complex harmonies where there's so many options?

Most chords that I write down that end up to be wrong sound like they could be right, but it isn't the one in the recording, so it's just a matter of what kind of hues the composer has chosen. A bit like: sure you can jazz up even Twinkle twinkle little star, and with completely new chords, it can still sound musically correct, but that little star is going to be in a really different mood. It's all about context: if you had the usual Twinkle Twinkle little star with the plainest possible chords but substituted one chord with some really exotic and colorful one, it will sound alien. While a chord might technically fit, it still has to fit the context and follow the overall style.

  • I think that everyone has different approaches, and different approaches will work better for some in different situations. If the piece you are transcribing contains a progression that you are already familiar with, that part might be easy. It is pretty common to get a set of working changes together, and then to later realize that they weren't quite right, or that you would like to think of things a little differently. Just keep plugging away at making transcriptions. No best approach/technique/workflow other than listening a lot and transcribing a lot. – David Bowling Apr 22 '18 at 13:44
  • Yeah, my approach is different from yours--I determine the melody first, rhythms, durations, and all. I figure out chords and accompaniment second, and that's where I usually brick. (I tend to run into complex chords, too.) So I don't know whether my approach is any better. – Dekkadeci Apr 22 '18 at 16:36
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Regardless of the type of music, my transcription method is usually the same, and sounds like similar to yours:

  1. Transcribe the bass line. I will sometimes boost the bass and cut the mids and highs to try to isolate the bass. One challenge in getting an accurate bass line is that it can be harder to distinguish the pitch of lower notes.
  2. Transcribe the melody. Usually this is the easiest part of the process.
  3. Transcribe any other melodic or contrapuntal lines that stand out. Often this is a partial transcription.
  4. Essentially write my own harmony/counterpoint/chord progression that works with the bass line and the melody line(s), using the harmonic rhythm of the piece. This is where the real work is. I come up with a chord that works to harmonize and then I see how well it sounds like the chord at that moment in the piece. This is a guess and check system where I try to guess as well as I can.

As I wrote, it seems like you're doing something similar and it's that step 4 that is the real challenge.

At some point, I just let it go and play the piece my own way. I'll know that some of the chords aren't exactly right. Sometimes I'll play a piece for a while and then suddenly realize a chord I hadn't tried for a particular part and then discover it's the right one.

I have found that two things are a big help in finding the right chords for the color that I'm hearing: 1) transcribing a lot and 2) learning a lot of songs from existing sheet music for the genre. If you can find transcriptions or official sheet music for similar pieces, then you can learn both the chords and progressions that are more popular in the genre as well as learn the sounds of the different chords. Then you can reverse engineer the sounds you hear back into the chords more easily when transcribing.

I find approaching transcription like it's writing a piece in the same style with the same melody and bass line helps a lot, especially if I'm really familiar with the style. Remember that even if you don't 100% nail a piece, you've still done a lot to develop your musical ear and maybe you've even come up with some of your own ideas along the way.

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    It has happened to me that, after I think I have a good set of chords figured out and I am comfortable with them, when I start playing around with them and making some substitutions I find a new chord that was in the original all along, but that I was missing. – David Bowling Apr 22 '18 at 17:09
  • See I can already notice a difference there: You start from the bass, then the melody. I start from the chords and I think of the bass as a part of them. In the genres that I transcribe, "walking bass" patterns are very common, so it's not uncommon to get chords with something else than its root note in the bass. But actually maybe if I pay more attention to the bass in the beginning, I would actually be more conscious of chord degrees because it helps figure out what should be the correct chord. With jazz progressions though, you probably have to know much more about the degrees than obvious. – user158589 Apr 24 '18 at 9:28
  • I know the concept of the circle of fifths and I have some experience of how you borrow chords from other scales, substitute, but I'm not so fluent that I'd just obviously see those tricks when I look at a piece; I might discover those methods by looking at existing sheet music and doing some serious analyzing. It is a relief to know that the phase I have most trouble with is genuinely challenging for musicians, and getting chords only nearly right until you accidentally discover the correct one, is not uncommon. – user158589 Apr 24 '18 at 9:34
  • You're right, just doing a lot of transcribing always builds your skills, and you can "steal" progression concepts from the music you analyze, that already has official sheet music available. I have a notoriously perfectionistic nature, trying to often do things perfectly from start to finish and I can't move on until that piece is as complete and finished as can be. This of course prevents active and constructive development! With music, you should just get as much exposure as possible, because what you couldn't nail the first time, you accidentally know how to do later. – user158589 Apr 24 '18 at 9:37
  • @user158589 Just one note on your comments: When writing and transcribing, I actually try to avoid thinking too much about music theory and just try to connect sounds together. I believe that helps when transcribing because I suspect most people aren't thinking theory when they write, they think sound. So I try to think sound also when I transcribe. – Todd Wilcox Apr 24 '18 at 14:42

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