My favorite thing to do is try and transcribe my favorite solo's. But what I find is that most of them actually start off easy ( and slow ) and can progress with either faster riffs or embellishments of other instruments. There's also the fact that in some of these songs, the notes are even faster than I can play. I'm curious if you have learned to transcribe by taking simple songs like Happy Birthday and progressed from there, or done it by just trying to play the stuff you like even if you don't get it all ? I guess I'm asking which of these methods do you feel I would progress faster.
Transcribing is one of the best ways to learn music. It teaches ear training and how to identify technique for particular instruments. It also challenges you to separate different sources in one recording. When I was young we used to transcribe fast riffs by slowing down the spin rate of an LP (vinyl record player). The pitch will drop but you car determine relative pitch to get the riff or lick then get the first note at normal speed.
In time you learn to identify entire scales, arpeggios, etc in one shot. If the music is highly processed or has lots of effects and distortion it may be a lost cause for anyone to transcribe properly.
You are correct in assuming that transcribing simple tunes is a good start to build confidence then move on to harder things. Other exercises might be identifying chords, inversions, modes, etc. My guitar teacher used to quiz me by playing things on the piano and having me identify the correct interval etc. If you aren't taking lessons or have someone to work with there is a software program called Ear Master. It has a library of ear training exercises. Another exercise, which is transcription, is to sit with your instrument in front of the TV or radio and (try to) play every jingle that comes on, themes for shows, commercials etc. This really challenges you to develop a good ear. Joe Pass claimed that his father made him do that as a kid. It clearly paid off.
I cannot say what will help you progress faster since that depends on factors I cannot assess. Some people do well in the deep end. But I think trying easy stuff couldn't hurt.
Transcribing is one piece in the puzzle, one tool and one aspect of learning music. But it's not either/or, you should learn to play by ear what you hear straight away as well, without writing it down first. Sometimes if you think you heard it right, if you slow it down and spend time transcribing it, you may realize that you heard it wrong the first time. For the most difficult passages transcribing may be the only way, but after you got it nailed down, you may find that then you can identify the same elements in other contexts and hear it more easily. So, do both.
What comes to Happy Birthday ... if you can't learn to play that melody without writing it down, then maybe you should practice more. :)
Transcribing as ear training
It seems a bit putting the cart in front of the horse.
You cannot transcribe if you can't identify pitches - chords and scales, etc.
Don't misunderstand me. Transcribing is a great exercise! But I think it benefits from first establishing some base level of ear training. If you don't have that base established already, then trying to ear train from transcribing seems to set you up for a lot of frustration.
Two thing I have done to get my ear trained are:
- Play essential harmony patterns in all keys. For me that was rule of octave for classical and ii-V-I rootless chords in major and minor for jazz.
- Sing various parts while playing those harmony patterns. By "part" I mean: bass, soprano, or inner voices.
Training from those pattern seems to help my ear even when transcribing music not in those particular styles or those particular progressions.
Having said all that, you specifically mention...
...the notes are even faster than I can play...
This may not really be about identifying pitch as much as breaking down brief passages.
Try a strategy that focuses on previous connecting and next connecting notes. When you get some part identified stay focused on what notes lead into it and where it next goes, one note at a time.
Different parts of a passage can stand out as clear: starting, ending, highest note, lowest note, a point where the line changes direction, etc. Focus on the note that connect to those known parts.
Try to sing those two note connections.
Don't just keep trying to fake your way through the passage. It's too easy to approximate the passage and fool yourself into thinking you have it right.
It can become tedious as you replay a short section of a recording over and over to get just two notes, but sometimes this is what it takes to get something nailed down.
Oh, it doesn't hurt to ask a friend with a better ear. My wife always bails me out, because she has better pitch than me! :-)