I have just started to play jazz piano after many years of classical piano and one of the big things I have to do as a jazz musician is to transcribe (by ear) famous jazz recordings. When I am transcribing, many jazz pianists play chords and I am having difficulty playing the exact chords that they play. Are there any tips or tricks to transcribing chords by ear?

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    I wonder if even many top jazz pianists can play the exact chords and voicings of other pianists just like that ... I guess many probably have to do at least some trial and error to get the exact same sounds. Transcribing is a good exercise for learning, but it's ok if you can make your own version of the tune. :) If the chord works as a dominant, then at least play some kind of a dominant, etc. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 25 at 22:20
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    I assure you that they can. Reproducing complex harmonies is one of those things that is way easier to do via talent and hard practice than to describe in a textbook. – Kilian Foth Mar 26 at 9:38
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    I'm pretty good with hearing altered chords on one go (I like to tell myself that, at least), and I can get most jazz chords on one or two listens, and I'm not even a jazz pianist. I can imagine that the really good jazz pianists can probably recognise the complicated, dense chords just as easily as we can hear triads. – user45266 Mar 26 at 17:27
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    @KilianFoth I want to believe such people exist ... I've been watching Rick Beato on Youtube and he's pretty good with harmony, but even he seems to need some trial and error to find things. Myself, I've transcribed some jazz stuff and sometimes getting the exact voicing is really difficult ... there's some additional thickness somewhere and finally I find it, some fifth and octave were doubled in the lower register, or something. But it's so hard to get exactly right, I'm thinking even good players must settle with approximations, as long as it sounds good, close enough and does the job. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 26 at 20:07
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    Agreed, @KilianFoth. It's just like anything else--it takes practice, ear training, and lots of experience with different chord voicings. If I played a Bud Powell shell voicing, most pro pianists would be able to recognize it immediately. If I played a 3-note quartal voicing (a la Chick), most would recognize it. With enough repetition, it's possible to recognize many/most chord voicings occurring simply because they're so familiar. If you transcribe the same person over and over, you can start to hear the same voicings getting used. It's slow work at the beginning but gets better. – jdjazz May 7 at 20:45

In addition to the tips described in other posts, here are some common techniques:

  1. Transcribe the lowest and highest notes of the chord voicing first, as these are usually the easiest to hear. In many jazz piano contexts, the lowest note in a piano voicing will rarely be the root.

  2. Identify the root and the chord quality. This really is the first step, and it's already been mentioned by others. The chord quality is different from the voicing, of course, but if you can identify that you're hearing a C13(b9) chord, then you'll immediately have some candidate notes to try and listen for. In the C13b9 example, you'd be on the lookout for C, Db, E, G, A, Bb. They may not all be present in the voicing, but now it's a matter of (a) figuring out which of the candidate notes are included vs. excluded in the voicing and (b) the ordering of the notes.

  3. Pause the recording immediately after the chord sounds. Try singing the notes you think you hear. Pick one of those notes, and test it out in the following way: sing the candidate note while you play the chord back again in the recording. Listen to see if the note you sing is being matched in the voicing on the recording. This can help you determine whether the note is present.

  4. Different intervals have sound different. 2nds sound crunchy, 3rds sound more closed and traditional, 4ths sound more amorphous, 5ths sound open, etc. Try to use these qualities to identify the intervals being used. This can inform which notes to try singing in step 2.

  5. Use a lead sheet while transcribing. The voicings usually follow the chord progression of the song. Pull up a lead sheet (or create one yourself), and when listening to a voicing, you can look for important tones from the chord (e.g., the 3rd and 7th). These won't always be present though, so this will only help some of the time.

  6. Research some info about the pianist you're listening to, and familiarize yourself with the styles of that era. Many important pianists like Bud Powell, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, etc. use the same voicings in many different songs. Try out well-known voicings from that style of jazz and from the particular pianist.

  7. Transcribe high-quality recordings. When first learning to transcribe chord voicings, life will be much easier if you start out on recordings where you can hear the notes clearly. Old recordings have pitch issues and may sound muddy, which can make the task extremely difficult (or impossible, in some cases). Maybe those older recordings could become transcriptions that you tackle after gaining some practice on clearer recordings.

  8. Improve your ear through ear training exercises. This is the hardest (and slowest) step, but it's also the highest-yield. If you've practiced combination triad voicings in all 12 keys, then you are much more likely to immediately recognize them in a Bill Evans recording. If you've practiced right-hand octaves with a third down from the top note, then you'll hear this technique instantly in Red Garland recordings. Upper structure chords, Bud Powell shell voicings, rootless A/B voicings, inner voice movement, etc. are all easier to hear if you've practiced them extensively.

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    isn't using a lead sheet cheating? for me, to identify the chords is more important than the voicing. – Fefo May 15 at 17:11
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    @Fefo, my reading of the question is that it's not asking how to transcribe a chord progression. Instead, it seems to ask how to transcribe the voicings themselves. Some may place a higher value on transcribing the chord progression, while others may place a higher value on transcribing the voicings themselves. I think it depends a lot on one's goals and existing knowledge. For example, if someone is already really skilled at determining a chord progression from ear, then going through this step may not be worth the time; that time might be better spent on getting the voicings themselves. – jdjazz May 15 at 19:01
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    @Fefo, but to your point, if someone is interested in practicing both transcribing the chord progression and transcribing the voicings, then the lead sheet they pull up could be one they've created themselves! – jdjazz May 15 at 19:05
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    yes, i think this is the most interesting approach in transcribing. understanding the chords by ear, and then understanding what the musician is doing with them in terms of voice leading. and i don't think it's a problem to take a look in a lead sheet if you have written your own sheet before. – Fefo May 16 at 4:32
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    @Fefo, many of us have probably heard a pianist play a lick in the right hand, have immediately known the notes, and have thought "Wow! What a cool place to use that lick!" It's the exact same with transcribing chord voicings. Granted, this is harder to do, but as one makes progress in that realm, they unlock an entirely new way of listening to music. We can listen to a Keith Jarrett track, immediately recognize the inner voice movement and thinking "What a cool place to use that!" Or we can hear a Mehldau track and think "What a cool place to voice the 11th in the major chord!" – jdjazz May 16 at 13:23

It can be very hard to hear specific chord voicings that jazz pianists play on recordings for several reasons, recording quality, other instruments playing, song tempo to name a few. What I would suggest is start by knowing the harmony of the song first. If it is a standard you can probably find it in a fake book. If not then try transcribing just the harmony, not the actual voicings themselves. Listening to the bass can be helpful in this regard. If you know the chord progression of the song it will be easier to figure out what the pianist is playing note for note.

The next step is learning and understanding the different ways pianists voice their chords. You will likely need some help with this, either a jazz piano harmony book or a few private lessons with an accomplished player. Once you learn the different ways jazz players construct their chords you may start to recognize voicings when you hear them. I am curious to know which recordings and what era of jazz you are working on because there has been much evolution in the way pianists create their voicings over the years.

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    I am transcribing this recording of Stella by Starlight by Bud Powell: youtube.com/watch?v=pK9P4z7GKYc – Haversine Mar 31 at 20:52
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    This tune is widely published in fake books so it shouldn’t be hard to find. A few things to be aware of, jazz musicians commonly play this song in Bb and many printed versions are in Bb but the original key is G and Bud plays it in that key. Also there are some widely used jazz reharmonizations which Bud doesn’t play. For example the first bar Bud plays the original Go7 where as most jazz players play a ii-V7 of C#m7b5 F#7. Another example is bar 10 Bud plays an Em where as many jazz players will play C#m7b5 F#7. His bass notes should help with transcribing, good luck! – John Belzaguy Mar 31 at 23:19
  • Thanks for the insights John! – Haversine Apr 1 at 1:30

I think it's really helpful to try and internalise the sound of various common jazz chord qualities. It is a lot easier to hear the complicated harmonies when you have a large mental database of sounds from which to work. For example, obviously any jazz musician should know by heart all the seventh chords, but some great useful sounds to know are:

  • maj9
  • m9
  • 9
  • 6
  • m6
  • 6/9
  • m11
  • m13
  • 7♯11 (7♭5)
  • maj7♯11 (maj7♭5)
  • 7♭9
  • 7♯9
  • +9 (9♯5)
  • 9sus
  • 13sus
  • 13♭9
  • 9
  • 13

If you are familiar with these sounds, a lot of jazz harmonies will seemingly transcribe themselves, and the more complicated chords can mostly be related back to these chords above. Now, dominant chords can be altered nearly beyond recognition, and you'll occasionally hear some chords with two or three crazy alterations, but with a couple listens it should be much easier to pick out individual notes. If you're not sure, the bass note and the top note are often the easiest to hear.

The reason why it's important to know those basic harmonies above is because sometimes on the recording it won't be possible to hear every note and piece together the chord. If you can just listen and hear "okay, that's a minor 9 chord, to a diminished 7th chord, and oh, 13♭9, aaaand back to maj7", you can figure out the chord roots easily by ear. With practice, this can allow one to really play some complex stuff by ear and transcribe jazz music much more efficiently. Of course, it'll take time and effort to develop one's ear to that point, but with regular active listening to jazz music, it shouldn't be too hard to do.

Jazz is also a very functional genre; chords tend to follow predictable patterns. By far the most important pattern in the genre is the ii V I and its minor variant ii° V i. When you listen to a lot of jazz music, you start to hear the tonic, predominant, and dominant roles on the harmonies, which will help determine both the quality of the chord and its root. As a simple example, suppose you know a chord progression is Cmaj7, E♭°7, X, and G7, but you can't tell what's being played at X. The only real option for that chord X is some kind of Dm7 chord, unless the E♭°7 chord is functioning differently than the way I labelled it (actually, maybe a D7 of some sort could work). Knowing chord progressions will let you "know your options" at a moment in the piece, so to speak. Secondary Dominants and Tritone Substitutions also are really important concepts to understand, as they can easily explain some of the more challenging harmonies to hear. This is why it's very important to be up on your theory to transcribe jazz music: if you have to get out your circle of fifths to determine the V of every E♭ chord, you're much too slow. Also, jazz gets written in plenty of keys, and uses chords on every root, so better get away from just "thinking in C" every time.

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  • Yes, I can hear some chord qualities but how would I transcribe to the note of particular voicings? – Haversine Mar 31 at 20:55
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    I suppose it would then be important to sort of internalise the difference between closely-spaced voicings and wide, open voicings. Or, if possible, you could try to hear every note, but that can be hard. If I ever can't tell by ear immediately, I just mess around on the keyboard until I figure out what I think the exact voicing is. – user45266 Mar 31 at 21:03

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