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?
In addition to the tips described in other posts, here are some common techniques:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 7♯11 (7♭5)
- maj7♯11 (maj7♭5)
- +9 (9♯5)
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.