Hi 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 pianist 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
  • 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
  • @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

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
  • 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
  • Thanks for the tips! – Haversine 2 days ago

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 2 days ago

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