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Rhythms and Transcriptions: A How To Guide to Notating Rhythmic Patterns

Q: I have a question about transcribing. I’m a pretty skilled player and can read, but I have a lot of problems writing down the rhythms that I hear either in my head or from a particular song. Any suggestions on how I should go about learning to notate more difficult rhythms?

A: Rhythms can be tricky when you’re first figuring them out, especially when transcribing. Here are several things that should help you get going.

There are a couple of books worth checking out. The first is The Latin Bass Book by Oscar Stagnaro. This book is primarily for learning Latin bass styles, but it is fantastic for developing your reading chops as well (no tab). It comes with multiple CDs to play along with and the lines are totally happening. Rhythmically, it will challenge you as ties, dotted notes and rhythms focused on playing on the up-beats are predominant to the style. This book should get you comfortable with more complex rhythms and matching it up with notation – a good skill to transfer to your transcribing activities.

Modern Reading Text in 4/4 For All Instruments by Louie Bellson is 100% about rhythm, and a highly recommended resource.

Here’s my guide for improving your skills with notating rhythms:

  1. Break it into it’s smallest subdivision.
    Drum along with the rhythm. See if you can find what the rhythm is centered around. For example, it may be built focused around a 16th-note subdivision.
  2. Write out a bar full of the subdivision on a separate sheet of paper
    Mark out 16 dots (four 16th notes per beat in a bar of 4/4)
  3. Slowly mark or circle every 16th note subdivision that is hit in the rhythm
    That way, you’ll be able to figure out how long each note is held, and work out how to notate it.

So, using the above list as an example and following a 16th-note based subdivision, if the first note lasts for three 16th notes, you know can then figure out that it could be written as a dotted 8th note.

If your primary issue, however is understanding the foundational side of rhythmic notation (how long each note-head type is held, etc.) then I would certainly recommend getting with a teacher and/or working through the mentioned books (readers, please recommend your favorite books in the comments).

For me personally, I’ve found that marking down the smallest common subdivision for the line in question on a separate piece of paper and then working it out beat by beat or phrase by phrase to be the easiest way to work out tricky phrases.

You might also find a friend who has a better grasp on it and ask him or her to look at your work and make suggestions. Having the help of your peers is always worth it’s weight in gold

Best of luck!

Readers, what are your tricks for transcribing rhythms? Share your approach in the comments.