Q: I have been practicing bass on my own for two years while attending college. My goal is to become a working musician and I would like to at least get a gig at a church this year. I’m at a point now where I can hear a piece of music and get pretty close to the right note the first time. I can recognize patterns, and though I can’t sight-read, I can read music. I feel like its definitely time to learn some songs. So, I wanted to get in the habit of transcribing to make learning songs a little bit easier. Unfortunately, I have no idea what I’m doing. I have read some of your columns and you mentioned: 1. Listen to it, 2. Play it, 3. Transcribe it. What I wanted to know was how would I write a transcription down on paper? And are there any books that could help me with this?
A: I think it would be a worthy study for you to develop your reading and start by writing down bass lines, melodies and/or solos in notation. Working out the kinks as you agonize over how to notate a rhythmic phrase and put the music to paper is extremely helpful in learning how to read. Sight-reading is all about association. You associate the note on the middle line as a D (in bass clef) and you associate this rhythmic notation with that rhythmic sound.
Learning to read helps you to become fluent in your language. It also helps you to learn faster as you can read more intense books on musical study (most of which abandon tab).
But, reading isn’t the be-all and end-all, and not every musician has to learn to read. Ultimately, I think that you should decide how far you want to go with music and how much time you have to devote to it. If the answer is “as far as I can humanly get” and “as much as it takes”, then start working on the reading and writing of music.
If your answers are more modest, than do whatever works for you. Invent your own way to write it down, use tab, write rhythms in a line and use note names for note heads. It doesn’t really matter. The writing it down is it’s own kind of exercise and, beyond that, is only really useful for publication or for your collection of materials you’ve worked on and can come back to later (or re-learn more easily).
If you take this approach, however, I would double down on the assimilation of the material. Make sure that you can play, sing and think it note for note. Work to get every vibrato, trill and accent just right. In short, internalize it.
Honestly, that’s the most important part in my opinion and that should be the focus whether or not we both writing it down.
I used to use notation when transcribing because I was lazy and didn’t internalize the music well enough. I would just write it down, note by note, over time and then read it through a bunch of times and move on. That was the wrong way to do it.
I would suggest that you work on transcription (learning by ear, whether you notate it or not) in digestible phrases. Take a one, two or even four bar phrase and figure it out on your instrument, note by note. Run it over and over again until you can play it pretty consistently. Then, if you’re of the mind to do it, write it down and then move on to the next phrase. If you don’t want to write it down, simply move one to the next phrase. I would also stop every so often (say every 8-16 bars) and recap what I’ve figured out so far. Play it from the top and make sure that you can seamlessly connect each section. Rinse and repeat until you have the entire piece under your fingers (and possibly on the page as well).
Either way you go, if you put all of your intention into assimilating the music and understanding it, you can’t really go wrong.