Working with Printed Transcriptions

Headphones & sheet music

Studying transcriptions of masterful performances can provide a wealth of learning material for a musician. Musically speaking, we will gain the most by completing our own transcriptions, entirely by ear, of course. However, there is still a great deal to be gained by working from published transcriptions by other musicians, provided we approach them in the right way.

Certainly there is no dearth of printed material for us to draw upon, and often it can be a convenient way to get an introduction into someone’s playing style. There are, in fact, some great collections out there of solos and bass lines of the masters, which we can all learn from.

However, there are a few pitfalls we should avoid when working from someone else’s transcription. Below are a few suggestions that can help you get the most out of working from a printed transcription.

Use the recording… a lot

It is important to remember that the sheet music is not the final word. The recording is.

Before we start learning notes from the printed page, we should make sure we are intimately familiar with the recording. We should listen to the recording numerous times, and know it well, before we dive into the printed music.

All to often, people jump right into the printed page before they have a true familiarity with the recording. Doing so will create multiple roadblocks to learning along the way and will ultimately prevent us from acquiring all we can from a particular transcription.

In the end, even though we have sheet music in front of us, we should spend most of our time with the recording.

Listen for what’s missing

Using a printed transcription is not an excuse to turn off our ears. In fact, most transcriptionists assume anyone reading their transcription is still relying on their ear.

Consequently, even the best transcriptions leave performance details out of the printed music. Generally, things like accents, slurs, phrasing ideas, dynamics, etc., are not notated, in part or in whole. Nonetheless, these are important components of any performance. As a result, we still need to listen carefully to the recording, and adjust our playing, as we are working from the printed page.

Remember our goal

The goal of transcriptions, as I see it, is to absorb all we can from the playing of a master. Having a printed transcription in front of us can feel like a great head start to achieving this goal. Someone else already figured out all the notes, after all. Maybe they have even put in a few phrasing marks.

Having the notes already in front of us can, of course, get us moving more quickly. The harmonic language of a particular player, however, is just one aspect of what we should be gleaning.

Things we may want to absorb from a transcription study might include:

  1. How exactly does that player swing? Do they land on the front of the beat, on the back of the beat, or somewhere in between? How does that relate to the other musicians in the band? How does that affect the overall performance? Can we mimic it?
  2. What is the quality of tone they are getting? Can we reproduce that tone?
  3. Is there vibrato? How fast? How slow? How wide?
  4. What about the slides? Are they short, long, fast or slow?

These are just some of the questions we should be able to answer, as well as duplicate in our own performance of any transcription.

To get the most out of studying a masterful performance we should be able to replicate, to our greatest ability, all the aspects of that performance. The pitches are just one aspect. There is plenty to learn that won’t be on the printed page of even the most detailed transcription.

Don’t turn off your ear

Perhaps all the suggestions above boil down to this last one. You will most certainly hear things in a recording that are not notated in a printed transcription. If you are taking the time to try and absorb a person’s playing, you may as well learn everything you can, and not just the notes. The un-notated parts of the performance are just as much a part of that person’s playing as the notes on the page, and certainly worth absorbing.

In general, I suggest thinking of any printed transcription as a guide, rather than a script. By doing so we can help keep our ears turned on, and get the most out of studying from a printed transcription.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at and check out the Bass Coalition at

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  1. Bruce

    Any transcriptions suggestions? My bass coach suggested bass transcriptions by Charlie Parker. He played sax but his stuff has been transcribed for bass. Playing it is one thing, applying it another. I do like it when chords are placed over the line as it gives me an idea of possible ways to play outside the box. Thanks!