How to Transcribe a Song by Ear
In The Musical Ear course I show you the 3 step process I use to transcribe a song by ear:
‘Listen – Think – Check’.
Let’s go through each step:
Listen to the music away from your instrument.
Listen to the song as many times as you need (unless you’re at the grocery store in which case you’ll only hear it once).
As you listen, imagine that the song is in your chosen key – e.g. say to yourself ‘this song is in C minor’.
This is the most important stage. Take your time to think through a logical answer.
The thinking stage is also done without your instrument.
You can do some thinking while the music plays, and some thinking in silence (using your voice to hum back the melody).
Imagine your life depends on getting the right answer! Or imagine that you’re going to play the song live to an audience, on the spot (as you might start doing one day soon).
If you’re a beginner – transcribe the melody only.
If you’re more advanced – transcribe the melody first, then transcribe the chords separately.
There’s many different tools for transcribing (all covered in the course), and I use different tools for different songs…
Most of the time I hear a pentatonic melody that jumps out at me – and I can’t help but notice the C Eb F G shape that’s so common (it’s used in most songs).
And once you’ve identified where your melody is within your key – e.g. ‘that’s a C’ – then figuring out the rest is quite simple. You just have to keep track of the melody as it moves up and down the notes in your scale – e.g. C D Eb F.
Finally, when you are TRULY happy that you have a good answer – go to your instrument (piano) and test your answer.
Play the exact notes that you decided on in your head, in your chosen key…
Maybe you got the melody right (well done!)
Maybe you got it wrong – in which case stop playing and Think some more to find a 2nd logical answer.
Usually enough time has gone by since you listened to the song, that you won’t notice the change of key when you play your answer. But even if you do notice the key change, it doesn’t matter – the goal is not to play along to the original song. The goal is to transcribe yet another song in your chosen key, so that you get a clear picture of how music works.
1. Don’t rush to check your answer. You only get to learn from a song once, because once you know what the notes are, you can’t un-know them. You’ll never be able to listen to that song again without knowing the answer. So take your time to think through your answer before checking it. The thinking stage is when your brain is improving.
2. Do not transcribe using your instrument to help you. This does not improve your ear – your instrument acts like a calculator – it stops your brain from learning to do this for itself.
3. Transcribing won’t always take this long. ‘Listen Think Check’ seems like a slow process in the beginning, but it’s the quickest way to improve your ear. Over time your ear will become faster, until you can transcribe music instantly – either at your instrument or away from it. But you have to practice slowly to learn (like most things).
So again, Listen – Think – Check.
This is the process taught at music colleges. Through all my years of ear training lessons and tests – the students sit at desks and DO NOT have their instrument to help them. Ear training is practiced entirely in your head – so that later you’ll know how to play your thoughts at your instrument.
And finally, my biggest improvements and quantum leaps forward in my own ear training have happened when I took the time to think long and hard to find my answer. For example, when I went on vacation for a week with my family, and we listened to certain songs on the radio which I would transcribe in my head. Then I would have to wait an entire week before we returned home and I could finally test my answers on the piano.
You can see this method in action in my 4 video ear training series:
Want to play songs by ear? Watch my free 4 part video series on ear training: