Transcribing Tunes…

Transcribing Tunes…

I’ve been working on transcribing a tune this weekend, McCarty’s reel as played by Angelina Carbery, all three times through. Partly to to learn the tune, partly to work on my ear, partly to learn abc better, and partly just to see if I was up to the challenge. Usually I just work out the first time through, or cobble up a version from different versions, or if I’m feeling lazy I’ll just pull out the dots. Close enough is usually good enough, but this time I wanted to get it all right.

A couple of unexpected things happened; firstly, as I was working out all of her amazing variations (and her variations on her variations), all while painstakingly going through the process of writing it all down note by note, I stated start to feel like I had sort of gotten into her head a little bit, her way of doing things. Secondly, when I went to play other tunes I found to my surprise that variations just started popping out left and right, in a way they never have for me before. It’s something I’ve always struggled with, but I took a couple of tunes and deviled around with them all night. And it felt great! And this was after transcribing one single tune!

I think I’ll be doing more of this as time allows. I know that it’s a big thing with jazz players, transcribing performances of the greats, but I’ve never really seen it come up here. Sure, we talk about learning from recordings, but I don’t really recall any discussion of how tremendously beneficial it can be to decipher the whole of a masterful take on a tune. I feel like I have been plateaued for quite a while now but, unless this was just some sort of fluke, things just took a big leap forward for me.

Anyway, that’s my top tip for the day, I hope you are all doing well.

*Also, McCarty’s reel is a hauntingly beautiful tune at around 30 bpm. 🙂

Re: Transcribing Tunes…

That’s a lovely story, I can feel the lift it’s given you Good luck.

Re: Transcribing Tunes…

I experienced the same thing when I transcribed a full performance by Paddy Keenan of his party piece Harvest Home.

What revealed even more about his approach was to then study three or four other performances by Keenan of the same piece. I could see that each performance, though unique, was cobbled together from the same vocabulary of tune-fragments found in the other performances. This is exactly the same way that traditional Bulgarian musicians created their dance-music:

"In the old days variation was improvised and forgot at the instant of performance…the musicians strung together as many kolena (tune-fragments or phrases) as they knew…whatever came into their heads…each performance was uniquely formed by the listeners’ and dancers’ responses combined with the musician’s inventiveness and memory…"

A kolyano is more or less equivalent to a phrase in an Irish jig or reel, perhaps a two-bar phrase.

After listening carefully to four or five of Keenan’s performances of Harvest Home I had a grasp of his vocabulary of phrases; each performance used the same phrases and he tended to use the phrases in a similar sequence, building from simpler ones to more complex ones, yet each performance was unique. Some phrases were left out of certain performances, but I don’t think that any phrase was used in only one.

So it was not a case of improvisation in a jazz sense, but tune-building from stock phrases in the kolyena method.

Re: Transcribing Tunes…

This is very interesting. I’ve been working on adding more variations in my playing, so I will definitely give this a try as well!

Re: Transcribing Tunes…

That’s really great! My first teacher actually told me to do that, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually tried transcribing every note all the way through of a performance. I generally only transcribe to be able to post tunes here on the site, since I don’t use sheet music at all. So, typically I would just transcribe the first time through, because that would be closest to the "base setting" of the tune. But I do enjoy finding all the variations and trying to figure them out! I think you might have inspired me to actually try it. I might try transcribing John Carty’s entire setting of Steampacket on banjo, with all the amazing backbeat double stops, and other little things that he does.

I already do a lot of variation in my phrasing. A fiddler I played with for years was just so playful with his phrasing, that It’s something that I’ve worked at for years, and I’ve developed my own flair with it. But there’s no harm in expanding my toolbox! For me, a big part of adding variation was just getting to a point where I could trust my own instincts, so that I could relax and just let the phrasing flow.

I would also say that it’s a real joy when you all of a sudden feel like you’ve advanced your playing! 😀

Re: Transcribing Tunes…

I like transcribing tunes also; when I do, it seems to really cement them in my head. I think a lot of the benefit is from having to listen very carefully to the setting over and over again to get the notes right. When I’m doing that, I can dissect the phrases, variations, and etc.

Re: Transcribing Tunes…

I have done a lot of transcribing to standard notation over the years: usually, because, as a notation reader, I cannot find any other standard notation transcription of the desired tune online, or those that are available do not match, even closely,what I am hearing from the performer’s or composer’s audio recording.
I would not necessarily transcribe every last little twiddle or ornament; as per previous discussions on here, the same player might ornament the same tune slightly differently on each successive live performance, and not always conform exactly to that CD you’re listening to. And there’s also the "instrument-specific factor" in that some ornaments fit better on certain instruments and in different places in the music than on others.
Agree with Reverend about getting the "base setting" right.

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It’s good exercise for the ear, an alternative way to spend more time with a tune & go deeper into a recording, helps listening to how different instruments play the music, actually improves fluency w/notation & helps dots doubters appreciate them (which are only scary if you never give transcription it’s well deserved full respect).

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Re: Transcribing Tunes…

I agree with everything that’s been said. I would add that it’s amazing how two people transcribing the same tune will often come up with different results. Different ears will hear subtle details the other doesn’t.

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Hi @BillFoss, yes, and it’s worth bearing that in mind when studying old collections such as O’Neills.

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Not much to add other than to agree - I couldn’t believe how beneficial transcribing tunes was for listening skills, sight-reading skills and really getting to know a style / tune / player. I really should get into it more again. Much quicker way imo to learn to sight-read (or recognise scale intervals) than just learning tunes, even if it does seem very tough and time consuming at first.

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I think in standard notation (like Trish). It is extremely hard to take down tunes by just listening - that takes a skill that is much to be admired! (What a foul windy rainy day in Glasgow, and so COLD).

Re: Transcribing Tunes…

"What a foul windy rainy day in Glasgow, and so COLD."

The perfect opportunity to stay indoors and transcribe a tune.

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It us certainly hard to do it from a live performance! I do most of my transcriptions now from YouTube, having first found the version I like best: after that it’s a heavy hand on the pause button, and rewind! And you can slow YouTube plays down.
Memories of the old long-before-internet days of trying to get song words down off vinyl records, risking scratching them as you kept lifting off and replacing the needle!

Re: Transcribing Tunes…

Here’s what I do.

Record the audio of the tune in Audacity, so this can be from an audio recording, or the audio part of a YouTube video.

Play back the audio in Audacity. Maybe just select a few bars using the mouse, then use the spacebar to start and stop the section. You can slow it down too, if need be.

Then, move on to the next section. CTRL+Z just acts as an "undo" action, and you can use it repeatedly too.

Re: Transcribing Tunes…

"It is certainly hard to do it from a live performance!"

Yes, that takes exceptionally quick mental and physical processing - although there are those that can do it. I suppose, like a good sight-reader that, whilst playing one phrase, is already reading and processing the next phrase, you need to be able to write what you have just heard whilst listening in detail to what you are hearing - and never drop your guard (…*and* enjoy the performance).

Transcribing from a recording mainly takes patience - going over and over each phrase until you’ve got it, playing it back on your instrument to check that it sounds right. The skills required to do it get a bit more honed with each time you do it, until the instrument becomes an unnecessary middle step (although I prefer learning tunes directly from ear to instrument - then transcribing from memory if and when needed).

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About transcribing from live performances, I did it once at a workshop given by a prominent uilleann piper.

The reason was that I could see that he was doing certain things differently than he was describing himself as doing them.

I found that it’s fairly common for musicians, even great musicians who do many workshops, to have a mental construct of how they play that’s different from how they actually play.

This creates confusion in the workshop attendees as they diligently do what the workshop leader says, yet they’re not able to replicate the sound that the workshop leader is producing.

I could see this happening at a particular workshop. My unique position in the circle allowed me to see exactly what the piper was doing, but no-one else could. I was the only one able to re-create what the piper was doing for the very reason that I was the only one ignoring what he said and replicating what he did.

I notated what he was doing and later privately shared it with some of the other workshop attendees, who weren’t able to figure out what they were doing wrong.

Re: Transcribing Tunes…

Creadur, I don’t feel up to transcribing tunes when it is very cold. I keep making hot drinks, fried bread and fried eggs, eating sweeties, to keep up energy levels - but then old age chills the body……..

Re: Transcribing Tunes…

"Creadur, I don’t feel up to transcribing tunes when it is very cold. I keep making hot drinks, fried bread and fried eggs, eating sweeties, to keep up energy levels - but then old age chills the body…….."

Fair enough. It keeps the brain warm but perhaps not the bones.