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Guest Article:  Janus Buch

How to Transcribe Songs by Ear

By Janus Buch

In my day to day work as a full time guitar teacher I have taught a lot of people how to transcribe songs by ear.  It’s often a hard skill to develop for students and one of the problems with learning it is that everybody assumes, that people simply “know” how to do it. While it is true, that anybody can learn how to develop the skill it does take a lot of ear training and more importantly a structured method of how to go about it. This article aims to give you that method, but will not provide you with the ear training tools. Those can be acquired elsewhere.

The overall structure of transcribing songs

1) Determine the key of the song

2) Write down the chords of that key

3) Transcribe the base notes

4) Try with the corresponding chord

5) Trobleshooting

1.  How to Determine the Key

The easiest way to do this is to transcribe a bit of the melody.  You do this by listening to a short melodic phrase until you know it by heart and can sing it.  Then find it on the guitar (by trial an error) and write down the names of the notes.  Once you have the names of the notes you can find the key using the circle of fifths.  Use google for this, if you don’t know it by heart.

2.  Write Down the Chords of that Key

Once our know the key write down the corresponding chords in that key. Again google is your friend if you don’t know how to do this.

3.  Transcribe the Bass Notes

Once you know the chords in the key, the next step is to figure out the bass line and try to figure out what notes are played.  Pay close attention to what notes are played on the “one” beat, but also on the “third”, “second” and “fourth" beat of all the measures.  Once you have the bass line you have a way to make a qualified guess on what the right chord will be.

3.  Transcribe the Bass Notes

The next step is to correspond the bass line with the chord that fits it.  So if the base plays a C and there is a C chord in the key, this will be the correct chord most of the time.  Do this with all the bass notes and you will find, that in most cases the chord will be the correct one.

4.  Troubleshooting


There will, however, be some chords that still sound wrong.  In theses cases there are two things that you could try which solves most problems.  One is to think of the bass note as being the third of some chord.  So if the bass note is a C and the Am chord is in the key, you could try with this chord and this will be correct most of the time.  If nothing seems to work, you could try with a secondary dominant.  This is a bit more complicated from a theory point of view, but the simple way to figure it out is to listen to the chord that comes just after the chord that you have trouble finding.  Once you know what that chord is, you simply do a Google search and find the dominant of that chord.  This will again work most of the time.  If none this works, you are getting into some advanced transcribing and then you have to go about it in a bit different way, that I will not get into here.  But this method will get you through most transcription assignments.

About The Author:

Janus Buch is a professional guitar teacher and the owner of Bredballe Guitarschool near Hedensted, Denmark.  Here he offers the best in guitar lessons in the area.  If you are looking to solve your guitar playing frustrations once and for all, then contact Janus for a free introductory lesson.  If your looking for Guitar Lessons in Hedensted, then Bredballe guitarskole is you best value for money.

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