Beyond Harmony: The Many Benefits of Transcriptions

One common practice for both working jazz musicians and jazz students alike is to transcribe solos. Transcriptions can be very beneficial. Most commonly, students are told that transcriptions are helpful in that they help develop harmonic knowledge. To be sure, learning how great soloists negotiate harmony is very important and beneficial to our students’ improvising. If we think about transcription simply as a means to develop harmonic language, though, we’re really selling the process short.

If you were to ask a group of musicians who their favorite jazz artists are and why, harmonic approach would surely come up, but so would a host of other attributes. Tone, uniqueness of style, virtuosity, and rhythmic approach come to mind. And certainly, if you were to ask the same question of a jazz fan who is not a musician, they wouldn’t tell you how much they love the way Miles Davis navigates ii-V-I progressions. When learning a transcription, one has an opportunity to absorb all factors of a soloist’s playing into their own.

I feel it’s very beneficial to learn multiple solos of the same musician, and not to do so sporadically, but to learn their solos one after the other. By having students focus on one musician, they are able to absorb that musician’s style and their essence as an improviser. They’ll start taking on the characteristics of that musician in their own improvisation. Tone, phrasing, harmony, personality – it’s all there. If the student puts their focus into playing a solo exactly like the recording, then all of these facets will soak in. It’s an immersive process, and the student emerges with a deeper understanding and appreciation of that particular musician.

We can also use transcription as a creative way to approach our students’ weaknesses. If you have a trumpet student with sloppy articulation, have them work on some Clifford Brown solos. If they focus on matching the clarity of Brown’s articulation, they’ll easily improve their own. Likewise, if you have a tenor saxophonist who’s working on developing a bigger tone, have that student learn a few Dexter Gordon or Sonny Rollins solos. Thinking of transcription as a means to improve skills is not unlike learning etudes. Transcriptions happen to be improvised, but they still provide an opportunity to improve skills and musicality. It can also be helpful in deciding which transcriptions to learn. Choose an area of a student’s playing that needs improvement, and assign them transcriptions of someone who really excels at that skill.

Transcription is quite a versatile tool. There is so much to gain beyond the harmonic knowledge one gleans from learning a solo. If approached holistically, transcriptions aid in understanding all aspects of someone’s personal style of improvising. By engaging with multiple works of an artist, students can absorb aspects of that artist’s personality into their own improvising while expanding their range of skills and depth of interpretation.

To view the many trumpet transcriptions available for download on this site, visit the Transcriptions page.