What Are Jazz Transcriptions?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

Jazz transcriptions are pieces of jazz music put into notation that previously have not been written down. These transcriptions have both study and performance purposes. They sometimes are quite complex, requiring excellent skills on the part of the transcriber. The transcriptions do not have to be exact to what the performer played or sang, but transcribers usually take the spirit and original intent of the work into consideration when creating a transcription.

In true transcription, a transcriber writes down the jazz music for the instrument -- such as a saxophone -- on which the piece was originally performed.
In true transcription, a transcriber writes down the jazz music for the instrument -- such as a saxophone -- on which the piece was originally performed.

These transcriptions usually fall into two main categories. The first category is true transcription, whereby the transcriber writes down the jazz music for the same instrument on which it was originally performed. With this type of transcription, the transcriber remains true to the original intent and feel of the work, writing out the pitches and rhythms exactly as the performer played them. These forms of transcription are actually fairly rare because some of the performances by jazz masters are at a level of playing ability that is far beyond what other performers can do, and because it is difficult for the transcriber to hear every note perfectly.

The second category of jazz transcription is loose transcription. This type of transcription more accurately is described as arranging. The transcriber makes adjustments to whatever was played. For instance, he might modify pitches by an octave to accommodate the range of an instrument different than the original. He also may simplify complex rhythms or, in some cases, add entirely new material so that the line between composition and arranging is not clearcut.

People usually do jazz transcriptions in order to preserve and recreate jazz improvisations. Usually the improvisations transcribed are based on the performance of one player, but because of the nature of jazz, some transcriptions involve writing down the collaborations of multiple jazz musicians who improvised based on standard jazz chord progressions. Regardless of the complexity of the jazz transcriptions, the transcriptions help others understand the theoretical aspects of jazz better. It also allows other performers to mimic jazz masters and improve their playing.

Jazz transcriptions require specific musical skills from the transcriber. Because the transcriber has only sound with which to work, he must have either perfect pitch, the rare ability to name a note automatically and correctly upon hearing, or extremely good relative pitch, the more common ability to determine what a pitch is in relation to another given pitch. The transcriber also must possess an excellent sense of internal rhythm, which allows the transcriber to determine how long each note or rest should be in the notation and how to organize the piece in terms of meter and measure. Even with these skills, a good transcriber may take days or even weeks to dissect and notate extremely complex jazz improvisations.

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Discussion Comments


Anyone have any recommendations when first starting out trying to transcribe jazz? I've heard Miles Davis is one of the artists to consider, because it has so much jazz vocabulary.

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