Transcribing: What Is It and Why Should You Do It?

Transcribing is an effective way to learn jazz.

In fact, all musicians do it from time to time. But what is it? And why should you do it?

In this article, I’ll tell you exactly why transcribing can help you and how to apply this to your own music.

What is it?

Transcribing literally means overwriting.

Someone who makes transcriptions is called a transcriber. You find transcribing in many different forms.

In biology, transcribing means copying genetic information from DNA to RNA.

In linguistics, this term means converting speech into written form. One might think of writing down an interview, a monologue or a meeting. On the basis of recordings, a report is subsequently made.

The result is a transcription that can be used for qualitative research or for other purposes.

Transcribing in music

In music, transcription has two well-known forms.

In classical music, this means rewriting a piece of music to another instrument or ensemble. A good example of this is are the transcriptions of the Beethoven Symphonies by Franz Liszt. In these works Liszt has converted the notes played by the orchestra to piano.

This method of converting is also close to arranging. The difference is that transcribing remains very loyal to the original score, while with arranging there are more freedoms in order to adjust or modify elements.

Transcribing in jazz music means converting a recording to sheet music. An example of this is writing down a jazz improvisation or theme.

During this process, you will listen carefully to which notes the musicians play. Then you write them down on paper.

In many cases, the jazz music is notated in the form of a lead sheet. This is a score that usually contains only the melody line with chord symbols. Leadsheets are often found in the Real Book. Here you will find a collection of transcribed jazz compositions.

On this website you will find mainly complete written scores of pieces of music. View my collection of transcriptions here.

Why should you do it?

The main reason is to learn the jazz language.

You should also do it to be influenced by your favorite musicians, to improve your technique on your instrument and to learn to listen on a deeper level. There are many reasons to consider.

For a jazz musician, transcribering is the way to learn all the aspects of this language and make it your own.

Just like learning each new language, this takes a lot of time and dedication. This is certainly not easy for everyone. Before you can communicate on a high level with others, you will have to practice a lot.

I can tell from my own experience that you will be delighted to learn the jazz language.

“Jazz is one of the few things you can do in society and express yourself freely and creativily.”

– Mulgrew Miller

Unlike classical music, jazz music does not always contain a score of the piece of music. Knowing how to transcribe yourself can help you a lot. Read my article: 7 tips for making great jazz transcriptions.

Finding your own style

Why should I transcribe if I want to find my own style?

Many jazz musicians strive to find their own recognizable style with which they can distinguish themselves from the competition.

Copying from other musicians does not seem to be the solution. You want to keep your own style as much as possible and do not want to let it change through external influences.

The truth is, however, that you can only have your own style if you’ve listened to recordings by other musicians and have imitated them.

By transcribing you will discover what suits you and does not fit with yourself. Everything you learn you can then mix again with your own music and compositions. In this way, you develop a critical music taste that will determine your ultimate style.

So you do not have to worry about transcribing at the expense of finding your own style. On the contrary, it will only get better.

An example of someone who was always busy with innovation and influences from outside was trumpeter Miles Davis. As a musician, he had experienced almost all developments in the jazz since World War II. Despite everything, his style was always immediately recognizable.

All musicians transcribe from time to time

In the beginning of the article I wrote it already; namely that all musicians transcribe from time to time.

By this I also mean the well-known musicians. Some of them say in interviews they have never been transcribed, but actually they did.

It does not necessarily matter if you write it down or not. This is a misconception that sometimes exists about making transcriptions. Some musicians know whole solos by heart and have not put a single note on paper.

The way you take the information is different for everyone. An advantage of writing it down is that others can study the transcription again.

In addition, everyone has his favorite players and examples in jazz. These people are the reason why you play jazz and they make sure you’re always inspired.


Transcribing is more than just a writing process.

It helps you with the jazz language and playing, but especially to get to know yourself better.

Is transcribing than the answer to everything? No, it is not. Transcribing is only the starting point.

Ultimately, it’s about what you want to accomplish with it. If you’ve learned something valuable by transcribing, you’re already on the right track. Keep developing and inspired.

And do not forget to share your succes with others.

2 replies

    I have transcribed a great deal of music for my own style. The band leader wants a copy of all my notes. I am worried he just wants to copy it all to hand out to other musicians. Is there a problem here??

    • Philippe Ramaekers
      Philippe Ramaekers says:

      Dear Gregory,
      I don’t think there is a problem. Since they are your notes, they can be protected by copyright. Moreover, it is also a great way to showcase your talent as a transcriber to your fellow musicians!


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