Q&A: Notating Difficult Passages in Solo Transcriptions

Q&A: Notating Difficult Passages in Solo Transcriptions

A few weeks back a visitor to my website sent me this email:

Hi there,

I stumbled across your transcription of John Coltrane’s solo on “If I Were a Bell” today and I had a question about it.

I am in the process of transcribing the solo at the moment and am at the stage where I want to write it into Sibelius but it is proving more difficult that I anticipated.

Coltrane’s approach to the time makes it difficult to pin down where some phrases are in relation to the band’s time. He sometimes rushes phrases and other times drags them back, landing them on odd parts of the beat. I generally can figure out how it should be written but there are certain phrases (especially the faster flurries) that are tripping me up. Can you offer some advice as to how you approached this? I know it is not the most important part of the transcription process but I think it would help me (at least) to understand Coltrane’s approach to the time.

Thanks for taking the time to read my message.



Michael’s thoughtful question really got me thinking about what’s important in the transcription process, and how to go about creating transcriptions which are useful and accurate (in that order).  While it may be gratifying to try to pin down every last 13-tuplet and 128th rest, a transcription is something to be used, not just for your mom to hang on the refrigerator and admire.

Accurately notating rhythm in a transcription can be a tedious process given the natural push and pull between a soloist and members of the rhythm section.  Michael is right, however, that seeing a passage on the page can make a soloist’s method and intentions much more apparent.  There are two major points to keep in mind here:

Translating jazz solos into standard notation will NEVER be exactly accurate.  

Variations in swing feel, articulation, and relationship to the beat cannot be fully accounted for with notation alone.  Attempting to do so would surely be a sign of insanity – imagine trying to differentiate notationally the 8th note feel of Dexter Gordon vs. Ike Quebec vs. Sidney Bechet vs. Ben Webster.  Madness!  I’m reasonably sure Sonny Rollins never played any two 8ths the same length, but I would never try to use notation to show it!  This is the reason for the disclaimer at the top of my website’s Transcriptions page – any notated transcription, no matter who did it, should be taken with a grain (or shaker) of salt.

Sidenote: It’s important to note here that it works the other way too.  One would be quite foolish to approach a work of Bach (say, the Allemande form the Flute Partita) and play a page of 16th notes metronomically.  When a beautiful piece of Baroque music becomes a finger-mashing exercise, we have left the realm of art altogether (but that’s another article).  Notation is not a blueprint, but a map, a guide, or even at times simply a suggestion.

Therefore, the most important thing to capture in a transcription is the soloist’s intent.

No one is actually going to learn to play jazz solely by studying and playing transcriptions.  A transcription only needs to be able to communicate the skeleton of pitches and a general sense of rhythm.  The remaining details like articulation, swing feel, push/pull, dynamics, timbre, and inflection can (must) be absorbed by deep listening and deliberate imitation.

The Process

Back to Michael’s essential question:

Coltrane’s approach to the time makes it difficult to pin down where some phrases are in relation to the band’s time. […] Can you offer some advice as to how you approached this? I know it is not the most important part of the transcription process but I think it would help me (at least) to understand Coltrane’s approach to the time.

Notating fast and rhythmically complex passages when transcribing is often the most frustrating part of the process.  It does get easier with more time and transcription experience, but when I’m really stuck, I employ the following general procedure:

  1. Identify the total length of the passage in question. 
    First, listen through while tapping or conducting the beat to discern how many beats or measures the passage occupies.  Write out the blank measures on your transcription – sometimes just looking at the empty bars and beats can show you how a passage fits rhythmically.  Remember to leave yourself enough blank space to fit all the notes and accidentals, particularly in rhythmically dense passages.
  2. Write down anything you can hear and identify target notes.
    Next, identify any parts of the passage you can pin down, even if it’s just a few single notes.  It’s especially helpful if you can identify notes which land on strong beats.  For example, if all you know for certain is that the soloist plays an F on beat 2 of measure 3, add that to your blank measures.  Anything you can firmly place within the time will help.
  3. Transcribe only the pitches.
    On a separate sheet of paper, transcribe only the pitches from the passage in question.  This should be just a string of dots (with accidentals).  I like to use proportional horizontal space between pitches to make note of approximate rhythms, but avoid note values at this point unless you are absolutely sure.
  4. Get your deduce on.
    At this point, combine your results from steps 1, 2, and 3.  By reconciling your rhythmless transcription with your target notes and overall rhythm of the passage, you should be able to deduce (at least approximately) the rhythm of the passage.  It may be helpful at this stage to start by identifying additional target notes within your rhythmless transcription and filling in the gaps between them.

This process can take some serious time, but it has helped me pull apart some very difficult passages I would have been otherwise unable to decode – see the Mark Turner or Jerry Bergonzi transcriptions on my site for good examples.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, figuring out whether something was a 13- or 14-tuplet isn’t really all that important, nor is it terribly important to scientifically notate the relationship of the soloist to the rhythm section.  All that’s needed are some notes to yourself; “hold back”, “drag”, “behind/ahead of the beat” and even “approx.” have all appeared in my transcriptions.  As long as the notation captures the pitch content and rhythmic intent, you can always refer back to recordings for the exact articulation or change in rhythmic feel.

Transcribing several solos by the same player can help immensely.  Transcription is listening at a deeper level than usual, and the more of someone’s playing you’ve attempted to notate, the easier it becomes, even when they’re cranking out lines at double/triple/superhuman time.

The important transcriptions (or parts of transcriptions) are the ones you can use – 8th note lines and clear melodic language in particular.  Transcription is a great way to pick up bits and pieces of language from the masters, and you want to be copping the material that the soloists intended to play – even they make mistakes or end up playing filler sometimes.

Jerry Bergonzi’s Inside Improvisation books are great in general, but Volume 4: Melodic Rhythms is particularly good.  By practicing a wide variety of rhythms as Bergonzi describes, I began hearing and playing more advanced rhythmic devices I hear on records all the time (including his).  Working on these materials has helped me immeasurably with regard to rhythm.

Many thanks to Michael for the excellent question, which inspired this post.  Do you have a jazz or saxophone question you’d like me to take on?  Send me a note via the Contact page at www.andrewfrankhouse.com!  I look forward to hearing from you!