Transcription does not necessarily mean to notate with rhythm and pitch on the music staff, although if you do know how to write music this is definitely a skill worth developing. In the context of this post transcription can simply mean to learn the notes of a piece of music and be able to play it. However, be sure to actually learn the notes: the actual names of the notes. In this way it is not only an ear-training exercise but also helps you to learn the notes of the fretboard.
Next time you want to learn a new song, rather than immediately getting the TAB or the music, try to work out the notes of the melody, you can then check your accuracy with the TAB. The TAB will help you to check your accuracy and will also give you the first note, or notes, if you’re having trouble getting started. It’s important not to choose songs which are too difficult, or if you do, only transcribe the first few bars. This will help you to stay focussed and not get discouraged.
Along with learning the actual note names, it is also a good idea to learn the actual names of the intervals; the distances between notes. Doing so helps you to label the relationships between notes rather than only referring to them descriptively, ie, ’…move from an F to a C’, or, ‘…it goes from an A to an F’. Along with making your explanations more concise, knowing the names of intervals allows you to label the sounds of the ‘F to C’ (perfect 5th), or the ‘A to F’ (minor 6th). This makes it easier to catalogue these sounds in your brain and to recall them.
Being able to sing intervals is a great way to internalise the different sounds and to recall them. Also, if you practise singing the intervals as you play them it helps to develop the relationship between your brain and your fingers. Singing also develops your abilities to hear music ‘in your head’, which is important when composing and improvising.
It is advisable to begin with the smaller intervals (minor and major seconds) and gradually increase these up to the octave. For example, beginning with an open string note, you can sing minor 2nds moving up the length of a single string, or two, depending on your range and vocal abilities. Also, when you are listening to a song, you can sing the melody and work out the correct interval names (as your ear improves you will be able to do this without singing the intervals, and with any external sounds).
Along with being able to successfully identify and label melodies it is also important to hear combinations of intervals played as chords. Initially, only major and minor chord sounds should be used; it is sufficient to listen only for the characteristics of these chords, the ‘happy’ major sound and the ‘sad’ minor sound, before attempting to hear inversions and doublings. When you can successfully identify the major and minor chords in a progression you can then begin to add the sounds of the other chords: dominant sevenths, diminished, augmented, etc. Singing up and down arpeggios of different chords is an excellent way of connecting the sound to the label and of cataloguing the different sounds for later recall.
Just as learning to play an instrument requires time and patience, so too does ear-training. It is important to regularly schedule some time to develop your ear, even if you can only spare five to ten minutes a day. Because some people are naturally further along the ‘ear-training continuum’ than others, it is important not to get discouraged, especially if it takes you longer to internalise and recognise the sounds. Ear-training takes its own time, but any time which you invest in developing your ear will pay off in the long term.