How to Transcribe (Learning music by Ear)

The word “Transcribe” can have several different meanings. It can mean re-writing a piece of written music in a different key, or re-writing sheet music into harmonica tabs, but the way that I’m using it in this post is to mean learning something by ear, without the aid of anything written at all.

Some people, like my wife, and other super-gifted people, write down the music they learn. But I just figure it out by ear, and memorize it. (It takes me so many tries to figure it out, but the time I get it, you’d better believe it’s easy to remember! lol.)

That’s right, I said it! Learning something just by using your ears and trial and error. This is the main way that I learned harmonica over the years. Back in the day, I had to press rewind and pause a million times on my cassette deck or CD player and, because I was not born with “golden” ears, I had to choose relatively easy solos to learn. I learned how to play songs like “Peach Tree” by Sonny Boy Williamson and “Crosseyed Cat” by Muddy Waters, and “You Gotta Move” by The Rolling Stones.

In another post, I’ll talk about Ear Training, and ways that we can improve our ears so that we can get better at learning songs by ear. But in this post, I want to really go into detail about the art of transcribing, and how I accomplish it.

In order to learn a song by ear, it’s really helpful to know the key of the song, and what key harmonica is being played. If you have any questions about what harmonica is being played on a song, drop me a line and I can help you figure it out!

Scales can also be helpful for providing a context within which to learn songs by ear. Like, if I’m learning a Blues song that’s played in cross-harp, then, more often than not, the note that I am searching for is going to be in the Blues scale (which I know well because I’ve played it one million times, lol.) So that can often help me find the note more quickly.

Spending time learning solos that inspire you by ear is one of the fastest ways that you can grow your musicianship and awesomeness as a harmonica player. If you’re really serious about wanting to be a boss on the harmonica, make it a goal to try this type of work at some point.

I read in the great artist Sting’s autobiography that when he was young and was playing with the record player, he realized that he could learn ANYTHING if he could just slow it down enough. Thankfully there are now tools that can help us to slow down the tempo of a song we want to learn, without having to change the pitch of it.

There are lots of options. The one that I have spent countless hours using over the last decade is an app for iPhones and iPads called “The Amazing Slow Downer”

Here are the things that I love about this app:
1.) I can slow down the speed all the way to 25% of the original (which is really helpful when I want to transcribe a John Popper solo on a Blues Traveler song!)

2.) I can change the pitch (which is really helpful when I don’t have the right key harmonica.)

3.) Now that we’re in the age of streaming, I can use the app in conjunction with Spotify and Apple Music, so I can learn any song I can find on either of the paid versions of the platforms.

4.) I can create loops of short segments, and title them and save them so that I can come back to them later. This helps me stay relaxed when I’m struggling, because, hey, there’s always tomorrow to try again!

5.) The loop beginning and end are designed so that when you press and slide toward the bottom of the phone, the resolution becomes finer and finer, so I can get the perfect in and out points so that the loop repeats in time. (When there’s some odd extra beat or hiccup, it makes it really difficult to try and enter in at the beginning.)

6.) I like to set the play button so that it back-tracks 1 second. So I can press pause and play over and over to drill down on a teeny tiny little section.

7.) I can set the loop playback to increase speed each time it goes back to the beginning. For example, once I’ve learned a song or a sections of a song, then I want to work on getting it up to tempo, so often times I will start at 50% of original speed, and have it increase tempo maybe 5% each time the loop repeats, maybe 20 or 30 times. Maybe it quickly gets to fast, so I stop it, take it down to 40% and then try again.

During this process, I’ll usually end up playing the music faster than the original (as well as slower, obviously.) If I can play something at both ½ speed and at 125% speed, then I know I can NAIL it at the original tempo. There’s been many times when I’m like, “oh I must be playing it faster than original tempo by now,” and I’ll look down and only be at like 80% or 90% of record tempo and I’m like, “aw MAN! This is HARD!”

But the nice thing about this is I have the loop saved. So, it’s okay that I can’t play it up to speed today because, I’ll try again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that… And I KNOW, that if I keep playing it slowly and accurately, EVENTUALLY I will be able to play it up to speed. It might take weeks or months, but that’s okay. The journey is fun, and I know I’m learning and growing all along the way.

I’ll give you an example of how I did this recently. Alex has an AWESOME video on the Harmonica.com YouTube channel called Learn Little Walter’s Top 3 Songs. For whatever reason I came up without really being aware of Little Walter or tongue blocking, but in the last couple years I’ve been learning tongue blocking and really appreciating Little Walter. So I’m like, “THANK YOU ALEX!” I was so excited. So here’s what I did:

I found a website that turns YouTube videos into mp3’s for free, and turned Alex’s video into an MP3 and put it into my Amazing Slow Downer App. I made Loops of Alex’s slow versions and fast versions of the songs in the app, and I slowed down the slow versions EVEN MORE as needed in order to be able to learn the songs. Personally, I spend most of my time practicing the harmonica in the car. Disclaimer: Luke is a professional harmonica player. Playing harmonica in the car could result in injury or death and is not advised by Luke or Harmonica.com :wink:

So emphatically, I’m not looking at the tabs, I’m slowing down slow versions of songs to make them even slower, and I’m taking the songs and looping tiny little portions to work on. Every once in awhile I would question if I was playing something the right way, so when I’d get home I’d go check Alex’s video and see the tabs and verify if I was doing the same thing or not.

This kept me busy and inspired for weeks and months. I would always look forward to a drive so I could work some more on my tongue blocking and cop some more of Little Walter’s awesome blues phrasing. And, if I didn’t have the right key harmonica for the song (as each of the 3 songs is in a different key) I could just slide the pitch slider in the app so that I could play a given song with the key harmonica I happened to have.

Ah, the miracle of modern technology! Of course, when I got my new iPhone, I lost all of my loops and cool things I had accumulated and saved in the app. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’ve spend thousands of hours using this app over the last decade.

All right, so that’s a little peak into the life of a Harmonica Super-Nerd, using technology to try and gain harmonica superpowers. What’s going on with you? Have you tried to transcribe something by ear yet? Do you have any favorite tools to help you? Let’s geek out, people!

Aloha,
Luke

2 Likes

Those are some good pieces of advice! I will see if I can find a similar app for slowing down music on Android.

I cannot tell what key a song is in, my ears are simply not that trained, and I have not yet transcribed to harmonica, but I have to piano, and it is a lot of trial and error. I’d love to know the secret to finding the key.

Right on Vibe! If you find an app you like, come back and share about it here, ok?

Re: finding the key of a song. Try to listen to the song, and then pause it and see if you can hum the note that feels like “the home base” of the song. The place of greatest stability and resolution. Then try and find that note on the piano.

You can probably google the song and fin out the key too.

If it’s a harmonica song, determining what position is being played can only really come with experience. Shoot me a link and I can help you if you are ever in doubt.

Aloha,
Luke

Ronnie Shellist introduced me to an approach he recommends called ‘reverse chaining’. Essentially, when learning a song, start with the last phrase, learn it, and then move on to the second last phrase. That way you are not endlessly practicing the first part of the song. Hope this is clear.

Happy harping,

Robert

1 Like

“Reverse Chaining”

I love it! Great idea! (btw - I’m a huge fan of Ronnie Shellist. I think he’s an A+ fantastic teacher and very soulful player.)

Thanks for sharing.

Aloha,
Luke

1 Like

Awesome article. I am downloading the slow downer app now

1 Like

Sweet! Welcome to the forum I’m glad you dug the article, and keep us posted how transcribing harmonica with the amazing slow downer goes!

Rock on,
Luke

I loved reading this article for several reasons @Luke!

First is because I am most interested in learning to play harmonica by ear.

Second is because I now understand I have a built in “Amazing Slow Downer" due to my years of whistling… My hard drive also has some skips and lost sectors but mainly due to my memory… Once I hear a song a cupla times it usually comes back.

Third is I am glad I’m not the only one to drive (and do about everything else with my harmonica - except eat, which just doesn’t work at all ) with one hand, or no hands with harp just shoved in my mouth in “Deep Relaxed Mouth Position to play chords blowing up and drawing. I saw a video of someone who said to never play harmonica with one hand cuz it causes bad habits. I was like,” What?" :eyes::flushed:… I understand it is best to have good posture and play with both hands for best “Boss Position” and sound, but just figuring out the tune, one hand works for me and no hands even works to get the timing on some songs.

What’s your take on playing with one hand @Luke? :thinking: :thought_balloon:

The harmonica is such an amazing instrument! The more I find out about it, the more I love :heart_eyes: it!

2 Likes

Hey Bobby - yea man, I think I mentioned Toots Thielman was a great whistler too. If you can whistle it, you can play it. Believe that.

Playing with one hand causes bad habits? Like WHAT!?!? That’s the worst advice I’ve ever heard! :rofl: If I didn’t play with one hand, I’d NEVER PLAY!! lol.

Yeah man, keep playing with one hand, 2 hands, no hands. I LOVE playing with one hand.

Rock on,
Luke

2 Likes

Yeah, right?

I’m thinking of getting one of those neck holders so I can play while I write :memo: :blush:

Good for my family… They never know what to get me for a gift :joy:

:clinking_glasses: For two, one or,

Look mah, no hands! :open_hands:

2 Likes

Oh by the way, I checked out Toots and he wails!

I hadn’t thought of it until now but just as you say, if I have trouble whistling to it, it just doesn’t work on the harp either.

Keep on Chooglin’ from CCR came on random play and all I could do was listen in amazement. This is on my to do list, I LOVE IT!

I saw a guy on YouTube do a pretty good cover of it… I can’t even begin to whistle or harp it… For the first time I’m starting to really pay attention to the different instruments and their role in the melody. In particular the bass like and the drums which just pulse in the back. :drum:

In love with my new toy and my new found passion for music all around. Thanks @luke for your encourament!

When I grow up, I wanna be like you :wink::+1:

2 Likes

Ha. Nice! That’s so cool you’re starting to hear music in a whole new way. Yeah the harp player on that tune is wailing! BTW - what the heck does chooglin mean? LOL. I never heard that word before.

Oh, and guess what key that song’s in? E! So if you get yourself an A harmonica you’ll be able to play along with it. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: (Another good gift idea for the fam.)

Yeah Toots is one of the kings of the chromatic harmonica, which is a totally different beast from the diatonic harmonica that we play and love.

Rock on my man,
Luke

3 Likes

Hey @Luke, check this out for “chooglin” – I bet you’ve been chooglin for a long time now but just didn’t know it! :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes: :face_with_hand_over_mouth:

Basically: Chooglin’ (from the Urban Dictionary): A rhythm guitar style that employs a deliberately hard up and down stroke against the strings to simulate the motions of pistons or trains. A style made popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

But the forum comments in the link are also interesting/entertaining!

And yes, that song is great to jam to with an A harp played in 2nd position !!!

Regards,
– Slim

2 Likes

There is an Android version of the Amazing slow downer app, they also have it for Windows and MacOS from what I can see on their website at https://www.ronimusic.com/

What is the app/software to convert YouTube videos to mp3?
And or how to download YouTube videos?

Thank you

1 Like

Thanks for the heads up @tom2340 I will check it out

I did download an app a while ago called Super Sound where you can do numerous things like change pitch, and cut sound, but I haven’t checked it to the full extend.

Hi @tom2340,

Sorry that I did not see your question earlier. To convert YouTube videos to mp3 sound files I use linux and the app youtube-dl (this is available for Micro$oft, but you need to read about how to install it by using the instructions on this page).

In linux, and with youtube-dl installed, you do the following to get an audio only version of the video (this is usually in m4a format which you need to convert to mp3 if you absolutely need mp3):

  1. Open the YouTube video in your browser. Then select the Share option and copy the URL that is presented.
  2. Now open a terminal and enter: /usr/local/bin/youtube-dl <URL that you copied, without the “<” and “>” that appear here>
  3. Note the number for “video only” (usually 140).
  4. Now enter: /usr/local/bin/youtube-dl 140 <URL that was used above, again without < or >, as also done above>

These steps will download the sound (only) to the video. If you need to convert this to mp3 format, ask back here again and I will tell you how to do that.

Regards,
– Slim

1 Like

Aw that’s great to hear you can get it for Android now as well. It’s been quite an indispensable tool for me. Absolutely love it.

@Slim’s response to you is makes me go bleary eyed and have a panic attack, lol. (I’m not a very tech-y guy…except about music production stuff and then I’m suuuuuper geeky. But general computer stuff I’m easily overwhelmed.)

I’ve always used this site:
https://www.vidtomp3.com

And I’ve had probably a 90% success rate over the years with it. Every once in awhile it fails to convert a vid for me, but 90% it’s worked.

The other way I’ve done it is I have an app called Airy (from Mac App Store) that allows me to download YT vids, and then I’ve used my Logic software to convert it to mp3 (which any DAW that can import video should be able to handle easily.)

Hope that helps!

Rock on,
Luke

1 Like

Thank’s for the suggestions @Slim @Luke

@Slim I wonder if that would would on the linux commandline now available in Windows 10?
Which distro do you use?

I did use a plugin for the browser sometime ago but can’t remember it. Will have to have a look. There’s probably a few around.

I downloaded Audacity, looks really good.
Can’t wait to load a jam track into it and record when I get going well.

I like the look of amazing slowdowner, but not sure I can justify the $USD49.95 closer to ~$AUD70, at the moment, but certainly something worth considering.

Does anyone know of an alternative?

Thanks

3 Likes

Hi @tom2340

I have not had any Micro$oft products on my computers since back in 2006 or even earlier. I use Linux (the exact distribution is not really that important for doing the youtube-dl stuff mentioned previously, but if you are interested I use the Linux distribution known as Peppermint OS).

Sorry that I can’t help you with your questions about M$ programs.

Regards,
– Slim

1 Like

Hallo @tom2340,

ich habe mich in den vergangenen Wochen mit verschiedenen Programmen auf Windows 10 auseinander gesetzt.
Bei den freien Programmen wird man von Werbung genervt und die einfacheren Programme finde ich trotz guter Erfahrung relativ schwierig zu bedienen. Mit “mal eben” ist es da nicht getan.
Preislich liegen sie ab etwa 50 € aufwärts hier in Europa. So richtig überzeugt hat mich davon keines.
Beste Grüße Astrid

1 Like