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 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 :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!


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.