Today we’re going to talk about transcribing music by ear. This is the process of finding out the notes or chords within a piece and either writing them down or playing them impromptu. Transcribing is an essential part of piano playing, especially when practicing by ear, as you need to be able to listen to a recording and write out what notes you’re hearing. At some point in your collaborative practice, you’ll also have to sit at a piano and figure out chords on the spot.

I have eight tips to share with you, which I use every time I transcribe music. These tips will help in making your transcription process move along much faster, as well as show you what exactly to focus on at particular points of the process.

  1. Start with simple songs (keep it diatonic)

The first thing you need to do is choose a song to transcribe. If you’re a beginner and new to transcribing – it’s essential that you choose something simple. Picking a diatonic song that you’re familiar with will save you a lot of headaches along the way.

Diatonic means that the song strictly stays within its key; the key doesn’t change or use any chords outside of the key. Starting with a diatonic song will immensely simplify your learning of transcription.

The song you choose for your first transcription shouldn’t contain any strange chords that you don’t recognize. It’s essential to keep it as basic as you can at first, e.g. by using nursery rhymes so you won’t be caught off guard by a chord you don’t know yet. There’s no embarrassment in starting out using nursery rhymes; I used them myself when I first started transcribing, using them as a starting point before working up to transcribing pop songs and other pieces with more complexity.

 More advanced players are welcome to choose a more complex song to suit their level, but the same concept still applies. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are at the piano – these steps will help you to make transcription a little easier

  1. Use a good pair of headphones

The second step is to find a good pair of headphones. You might be thinking, “Well, I already have headphones,” but it’s essential to find something that’s good and allows you to hear each balanced musical element clearly and distinctively. At the end of it, transcription is all about listening and trying to figure out what you’re hearing.

 There are some terrible headphones out there that complicate your transcription process and make you think, “Man, I’m not good at this.” Except you probably are better than you think, you need to find better headphones to give you the clarity you need when picking out the right notes.


The headphones I use when transcribing are the Audio-Technica M50 model. Their sound is comparable to studio monitors, with an outstanding balance in their frequency spectrum. The bass, the mids, and the highs are all very even across the soundscape, allowing you to hear the different frequencies, tones, and instruments much easier. They sell for about $170 on Amazon, which may seem a little high in price, but it’s absolutely worth the investment to be able to hear your music crystal clear.


The other headphones I  use for transcription are the Bose OE2 model. These are a bit old and outdated, and I believe Bose has actually stopped manufacturing them, but it’s definitely worth scavenging the internet for a pair for the simple reason of their bass response.

 In transcription, one of the most critical components is the bass. The bass will be your guide throughout that entire process, so you need to be able to hear the bass and the lower frequencies as clearly as the higher notes. Sometimes, when I’m transcribing a song that doesn’t really have a bass guitar, but I want to hear the low-frequency spectrum easier, I pull out my Bose OE2, and I can listen to the low end clearly, which gets the transcription process running a lot more quickly.


Other good choices of headphones are the Apple earbuds and Airpods. The generic earphones that come with iPhones, iPods, and other Apple devices are surprisingly well-balanced and pure in sound, which makes them ideal for getting a clear insight into any song you’re listening to.

There are a lot of good headphones out there on the market. Don’t be afraid to upgrade if needed, as it will only benefit your musical practice. Research, read the reviews, and find something that works for you. Don’t underestimate the generic earbuds that come with Apple devices, as they’re pretty well balanced in terms of frequency and good bass response, so if you have that – use it.

  1. Is the song in a major key or a minor key?

Next, you must figure out whether your song is in a major or minor key. If you’re struggling to figure out whether a song is in a major or minor key, here’s a tip that might help:

Start associating chords and keys with emotions; for example, minor keys generally have a darker, sadder, and gloomier sound, whilst major keys have a much brighter and happier sound. You can practice moving between the major and minor chords within a song, focusing on their emotional effect, and with practice, you’ll be able to hear the difference and determine whether your song is in a minor or major key overall.

  1. Finding the root note and quality of the first chord

The next step is to find the root note, which is defined as the bass note upon which the chord is built and is often the lowest note in the chord.

To find the root note, you need to listen to the bass frequencies of the song. Listen to the first chord in the original recording and work out what that lowest note is by playing the chromatic scale until you find a note which matches perfectly with the lowest note of the chord.

After you’ve found the lowest note of the first chord, you need to find out what the quality of that chord is – whether it is a major or minor chord or something else entirely.

There’s a deduction process you can use in this step. Let’s use an example in the key of C major. If you hear an E on the bass, using deduction, you can assume that the chord built upon it is probably an Em chord. You’d then play that Em chord against that recording and see if it fits harmoniously with the song.

The process of deduction works because chord progressions tend to move logically. For example, if you’re playing in the diatonic key of C, there’s only a set number of places that the C major chord is going to move to; it could go to the 5 chords (G), the 6 (Am), the 2 (Dm) or any other chord within the key.

Always start with playing the chord you first expect over the recording. If the minor chord you’ve tried doesn’t sound right, try playing the major chord and see if it works. If not, try the diminished chord, the augmented chord, a slash chord, or any other type of chord that comes to mind until you find the one which sounds correct and close to the original recording.

Remember, you’re listening for the quality of the chord. While major and minor can sometimes be a bit of a blur to beginners, diminished and augmented chords have a very distinctive and dark sound to them which is easy to pick out. If the song you’re using isn’t too advanced, the chord you’re looking for will likely be one of these primary triads: a minor, major, diminished, or augmented chord, or a slash chord, which we will get to later.

  1. What if there’s no bass?

Even when there’s no specific bass instrument in the piece you’re transcribing, you should still use the same concept to transcribe it – by listening out for the lowest frequency on the piano, strings, or whichever instrument is being used.

If the piece is composed of a single piano, for example, with no accompaniment by a bass instrument, it might seem a little harder to transcribe, but all you need to do is listen for the lowest frequency and which bass notes the left-hand is moving to. The same technique applies to transcribing a solo guitar piece; listen out for the lowest frequency, giving you your root note, from where you can find out the chord’s quality and whether it’s major or minor.

  1. Watch out for slash chords.

The next tip is to watch out for the slash chords. If you’re a beginner, you might not need to worry about hearing these just yet, but for those of you who are reaching above the basic level, it’s essential to keep the possibility of slash chords at the back of your mind.


Slash chords mean that a chord is being played with the right hand but with a different bass note than what you’d expect to be played with the left hand. For example, the slash chord C/G (formed of the notes: G – C – E – G) is composed of a C chord (C – E – G) with a G on the bass rather than the C you’d expect.

As another example, if the song is in the key of C, and you find out the bass note of a chord is D, you would assume that the chord you’re looking for is a Dm (D – F – A). But what if they’re playing something like the chord:  D – E – G – B? This chord is an Em with a D on the bass, which is not a D chord of any kind.


So if you’ve tried the minor and major chords but the sound still clashes, start experimenting with slash chords, as your mystery chord could well be one of those.

  1. Work on one chord at a time.

Transcription is a slow process. If you try to rush it, you might end up with some wrong chords. It’s best to take it one chord at a time, discovering what the bass is doing and then what the chord’s quality is. Eventually, you’ll get faster and more adept at the process, to the point where you can listen to a song and automatically know, “That’s a 1-6-2-5 progression,” “That’s a major 9th with a 2-5-1 passing chord,” or “That’s a Cmadd11 with a G7#5.” Soon you’ll start to hear the chords for their unique characteristics, but this skill takes practice to develop. You need to start with something simple and slow before building up to transcribing more complex pieces.

It’s vital to keep checking your transcription against the recording. Let’s say you’ve finished figuring out and writing down the chords to the chorus. To check you’ve got the exact chords, you’ll need to go back and play what you’ve transcribed on top of the original recording and see if there’s anything that sounds off. If something sounds wrong, you’ll need to go back and check each note in the chord to find where the error lies. Again, this is why you need a good pair of headphones, or you’ll struggle to hear the sound with a proper amount of clarity.

  1. Using transcription programs and apps

Another thing that helps transcription is by using an app or software program which slows the music down for you, making it easier to hear what each element of the song is doing. One example of this is the app Transcribe, which you can download from the App Store for free. Not only are these programs great for slowing down the recording, but some also allow you to loop sections of the song so you can hear what’s going on without the distraction of manually skipping back and forth through the track every time.

 When I started learning to play the piano, I didn’t have access to these types of programs, and many of them probably weren’t even around yet, at least not for free at your fingertips like they are today. If I had these programs at my disposal back then, I would have taken advantage of them. You guys have that now, and I’d recommend trying them out to make your transcription process even easier.

Whenever you’re looking for an app that slows down an audio file, make sure you settle on one which you’re certain doesn’t distort the sound of the original recording. If you slow down the music and the audio becomes distorted, it’ll be hard for you to hear what’s happening properly. Other times when you slow down the music, it can change the pitch, changing the key from what it sounds like at average speed – precisely like the effect of changing the tempo switch on vinyl record players. If you’re going to buy one of these programs which slows down the music, make sure you do your research and get one that gives you the purest representation of the audio file without altering it in any way other than its tempo.

To recap:

  • Start with simple diatonic songs
  • Get a good pair of headphones with a clear and balanced sound
  • Work out the key of the song and whether it’s major or minor
  • Work out the root note – listen for the bass and the lowest chord in the song. Then, figure out the quality of each chord by experimenting with a deduction to discover whether it is major, minor, diminished, and so on.
  • Watch out for slash chords.
  • Work on one chord at a time, and don’t rush the process
  • Check your transcription against the original recording
  • Try using a transcription app to slow down the song

Related Course

Download The 7 Steps To Naming ANY Chord PDF For FREE

With this PDF, you NEVER HAVE TO GUESS what chord you’re playing.

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