If you want to really understand what’s going on in songs you hear, there are few more effective training methods than transcription.

Taking the time to transcribe a song, working out the pitches and rhythms played by each instrument and how they all fit together is a truly powerful way to move your musical expertise and aural skills forward.

Transcribing a song by ear can seem like an overwhelming process at first though! Most guitarists do not approach it systematically. Often, people pick a random riff or lick in the song and just try to learn that first. Generally, taking a more structured approach makes the whole process much easier.

Here are 7 important tips and tricks to help you transcribe:

1. Tools

Good news: There really isn’t that much you need to transcribe a song, apart from your ears!

The CD containing the song is usually the best choice to transcribe from. Music file formats (like MP3s) can sacrifice audio quality to make the file size smaller, so if you use a file make sure it’s a high quality version – or you may be making your job harder than it needs to be!

All you really need is a media player that lets you jump to any part of the song you want. There are also specialist song transcription programs which can be a better choice. Most of the tools are not really necessary unless you are transcribing a song with 10+ simultaneous tracks, but other features (like being able to bookmark parts of the track) can be quite convenient and speed the transcription process along.

Transcribe! is one of the better programs for this. It is relatively inexpensive, has all the basic features you need and a convenient layout for accessing those features.

Audacity is probably the best free choice. It is not specifically a transcription program, but you can bookmark sections of the track and change the tempo without changing pitch. The layout is a bit less convenient, since it is actually designed for recording and editing, rather than transcription.

Transcribe! is specialised transcription software

Transcribe! is specialised transcription software

Audacity is general audio software which can be used for transcription

Audacity is general audio software which can be used for transcription

2. Drums

Transcribing the drum part first can make songs much easier to tackle. You do not need to accurately transcribe each fill; just getting the basic snare and bass drum patterns can be enough. The drum transcription gives a skeleton for transcribing the other parts of the song.

Getting the basic drum parts is also not a particularly difficult process, since you only need to be able to distinguish the different kinds of drums being used from one another. If you need help learning to do this, see our introduction to the sounds of the drum kit.

3. Get the Key

Music transcription tips: Find the key!
Most musicians neglect to actually get the key of the song before transcribing it. This isn’t relevant for the drums, but knowing the key of a song can make all the other parts easier to transcribe.

Here’s a simple method for finding the key: Just play every note over the song until you find the one that fits the best over the top of the track. This will be the key of the song!

There are plenty of alternative methods – for example, a guitarist might recognize the basis of a particular guitar riff without being able to recognize the specific notes instantly, and use that to figure out the key directly since in most cases a prominent guitar riff will be in the same key as the song.

Whichever method you prefer for finding the key of a song, make sure you do figure it out. Knowing the key will make everything else that follows much easier.

4. Rhythm Instruments

The next part of the song you should transcribe is the rhythm instruments. In most rock and metal bands, the rhythm section is usually the bass and rhythm guitar. In