“Melodic dictation”…

Sounds intimidating.

But how about “Sing it back”, “Repeat after me” or “Call and response”?

Not so scary…

I’m going to let you in on a secret:

The hardest part of melodic dictation is
not being afraid of it.

Not being intimidated by the challenge.

Not feeling pressured to be a perfect transcription machine.

What if instead, melodic dictation was about music?

Melodic Dictation for the rest of us

About expressing yourself, and enjoying the tunes of songs tunes like you do every day?

It can be.

Let’s see how.

Step One: Sing it back

Here’s a simple tune. Can you sing it back?

You may not consider yourself a singer but if you’re studying music I bet you can sing it back after hearing it.

Alternatively: try to listen to it again in your head, “singing” it in your musical imagination.

Guess what? You’ve just taken the first step towards to transcribing it.

Step Two: This is the breakdown

How about this one?

Too long?

Try it again, and here’s a suggestion some might find controversial: when your memory runs out, make it up – more on this later!

Here’s the second secret to melodic dictation: don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Musical memory is a core part of musicianship, but when you start learning you’ll probably find that it’s hard to keep more than a bar or two of a melody in your head.

Don’t worry. Make a start.

Take the first phrase and see how you get on. Try to compare the phrases to each other, and hear how the whole tune can be broken into manageable chunks.

Over time you can build up to longer melodies, and you’ll find your musical memory extending.

For now though, let’s continue to probably the most intimidating part of all…

Van Wilder Has No Fear of Melodic Dictation

Step Three: Write that down.

So far we’ve been singing, either literally out loud, or just in our head, playing the tune back in our “mind’s ear”.

But melodic dictation normally means turning what you hear into a written score.

Here’s the thing: you can read music, right?

If you’re the sort of musician worrying about “melodic dictation” I’ll wager you can play music pieces from a score or guitar tab.

Guess what? If you can read it, you can write it.

Maybe not perfectly, maybe not immediately and effortlessly. But you can write down something with approximately the right shape, and then try playing it or singing it back.

Made mistakes? Just try again, and fix them.

Or (and here comes the controversial bit)… don’t!

Step Four: Make Mistakes

Here’s the step your music teacher might disagree with. But it’s probably the most important of all.

Someone smart once said:

To err is human.

And when it comes down to it, music is a fundamental part of humanity. So why are we so terrified of making musical mistakes?

Wonka knows: musicians make mistakes

Music is the universal language, across every culture, time, and place.

And musicians have been making mistakes for thousands of years. From the earliest beginner to the greatest maestros that inspire you. All musicians make mistakes.

What distinguishes great musicians from simply sloppy ones is learning to own those mistakes. Notice them, learn from them, but continue on and make them musical.

You’ve probably been told this in certain cases already. When sight reading, for example: “If you make a mistake, carry on”. If you play a wrong note in band practice you don’t just call a halt to the performance, do you?

Why should melodic dictation be any different? It is a musical skill, after all.

You learn a lot more about music by making a few transcription mistakes and hearing the effect than you would by getting it right first time. Making transcription mistakes can boost your musical creativity and inspire new ideas and new directions in your musical journey.

Helpful Software

Best transcription software

You can greatly accelerate your learning process when it comes to transcription by using modern software tools to help you tune your ear in. These transcription aids let you slow down and pick apart the music to help you hear the detail much more easily.

We have recommendations of the best software to transcribe music for PC, Mac and iOS.

Melodic Dictation for the 99%

The name “melodic dictation” probably conjures up images of a music student listening attentively, pencil in hand, quickly scribbling down a perfect replication of heard music on manuscript paper. Neatly notated, not a note out of place.

Well, that’s great if you’re Mozart.

For the rest of us, melodic dictation is something far more alive and creative.

It can be fun.

Let your mistakes turn it into a call and response or use them as an excuse for spontaneous improvisation.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with aiming for perfection.

But there absolutely is something wrong with requiring it, and never more so than in music, where perfectionism can drain all the joy and creativity out of what should be one of life’s greatest pleasures.

The ninety nine percent
In music even mistakes can be musical! In fact they are often the genesis of the most wonderful creations.

So figure out what you can do already, and build from there.

  • Maybe it’s improvising call-and-response with your teacher using your instrument.
  • Maybe it’s singing back short phrases and then trying to write down a better and better approximation of what you sang.
  • Maybe it’s working out how to play by ear, and leaving worrying about writing it down until later.

Whatever you can do now, and however you choose to develop the skill, the number one most effective thing you can do to improve your melodic dictation is to conquer that intimidation factor.

Remember music is about life and creativity and wonderful musical mistakes.

Sing. Play. Practice. Improve.

Forget living up to someone else‘s notion of the ‘perfect’ musician.

Own your musicianship and focus on your own musical journey. Take the task of melodic dictation and make it yours. Use the music and methods that make it fun and manageable for you – and you’ll find yourself making faster progress than ever towards that “Mozart moment”.

Do you have tips or success stories to share when it comes to melodic dictation? Have you conquered your fear or does it still seem intimidating? Share your story in the comments below.

Thanks to Vanessa Abela for inspiring this post!