Listening and transcribing: learn from others, think for yourself

Essay on the value to students of transcribing great drummers

(Adapted from Appendix IV of Drumming Patterns)

Drum technique is not an end in itself, but rather a means to the end of making music. Therefore, the most important techniques to learn are those which have direct application to that end—which in fact are that end—and which can be discovered through the process of transcription.

Along with practicing the material in Drumming Patterns, transcribing and practicing transcriptions are the most beneficial methods of development because they develop several key skills simultaneously: (1) one must listen in an extremely focused and comprehending manner to a passage of music to notate it correctly; (2) transcribing sharpens one’s skill in working with notation; (3) notating musical sounds involves translating an aural language into a visual language, the grasping of abstract sounds into conscious terms; (4) there is an inherent amount of technique involved in playing transcriptions which potentially ranges from basic to advanced. In addition, it is the practical, specific technique required for making music; (5) practicing transcriptions advances reading skills; (6) transcriptions advance one’s musical knowledge and taste by providing insights into the styles of the greatest artists in the world, in the context of the music in which those styles are appropriate.

Despite this, I have frequently heard musicians and music educators deride transcribing and even analytical listening as being without merit, and even harmful to development. While this is untrue, I would like to clarify the premise upon which it is based.

Specifically that premise asserts that the stylists one might transcribe created their vocabularies “intuitively,” without copying the vocabularies of their predecessors note for note, and would not have been innovative had they copied their predecessors. Although there is some truth to this statement, it reveals a grossly oversimplified view of the process of artistic evolution.

Each successive generation of drum stylists, while not copying the vocabulary of the proceeding generation, do abstract conceptual elements of that vocabulary and re-work these elements when creating styles of their own. The way successive generations of musicians absorb existing vocabularies is through a conscious and subconscious (not intuitive) process of conceptual abstraction and integration, mixing different vocabularies in different proportions, and adding their own ideas to the mixture in the process.

To deride analytical listening and transcribing is to overlook the essence of this process: the better a musician understands the specifics of a given set of vocabularies, the more effectively his conscious and subconscious mind can integrate those vocabularies with his own concepts (which themselves will be largely spurred into existence from his understanding of these vocabularies).

Those without creative ability may indeed not progress beyond the level of repeating transcriptions note for note. However, these same players would not have become creative without exposure to transcriptions. And conversely, those with creative ability don’t become less creative with exposure to transcriptions. Learning from others and thinking for yourself are not mutually exclusive acts. All musicians become immensely better the more they deepen their understanding of the styles that proceeded them, and that will form the basis for the styles to come.