Transcribing in Class

What is a Class Transcription Project?

For this project, the class will transcribe and arrange a student-selected pop song for the entire ensemble.

These projects and materials are intended to create opportunities to help students develop four essential musical skills that too often get overlooked: ear training, understanding form, harmony, and orchestration.

While building these critical musical skills, it also provides an opportunity for students to connect with their own culture and to inject some personal decision making during class.

Scope of the Project

It might seem hard to believe that introducing popular music into the curriculum could foster a deeper appreciation for more complex music, but simpler popular music can be a great vehicle for introducing aural skills and analysis to young musicians. The hope is that students can have a relevant connection between the skills they have and the music they listen to.

The project can be broken into six different pieces, even if each piece receives more or less than one lesson. Because the project has the advantage of being so compartmentalized, the instructor has the freedom to program pieces of the project concurrently with concert preparation, and can have enough flexibility with the depth or scope of the project that students can engage in the activities during or beyond the class period (or most ideally—independently and often even after they graduate!). The project isolates singular musical elements to be discovered and analyzed aurally. Then, students or teachers can create physical artifacts or take notes based on the lesson.

Ultimately, students will find that learning music by ear will allow them to memorize many parts of the music, and they may not have to rely on physical artifacts to remember or perform different sections of the music.

For a piece of music of their choice, students will create, discover, and analyze:

  • Form
  • Key Signature
  • Bass Line
  • Groove and Style
  • Melody
  • Arrangement and Orchestration

The final product doesn’t need to be complex to be effective, and the complexity of the final product is certainly no indication of the amount of authentic musical skill development that took place in the course of the project. Even with significant guidance from the instructor, students have to engage in melodic and rhythmic dictation, analysis of form, composition and arrangement techniques, and performance skills to complete the project. Also, through hyper-analyzing popular music, many students discover what makes that music attractive to a listener and occasionally fosters and appreciate for the complexity of classical, jazz, folk, cultural, and art music that might require more concentration or understanding to appreciate at a deeper level.

Strategies

  1. Form

Students analyze the form of the music. Creating a chart to see the organization of the parts can be helpful for visual reference. The form is the most important piece of the project, especially because it helps students realize how often or how many times a certain section might repeat. While listening, students identify and label sections by name and number of measures. At this point, the class has to identify time signature, tempo, and length of phrases (4 bars, 8 bars, etc.) to correctly identify verses and choruses. Hopefully, this will lead to students identifying the distinction between the melody and the lyrics to a song (“Why are Verse 1 and Verse 2 both considered a “verse” if they have different lyrics?”)

  1. Key Signature and Composition

Students should learn the song in the correct key. Even if it is in a less familiar key to the band, it provides motivation to explore scale relationships and harmony in untraditional “band keys”. Students need to label the scale in solfege (or scale degrees) and practice singing and performing up and down the scale. Then, students should compose short melodies in the key of the song. Asking them to compose a melody that (at the bare minimum) starts and ends on “Do” and has one focal point helps to reinforce the sound of the key signature in their minds. Students could also be asked to compose only in step-wise motion, within a certain range, or in respect to a certain harmony (tonic, sub dominant, dominant, or sub mediant chords) depending on what chords are in the song.

  1. Bass Line

In many different styles of music, the bass line is the foundation for form, harmony, balance, and intonation, so understanding and analyzing it is an essential part of learning the music.

With that in mind, bass frequencies often have a very present overtone series that is closer to the familiar range of sounding pitches, and most students have trouble identifying bass notes correctly. Students should learn the bass line in terms of solfege (or scale degree) and have a discussion about “diatonic harmonies”, so they can observe and appreciate how much musical information comes from a single key signature. Many popular songs are entirely diatonic (both melodically and harmonically) and a few have a secondary dominant or a different tonality at the “bridge”, but understanding the diatonic relationship of the bass line to the harmony and melody can make students aware and can help students further understand those moments where the composer borrows from other key centers.

  1. Groove and Style

The relationship of an implicit or explicit style of music to the articulation and dynamic variation is so essential in creating an effective performance. Also, learning drum grooves by ear requires significant skill in rhythmic dictation and can illuminate the relationship between the melody, harmony, texture, and orchestration that exists in so many styles and genres of music beyond pop music. Even through the percussion section will be primarily responsible for performing the groove to the music, students should analyze how the groove affects and demarcates the form.

Then, students should improvise (in the key of the song) articulations that best match the groove and mood of the music. The intention in improvising is that students could explore how accented and unaccented sounds could seem antithetical to the style of the music, and how their improvised melodies need to sit squarely and soundly in the metronomic pulse of the rhythm section to seem authentic and appropriate.

  1. Melody

This is the most time-intensive part of the project but can become a very valuable tool for teaching composition and ear training. It is important to learn one section at a time and to spend time performing and relating that section to its bass line and groove. It is also helpful for the instructor to break down the new melody into smaller phrases or melodic fragments or themes. Then, students can practice musical “vocabulary words” in solfege that are related to the music. I recommend “normalizing” the melody to verses that have alternate lyrics in different parts, because the melodies are often nearly identical apart from the rhythm of the new words. If the students are excelling in their transcription, challenge them to transcribe the piece as performed.

This practice, like practicing singing and identifying diatonic and chromatic intervals, provides a platform to help students understand the power of musical motives, and the way that transcribing is a process of piecing together musical fragments rather than learning a complex melody note by note. Musicians who have the ability to listen for melodic fragments become empowered to engage in, understand, and create music in a much deeper way. “Hearing the compositional process” of a given piece of music opens the doors to authentic and total musical expression.

  1. Arrangement and Orchestration

At this point, students have identified the form to the song, and can perform the entire bass line and melody over the groove in the original key. Also, because it has been an aural process, many of the students are probably able to perform the entire piece from memory.

Now, students have the option of assigning roles (by section) to the different parts of the song. They might decide that the clarinets play the melody in the first verse while the tubas play the bass line, and then the flutes and trumpets play the melody in the second verse while the clarinets play the bass line. This step should serve as a platform for students to explore orchestration and how the addition or subtraction of sections can affect the dynamic contour of the piece. Hopefully, students can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the process in which composers craft the sound and textures of their music.

Conclusion

The first time through this project might take some prep-work on the part of the instructor, but students usually enjoy this project quite a bit. In my experience, students use the skills they learn from this project to start learning other songs they have on their phones and iPods. The pay-off is enormous. Students with stronger aural skills are more likely to play in tune, more likely to be aware of instruments they are doubling, and have some long-term transferable music listening skills that they can use beyond their last experience playing their instruments.

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