How to Transcribe Bass Lines | Developing Active Listening Skills

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The only tool you need to be a successful composer and/or music producer is a great ear. By practicing “active listening” skills, you too can foster this ability, so today we’re learning how to transcribe bass lines. If you’ve ever tried this on your own, you know how difficult it can be. Our hearing is NOT linear, so we don’t hear all the frequencies equally. So guess which frequency range we have the most trouble with… I will be revealing a “trick” that will allow you to transcribe any bass line, even the most obscure. But first, we need to understand what “active listening” truly is.

As my mentor demonstrated to me, it is not simply listening REALLY attentively. No, the concept is much more profound and is the fundamental process we must undergo on a daily basis as musicians. By listening to music and taking action, we are practicing what we refer to as “active listening”. So, how do we take action? Get ready because we’re about to discover the secret to developing a great musical ear. Can you handle it?

Taking action: Transcribing a bass line

For today’s sake, we’re focusing on bass lines because they are often the most overlooked. Unless your main instrument is bass guitar, I can almost guarantee that you’ve never transcribed a bass line.

As a guitarist, I learned a lot from transcribing other instruments. It made me a better musician.

By developing your ear across the entire frequency spectrum, you begin to HEAR music differently.

You’ll become aware of the interaction between each part, you’ll begin to SEE the bigger picture.

And it all starts with a simple question… What is the bass doing?

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Asking questions is what moves our ears in the right direction. We’re “tuning in” to a specific part of the song.

Try this exercise…

  • Ask yourself… What is the (instrument) doing?
  • Play a song from start to finish, BUT
  • Concentrate on that specific instrument for the entirety

You may discover parts of the song you were NEVER aware of. Isn’t that amazing?

So, now what?

Although we have officially taken action, it doesn’t stop there. The hearing process is just beginning

Use it or Lose it: Exercising your Hearing

By listening to music in this manner, you will subconsciously be absorbing more of it. However, the act of creation requires a series of conscious decisions.

The very first decision we need to make is to “imitate” our bass line. This is what transcription is all about.

You can transfer the bass line to sheet music if you like, but this isn’t essential.

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What IS ESSENTIAL is the ability to sing back what you hear.

This is actually much more important than being able to play it back on your instrument.

And don’t worry if you can’t sing, you’re not doing this in front of other people. We just need you to “sing” or “hum” along with the recording.

Believe it or not, this “activates” your hearing and allows you to memorize parts with much more ease.

Here are the steps you should follow…

  • Select a few measures of music that pleases you
  • Repeat the section a couple of times
  • Begin “singing” or “humming” along WITH  the recording (it doesn’t need to be in the same octave)
  • Once you’ve got it, try “singing” or “humming” it WITHOUT the recording

If you can reproduce music without the need for a recording, congratulations! It’s like learning a language and you’re taking your first steps to become fluent.

But transcribing bass lines may not be as easy to work out, so here’s the “trick” I promised you.

Transcribe your bass lines using this application

I urge you NOT to become dependent on any piece of software, but they can be excellent learning tools. When I found out about Amazing Slow Downer, it really helped me hear bass lines.

It’s not free, but I guarantee you that it’s worth every penny. It’s the best of its kind!

Once you install this application, you can open any song you’d like to work on using the “songs” button.

how to transcribe bass lines

The first thing you’ll want to do is enable “looping” and to “loop” a section of your song.

how to transcribe bass lines

If the part you are transcribing is too fast, you can slow it down. I really like this application because it does a great job of preserving the quality of your track as you slow it down.

how to transcribe bass lines

Now listen closely!

If you’re working with a bass line, you may want to “shift” it up an octave (12 semitones).

how to transcribe bass lines

The rest of your track will sound ridiculous, but your bass line will be much more audible in this range.

That’s the “trick”, nothing fancy.

You may not need to use this on EVERY bass line, but it really helps with those “muddy” ones.

But we’re not done here, we still need to complete our “active listening” process.

Creating music with your newly acquired vocabulary

Although the act of transcribing music will significantly improve your ear, it’s not enough. You may even begin questioning the purpose of it all.

This is why we need to complete our hearing process by APPLYING what we learn.

If you are an improviser, you may want to start using this newly acquired vocabulary in your playing.

As a composer, you may want to start introducing these ideas into your compositions. But isn’t that a little like “copy and pasting”?

ABSOLUTELY. So we need to take it one step further.

Like writing a paper on a particular subject, this “musical research” will allow us to create better music.

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In essence, we need to “dissect” the vocabulary we are learning to create our own meaningful statements.

At this stage, you want to “transform” these ideas to fit your particular vision of what music should sound like.

It’s highly subjective, but the essence of this craft is creating a multitude of variations based on the original. Think of a sentence… How many different ways can I express it?

This is how we begin to develop our own musical language if you will. If you ever run out of ideas, you know what to do now.

Transcribing is like learning a new language

The inspiration behind this article is the fact that I too have many weaknesses as a musician. I can craft an electric guitar part with ease, but sometimes bass lines elude me.

Whenever you diagnose one of these weaknesses, you should start asking the music more questions.

The more questions you ask it, the more intelligent you become as a musician.

Transcribing bass lines is important for every musician (singers, guitarists, pianists, drummers, etc…).

It’s especially important for composers and improvisers, so we need to maintain our “active listening” skills.

I transcribe every day, first thing in the morning. I don’t always “hold on” to everything I hear, but I got into the habit of using what I transcribe.

You’re essentially getting the ball rolling. This is how musical creativity manifests itself.

So, if you find yourself lacking inspiration, look outwards. Ask the music a question.

I hope this content has been of great value to you.

How long have you been transcribing bass lines? Let us know in the comments and feel free to share some wisdom as well.

Stefan Chamberland

Stefan Chamberland

Stefan is a highly proficient sound professional who specializes in sound for picture. His journey into sound production began at the young age of 16, where he initially produced music that went on to feature on local television. Today, Stefan utilizes his extensive expertise to record production sound and lead the audio post-production process for a variety of projects in the TV, Film, and New Media industry. Driven by his passion for sound for picture, Stefan founded Decibel Peak, a platform designed to empower and support emerging sound professionals while contributing to the growth of the industry.

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