It is that time of year. Just last week people all over America spent tons of money buying candy, going out on romantic dates, and doing all sorts of crazy things in the name of Valentine’s Day. It always seems odd to me in light of the rather enigmatic Roman Catholic martyr it is named after. But it also always reminds me of a beautiful piece of music, one that I think is an excellent selection for learning the art of transcription. So, tis the season I suppose for Transcribing My Funny Valentine. Here are some steps I would suggest if you have never gone down this road before. And yes, you can find the lead sheet in almost any real book or online. But resist the urge to cheat. Learn this skill and this song the long and hard way, and the skill of transcription may just become a journey of joy for you, but it will certainly be an excellent tool for your learning and growth as a musician.
There are so many great recordings of MFV, but I like the Chet Baker vocal recording for this as it is simple, easy to hear the melody and the harmony, and the lyrics help with grasping the phrasing.
- Listen to the song carefully at least three or four times, just for the music. Enjoy it, appreciate it, but don’t over-analyze or think about it too much yet.
- Sections: Listen to the song again. This time, pay attention to the different sections. Most songs are built on multiple sections of music. Each section is its own distinct section. We generally use letters to name a unique section. MFV has three distinct sections, so this means it is an ABC song form. First, focus on the “A” section (the first section). Listen carefully to see if you can hear where the music makes an obvious shift in melody, rhythm, and chords, that’s the next section.
Count out the measures for each section and mark them off on your manuscript paper (in pencil of course). This song is in 4/4, so keep that in mind.
Try to count
1, 2, 3, 4 ,
2, 2, 3, 4
3, 2, 3, 4, etc. all the way to the end of each section.
When you have the whole tune mapped out by sections, move on to step 3. Do not transcribe the notes or pitches yet.
- Phrases: This time, listen for phrases. A musical phrase is much like an English phrase. There may be a pause (like a comma in the English language) within a phrase, but there is a definite beginning and end (more like a period). Lyrics can help a great deal with understanding phrases, which is why I like to use songs with lyrics for this. The grammar structure helps with MFV, let me help you with the first phrase:
“My funny valentine, sweet comic valentine”
That is the first phrase. You figure out the rest.
You are going to try to map out the phrases like you did with the sections before beginning to actually transcribe.
I like to use brackets above the measures to illustrate where a phrase goes. Once you think you have all the phrases mapped out, you are ready to begin the work of transcribing pitches and rhythm.
- Figure out the starting pitch, either on your instrument or on a piano.
- Sing the first phrase repeatedly, until you are sure you have it. Pay close attention to half steps and whole step differences.
- Is it major, minor, or other modal?
- Play through the scale or mode you think it might be in a few times to get a feel for the tonal center. If it doesn’t sound right, stay at it until you think you have it.
- Finally, when you think you’re there, try to feel out the phrase on your instrument. Again, pay real close attention to half steps and whole steps.
- Play the phrase at least four or five times with your eyes closes until you are sure you are hitting it right.
- Rhythm: H H H There are many ways to go about this, but this has worked pretty well for me. Hash out four beats of marks in each measure, one for every beat. Listen to the phrase you just learned on the recording. As the music goes by, mark each attack (only the attacks) of each note.
Once you have the attacks, figure any length or ties to fill in the full values of notes. By now you should have a fairly accurate representation.
Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5 until the song is complete.