PLAY BY EAR - SUPPORTING EVIDENCE
In my Learning to Improvise series and elsewhere on this site, I've written about the importance of ear training and the ability to play by ear. I firmly believe that the ability to play by ear is an essential skill for quality jazz improvisation. Put simply, if you can't play well by ear you'll never be able to play the ideas in your head. You might be able to get by as a "lick" player, playing one pre-learned jazz lick after another, but that's not what I'd call quality jazz improvisation.
While I'm totally confident about my belief in the importance of playing by ear, I'm sure some readers of this site would appreciate a little more evidence before they begin to ear training seriously. After all, I'm by no means a great player (my jazz recordings are testament to that fact) and I certainly don't have a degree in music or music education (I dropped out!). With these facts in mind, it's perfectly understandable that some of you approach my views with skepticism.
To add some additional credibility to my views about ear training and playing by ear, I've created this ongoing article. Here, I'll feature interviews and articles where professional (jazz) musicians and educators discuss the importance of playing by ear. With any luck, their views (along with my own) will give you the confidence and motivation you need to start learning to play by ear. And when you are ready to start, be sure to try my free ear training tools.
If you have any articles you'd like me to add to this page, please send me a message.
Excerpt:Richard Scheinin: What do you teach the young players who come under your wing?
Roy Hargrove: I tell them 99 percent of this whole game is about ear training. You have to be able to hear the music and play it on the spot. You don't get a chance to go home and work on it.
Full Article:mercurynews.com, December 26, 2012
Excerpt:Don't sleep on the ear training, because if you can play what you hear, you're about halfway there. Most of the time when people hire you, they just want to know if you can play what you hear. Leaders don't want to have to bother with writing out a lot of music. They want to be able to give you a recording of something, you listen to it, and then you know it. That's basically what they are paying you to do.
Full Article:jazztimes.com, December 2008
Jazz Trumpeter, Educator
Excerpt:Ear training is the most valuable training for any musician, and maybe most of all for an improviser. Improvisation puts a musician on the spot in unpredictable ways -- you have only your ears to help you learn what's going on and decide how to respond to events or initiate them. Basically ear training underlies anything a musician does: melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, form, density, community (who you are playing with), legacy (how you choose to deal, or not deal, with the traditions of music). You name it -- to be handled fully it has got to be heard deeply and accurately. It's as simple as focused hearing.
Full Article:greenleafmusic.com blog, July 7, 2008
Article Excerpt:I could never overstate the importance of a musician's need to develop his or her ear. Actually, I believe that developing a good "inner ear" -- the art of being able to decipher musical components solely through listening -- is the most important element in becoming a good musician.
Full Article:Guitar World, March 3, 2016
Excerpts:JB: A lot of people suffer from the misconception that you begin by thinking, 'If I play these notes over this chord then I'll make some music.' First you make the music and then, later, sure go ahead and analyze it, but it should only be after the fact, after the music's been played
JB: You have to break free from thinking about a certain scale over a certain chord and you have to listen to what you're playing to really understand the nature of the instrument. I find people sometimes are just moving their fingers and not really listening. -Rick's note: this is definitely one of problems with knowing theory but not knowing how to play by ear. You end up rambling your way from one safe note to the other but you don't how things will sound until after each note comes out.
JB: ...the other point I want to make, is that with all the 'real books' and 'fake books' available today, while people learn tunes from them, you can never develop an ear for music with them. If people learn music from CDs they have to really listen, to hear the music. When I was younger we'd all play records over and over again and figure out what the guitarist was playing -- note by note. It really doesn't take that long if you sit down with a CD player and figure out music the old way. Within two years, most people would have developed a fairly good ear. The education thing is a double-edged sword. The books are great sources for people who can already play guitar, but I think they're a detriment to someone just starting out...
Full Article:modernguitars.com, February 3, 2005
In addition to stressing the importance of using your ear, Jimmy also touches upon motifs, note limiting, and the importance of learning by listening. It's well worth the read.
Jazz Trumpeter, Educator
Excerpts:CS: The jazz musician needs two basic abilities in order to improvise a solo: You must be able to play what you hear. You must be able to hear something worth playing.
CS: Ideally, all music should be taught by ear. Explaining to a student that a C7 (b9) chord calls for a diminished scale is virtually useless until she not only recognizes the sound of that chord and scale, but also has heard it used in context. Every day you should learn something by ear, simply trying to reproduce on your instrument what you hear. This is the way all the great jazz musicians learned to play, and even today, when most jazz musicians have had the benefit of jazz education, most will tell you that they really learned to improvise by listening and copying, rather than by reading jazz improv texts or practicing scales and patterns.
Full Article:trumpetguild.org youth site
I have to say, when I first read this article by Chase Sanborn I was really surprised to discover the importance that he places on playing by ear. The surprising part wasn't the message itself (since I obviously agree with it), but rather I was surprised by the person delivering it. I say this because I've read Chase's book "Jazz Tactics: Jazz Explained" from cover to cover and not once does he even remotely mention the importance of ear training or playing by ear. Not once! Instead, it's just another book on theory. This is a real shame since I know "Jazz Tactics" is a favorite among many beginning jazz musicians, especially trumpet players. All of those people would benefit tremendously to learn about ear training and the importance of playing by ear, but they won't read a single page about it in "Jazz Tactics"...
Jazz Saxophonist, Educator
In 2006, I interviewed John Murphy on the subject of ear training. Follow are a few excerpts from that interview:
JM: Very high levels of aural skills are necessary. Hearing well is fundamental.
JM: Ear training is essential. If you're going to build a cohesive solo, you need to recognize cohesiveness when you hear it in someone's solo and you need to hear what you are playing.
JM: I want my students to develop a seamless kind of musicality in which they can sing everything they play, play and write down what they hear, and hear what they read in notation.
Full Article:John Murphy - ear training interview
Jazz Saxophonist, Educator
Excerpts:GF: The academic approach I've seen used in a lot of schools is one that trains students by sight, rather than by sound. In other words, students are taught reading - looking at dots on the page, moving your fingers based on those dots on the page, and figuring out how to count. These are definitely valuable tools. However, I feel that there is not really enough emphasis on what the student is hearing in his head. Students look at the chord on the page and they have been trained that it is "appropriate" to play an E or a Bb when they see a C7 chord. Those are fine note choices, but if you just play them because you're "supposed" to, that's not a good enough reason. You need to hear them for yourself.
GF: Some students learn to play a diminished whole-tone scale when they see an altered dominant chord, and so they are going to play it because it is the "correct" thing to do. The problem with that is that it's meaningless if they arrive at those note choices by theory alone, and not by ear. I call this phenomenon "empty note playing." These are notes without specific harmonic intent. The notes may be technically correct, but they won't be as convincingly played as the same notes arrived at by a gut-level, emotional feeling to play those particular sounds.
GF: Many of today's players learn to play jazz in college. As a result, I think that a lot of them have more of an academic approach to the music. Many of the older musicians didn't have much academic training, and I think that's why they had much more of a "gut level" approach. I call it a visceral approach to playing. This approach relies much more on the ear and gut-level feeling than on intellect.
Full Article:Greg Fishman interview at saxontheweb.net
The Greg Fishman excerpts shown above begin near the bottom of the second page of the interview. Greg's description of "empty note playing" closely resembles my experiences with jazz theory as explained in my Learning to Improvise - Jazz Theory article. Like many aspiring (and struggling) jazz musicians, I was using theory as my primary method for choosing which notes to play in my solo. The notes may have fit in with the chords, but my ears weren't guiding their selection. Consequently, my solos sounded like I was just playing one random note after another, with no melodic interest whatsoever. Theory is a useful tool for jazz improvisation, but to successfully play the ideas in your head, your ears need to be the primary guide for note choice.
The following is an excerpt from Mickey Baker's Complete Course in Jazz Guitar, Book 1, which has remained a popular guitar instruction book since it was originally published in 1955.
MB: Before we go into this I want to make a few points clear to you, and you should always keep this in mind. It is impossible for anyone to teach you how to feel music, this is, to stand up and play solos one after another. This has to come from your soul. Now, in order to develop a soul for music, these are the things you must do constantly. Practice playing your guitar with records, listen to solos by horn players, learn to steal solos from records. Anything that you hear another musician play, try to play it yourself. Strum the chords to any song that you like and hum ideas, - then apply the ideas to the guitar. This will be hard to do at first and some of it may sound silly, but if you keep doing this long enough you will develop an ear for music, and once you have an ear you'll be stealing solos from everybody and building your own ideas around them. You will also develop a beautiful soul for music which will in time enable you to play anything you want to at will.
ear training is the single most important thing any musician should have gone through in the earlier music lessons.
Thank you for this article.I was a Classically trained pianist.I love jazz,spent 2 years at Berklee College Of Misuc,but I had no ear.I spent my whole life playing what I saw,but to play by ear was impossible,it was not developed.I am currently working on my first CD,and found that after writing down the basic ideas,I realized that what I was writing was what I heard in my head,by ear.This has caused me to transition back to playing by ear.I find that to take music where it can go,or could go,and experimenting with that,has been a journey.I find my self throwing away the rules,and just re-creating what I hear in my mind.It is scary,in that I need to write it down,so I dont lose it,but I love the fact that I can now develope something that I have desperately needed my whole musical life.I would love to see more posts from famous jazz artists and composers of the importance of being able to play by ear.I heard an interview with Clarke Terry in the 1980's,and he was told that you had to be able to see what you play and play what you hear. I believe a balance of both is needed,sight and ear......very cool.....
Met a jazz player on a bus on my way to a guitar lesson once. He said, "This guy you are going to can play fast, so what? Hum him something simple and if he can't play it straight off, he's not actually very good".
If you look at a book on English grammar, you'll see a breakdown of everything into rules, but when writing, you don't often give any attention to those rules, you just write, and likewise with speaking.
Great composers wrote direct to paper that which they heard in their heads, and truly great music improvisers likewise go straight from brain to note... anything else is random and just because 'it will work'.
Lots of tools now to slow things down without dropping pitch even. Much more fun than theory too.
Next time you go to London, who do you want driving the cab? Someone who has to keep looking at a map, or a proper cabbie with 'The Knowledge' who just gets on with it because he knows where he is, where he needs to get to, and what everything looks like in-between from memorising the map and driving all the routes in muliple variations?
Relative pitch get's you at least to a right note from a random first note if your relative pitch is excellent and you can apply it to your instrument. Get perfect pitch too, and then you don't even screw up on the first note.
I understand George Benson got his ear together by singing everything he played, and working out what sounded good to him over all the chords... that's the way to go... but with Youtube/Tab/Books... the cheat sheets are everywhere.
No tab lessons for Django either I think!
I don't know, I mean I don't disagree with any of what these guys are saying, HOWEVER, there's the other side. You have to take into account the style of music in which these musicians are operating. It's easy for a sax player to say "Just play by ear, man!" but it's a whole other thing trying to understand a Gustav Maher symphony. Go on, play it by ear, I'm sure you'll totally understand all the counterpoint with no musical training and use it appropriately in your own compositions *wink wink*. Just listen to any Schoenberg piece that uses serialism and you'll just figure it out, just like that, by ear. Who needs explanation on what a "tone row" is, you'll figure it out. No need for sheet music. Beethoven wrote and rewrote and rewrote his own compositions, sometimes for years on end, until he was completely satisfied with the final product, so clearly, everyone's method is different.
Nikolai, your comments miss the point while pointing it out - Beethoven wrote and rewrote his compositions, but how did he do it? He heard tones in his mind and knew how to translate them to the written page, even after losing his hearing - he couldn't verify that he wrote down the correct note, yet he did. That is exactly what "playing by ear" is - translating what you hear in your mind to your instrument or your blank music sheet.
Also - one of the most important tasks conservatory students do in their formating years is listening to contrapuntal pieces and writing down what they hear - listening sometimes to 4 or 5 voices at once. That is all ear-training for classical application.
Everything is built upon hearing music - to understand Schoenberg you have to hear what you've learned intellectually, otherwise it's just that - a weird intellectual exercise where you read the relationship between tones, but don't hear them. What's the point in that?
The same thing is true for jazz - musical hearing is the first step to learning the theory. Jazz musicians learn an awful of of theory - and this includes the giants, think of the years Coltrane put into learning theory with different people.
But in the end, all theory is just learning to understand intellectually what you're hearing. In order to hear you have to train your ear. Otherwise, what's the point?
Thanks for sharing your experiences and skills in programming. Both will help me, I'm sure, to improvise as a trumpet player, and i'm sure many, many others too! Maybe you read, "Thinking in Jazz: the infinity art of improvising" by Paul Berliner or "Notes and Tones" by Arthur Taylor or "The Primacy of the Ear" by Ran Blake. I understand the gist to be, hear the music with your ears, mind , and heart, and you'll feel the music. Feeling the sounds, the music, play back a copy or a response you hear in your heart and mind. Doesn't sound quite right? Not yet, the climb up the mountain will take more than a few steps, but with patience and perseverance, the journey of our own path will get more exciting. I sense the tools on this site may be of great help. Thanks!
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