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 with professional jazz musicians and educators in which they 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 interviews you'd like me to add to this page, please send me a message.
Jazz Trumpet, Educator
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.
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...
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 Trumpet, Educator
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.
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.
Jazz Saxophonist, Educator
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.
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.