LEARNING TO IMPROVISE - ARTICLE LINKS
- Listening To Jazz
- Ear Training
- Rhythm & Phrasing
- Motifs & Cohesive Solos
- Vocal Improvisation
- Jazz Theory
JAZZ EDUCATION - THEN AND NOW
Formal jazz education was fairly limited until the 1960's. The first Aebersold play-a-long wasn't even released until 1967. By the time jazz education was in full swing (1970's-80's), jazz had already progressed through New Orleans jazz, 1930's swing, be-bop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal, free jazz, and soul/funk-jazz. In short, jazz had essentially run through its entire evolution BEFORE the advent of formal and detailed jazz education.
Before formal jazz education existed, jazz flourished as an aural tradition. While some things were written down (e.g. Downbeat transcriptions in the 1940's), the vast majority of what people learned and played was done by ear. You'd listen to a recording or live performance and you'd try to play what you heard on your instrument, with only your ears to guide you. This method of learning jazz ensured that all jazz musicians developed the ability to play by ear.
Today, if we want to learn jazz (or music in general), we learn mostly from written instruction. We have hundreds of books to teach us scales, chords, chord progressions, patterns, and jazz theory. Everything is structured and organized in straightforward pieces. And, of course, it's all written down.
While it's great that we now have so much information at our fingertips, the shift from aural to written instruction has unfortunately lead many students to have poorly developed aural skills. These students sound good when reading music, but if you take the music away they're lost. I'm quite familiar with this issue because I used to be just like that. I recall many times where I was playing a tune that I had played dozens of times before. I could sing the melody perfectly, yet I either had to consciously memorize the tune or I had to read it from a book in order to get the notes right on my horn. I couldn't even play simple songs like nursery rhymes and Christmas carols by ear. I was totally dependent upon written music. This is a serious problem if you're trying to play a creative jazz solo!
Looking back, it makes perfect sense that I couldn't play by ear. I couldn't play by ear because I never had to. Throughout my entire musical education, everything I had ever learned was written down...
OBSERVATION: FAILING TO PLAY BY EAR
I recently rented "Wynton Marsalis - Blues & Swing" from Netflix. In the video, there is a clip of Wynton talking with a group of high school students. While students play Ellington's "C Jam Blues", Wynton sings a simple 6-note melody and asks the saxophones to play the phrase by ear. He also gives them the starting note. Their first attempt is a mess. Some of the students didn't even get the starting note right. Wynton then sings the melody again and tells the students the notes to play. They try one more time and the results aren't any better. It appears as though Wynton just gives up on them (it's hard to tell due to editing), as it's clear that they are unable to play a simple phrase by ear. Unfortunately we can't chalk this up to a run-of-the-mill high school band program. This took place at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
A similar event occurred during the Heath Brothers master class that I attended during the 2004 Atlanta Jazz Festival. During the brief jam session, Jimmy Heath tried to teach the jam session participants (mostly high school and college students) a relatively simple tune by ear. He played the tune a few times on his horn, but it was clear that most of the dozen or so participants didn't get it. Fortunately, they had about 10-15 minutes to warm up and try to figure out the tune. With help from each other, I'd say enough people learned enough parts of the tune that there weren't gaping holes. There were a few people, however, that clearly weren't playing at all because they couldn't find the notes.
OBSERVATION: BUT, I CAN SING BY EAR
I was driving home from the store a few days ago, while listening to a bluesy jazz tune that I hadn't heard before. Before long, I was humming along to the tune and singing my own improvisational lines. As long as you've got some familiarity with what a blues or jazz solo sounds like, you should also be able to sing an improvised melody, or at least a few phrases, while listening to music. The next time you do this, ask yourself: Do I know what key this is in? Do I know the note names for every note I'm singing? Do I know the chord progression? Do I know the mode of the scale used for each of those chords? Do I know if the chords are altered? If so, which notes are altered? Hopefully you can see where I'm going with this.
Even if you're totally unaware of notes, key, chords, etc, you can still sing a decent solo. Depending upon your skill level, your vocal solo might even be better than anything you can play on your horn. If that's the case, it's easier to sing because you can effortlessly sing by ear. You simply think about a melody and you sing it. In fact, it's so easy you probably don't even have to think about it! Think about the last time you sang along to the radio. Did you have to think in order match the pitches you heard? Of course not. Could you pick up your instrument and play along with similar ease? Guess what... all great jazz musicians can.
These observations along with other experiences tell me the following:
- Playing by ear is an expected skill amongst *real* jazz musicians. Jimmy Heath and Wynton Marsalis wouldn't have asked students to try and play by ear unless they believed the students should have been able to do so. Furthermore, the ability to play by ear is displayed in just about every jazz recording, particularly when you hear a solo beginning with a motif just played by the previous soloist (there are examples of this in my jazz listening guide). If the musicians couldn't play by ear, they'd have no way of instantly reproducing a spontaneous musical phrase.
- Many young players (those that learned from written notation) have either poorly developed aural skills, or none at all. This, no doubt, stems from the fact that everything they learned was written down. They never had to try and play by ear. The opposite, however, was the case for early jazz musicians, who had to learn most of what they played by ear. The skills that they developed playing by ear helped them to quickly learn from each other and develop jazz as an art form.
- Most of us can easily sing along to a tune without knowing any of the tune's theory. Yet, when we pick up our horn, we're unable to play the same ideas as we struggle to find the correct notes. It's not that we're unmusical or that we lack sufficient training to play music; we just can't play well enough by ear. To succeed as jazz improvisers we must endeavor to play by ear as easily as we can sing by ear. Only then can we truly play the ideas in our heads.
- John Murphy, a jazz educator at the University of North Texas, compares having strong aural skills to being fluent in a language. When you're fluent in a language, you can easily communicate with others as you express your thoughts without hesitation. Similarly, when you're able to play music by ear, you can effortlessly play the ideas in your head in real-time. The lack of fluency, whether it's in language or music, requires us to use written materials (translation books, written music) when we communicate our thoughts. And when we don't use written materials, we sound slow and awkward as we stumble through each phrase.
It should be clear by now that strong aural skills, especially the ability to play by ear, are REQUIRED to be a good jazz improviser. It should also be clear that the inability to play by ear prevents us from accurately playing the music we have in our heads... and isn't that what improvisation is all about anyway?
HOW DOES ONE IMPROVE THEIR AURAL SKILLS?
Let's face it, some people are born with great ears (or as Suzuki suggests, they develop the skill while they are children). They have perfect pitch or perfect relative pitch and music just comes naturally to them. If you're fortunate enough to be one of those people, then you have no trouble playing by ear. Heck, why are you even reading this?!
The rest of us will have to rely upon ear training to improve our skills. The good news is that through effort and dedication you can definitely improve your aural skills and your ability to play by ear. To this end, I've created a few ear training tools which I use to improve my own skills:
My interactive ear trainer is a program designed to help identify intervals, chords, and melodies by ear. The random melody feature allows you to work on call and response ear training. It even includes a rhythm section feature to help with jazz improvisation.
The ear training song randomizer has a library of hundreds of common songs. With the click of a button, you'll get a random song and starting note. Just pick up your instrument and try to play it by ear.
And that's not all... I also created an iPhone ear training app!
BUT I THOUGHT PLAYING BY EAR IS BAD
You may have heard that playing by ear is bad, or that it's a lazy approach to jazz improvisation. And most likely, you've also heard that you need to learn jazz theory in order to be a good jazz improviser. Both of these statements are wrong... but they might be true for you! It all depends on your aural skills.
If you can hear a chord progression and effortlessly play music that fits over that progression by ear, then you'll succeed with or without formally studying jazz theory. That's because you've internalized the sounds which jazz theory attempts to explain. On the other hand, if your attempts to play by ear are fraught with mistakes as you search to find the right notes, then you don't actually have the necessary skills to play by ear. You're just "winging it," and that is a bad and lazy approach to jazz improvisation! If you are in the "winging it" category, theory can help bridge the gap between what you can and cannot hear. Your primary goal, however, should be to improve your aural skills so theory serves as a bonus rather than as a crutch. For more information, be sure to read my article on jazz theory.
MY EXPERIENCES WITH EAR TRAINING
As I've written elsewhere on this site, ear training didn't come easily to me. When I first started ear training, I thought it was tedious and terribly frustrating (that was before I built my ear trainers). It was painful to realize that after years of playing an instrument, I still couldn't play a simple nursery rhyme by ear. That realization, however, was one of the most important discoveries that I've made along my musical journey. It inspired me, or should I say it shamed me, into taking ear training seriously. And boy am I glad that I did. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, has singularly improved my ability to improvise as much as ear training.
Some additional notes:
I've heard and read several stories about how Dizzy Gillespie had a strong understanding of theory and how he imparted this information to other musicians. So, yes, jazz theory and some instruction was also a part of the genesis of jazz. But, and this is a big but, the stories I've read all describe a situation where theory is shared and learned AFTER people are already relatively good musicians. At that point, they no doubt already had the ability to learn and play music by ear. In that case theory would have augmented their existing skills and talents, helping them to better understand what they were ALREADY playing, and perhaps push their playing in new directions.
And, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention:
I've come across plenty of players who can knock out decent-sounding solos, yet they can't play very well by ear. I refer to these players as "lick players". Over the years, they've worked on enough licks and built a large enough repertoire that they can robotically solo over just about any tune (provided they have the changes, of course). But, that's the problem. They are jazz robots, incapable of innovation and creativity.
"We all do "do, re, mi," but you have got to find the other notes yourself." --Louis Armstrong, c. 1956
"But to play what we play, you have to be a supreme musician. The art form requires it. It requires the discipline of a classical musician, the emotional feeling any good musician should bring to this music, and knowledge of the blues. You must have the ability to create melody on the spur of the moment, which is what improvisation is all about. Musicians who are best at improvisation are those who can create melody." --Branford Marsalis, 1991
"I'll play it first and tell you what it is later."-- Miles Davis
I've seen that Miles quote in various places. It appears to be a somewhat profound statement about Miles' role as a visionary artist, forging new paths without feeling the need to hold our hands and explain everything to us ahead of time.
But... as far as I know, that quotation actually comes from the recording of "If I Were A Bell" on the "Relaxin'" album (on Prestige). At the beginning of that tune, Miles says "I'll play it and tell you what it is later" (note: he doesn't actually say the word "first").
So, rather than it being a profound statement, it's probably just one of his playful comments to the recording booth (he'd joke around a bit with Teo on Columbia later on). I'm guessing the recording engineer wanted to know which tune Miles was going to play and Miles simply didn't feel like telling him...
In any case, thanks for the quotes.
cool i didnt know that. i guess it's easy to take stuff out of context and make it seem like it means something else.
in spite its brevity and seemingly casual manner, this statement can stand on its own as a profoundly relevent statement because it goes to the heart of being a comprehensive jazz player. In one succinct statement Miles has pointed out that he can play creatively, and then define his effort musically/technically. This combination of skills is typical of the way all really accomplished jazz players work!
sight-reading is important, but it really only shows how well a person can repeat some one else's musical ideas. By adding the element of creative re-interpretation/exploration the jazz player demonstrates legitimate intellectual "ownership" of his or her improvisational virtuosity. In jazz knowing the notes in a song is less important than knowing what to do with them. Being able to creatively explore and interpret the thematic elements of a song is what makes jazz, jazz.
few of us were there when Miles Davis actually made his well known comment, "I'll play it and tell you what it is later." Wether he was just joking or not, he hit the nail on the head when he said it, and and in so doing gave all of us an important insight into jazz muscianship in the process.
I've only been playing saxophone for about half a year, and I just started learning music theory and all that when I started playing the sax. Would it be way too early for me to start learning to play things by ear, or should I start as soon as I can?
There is no such thing as "too early" when it comes to playing by ear. If anything, the earlier you start, the better chance you have of developing the sort of fluency that will allow you to play EVERYTHING effortlessly by ear. This should be the goal of every musician (sadly it isn't).
As you begin to develop the ability to play by ear, you'll be amazed at how enjoyable and easy music becomes. So, start today!
This is all so enlightening to me. Something to work on -at 53 years of age! The other night I was playing at a Xmas party, my mother-in-law on piano, my wife on alto sax and me on flugel. We were just playing from matched fake books and basically doodling on melodies while people gathered around and sang Carols, but also show tunes and old torch songs, etc. Then someone wanted to sing, "Let There Be Peace on Earth", well, that's in no fake book I know of, but Mom and my wife were looking and when they couldn't find it they bailed. I said I knew how it went, (and so do my family!) Someone sang a starting note and I joined in on flugel while they all sang. I played the whole thing by ear - I have never even seen the music for the song.
Now, I'm thinking if I can do that, (and I usually can with any song), maybe I can improvise. Lot's to think about and try. Thanks, Rick.
Great site. Great topic. I began my own journey into aural awareness for all the reasons stated on this site. I had been playing for twenty years before taking to heart and mind what I have known to be true all along which is that we sing and scat with no idea what the notes or intervals are by name.
I am a guitar player. I have always been aware that the standard tuning of the guitar is one that misses a great opportunity. The standard tuning is one such that all strings are separated by a fourth except the second and third strings which are separated by tritone. What a tragedy! The ability to make the ear-to-guitar link would be soo soo much easier if only all strings are separated by the same interval. Given the standard tuning is in mostly fourths it would be awfully nice to make it an ALL fourths tuning.
After twenty years plus of playing I did exactly that. The idea was to make any given interval on the guitar look and feel the same regardless of which string you started upon or which fret. This would greatly enhance the ability to make the ear-to-guitar link because an internal bain-map between the feel of an interval and its sound could be made and this map would be the same no matter where one starts on the instrument. This is exactly what the all fourths tuning does.
But this is easier said than done. I naively thought it would be a six month to one year process. It has turned into a much longer process. But after relearning many chord shapes and some tunes I set about using the new tuning to tighten my ear-to-guitar link. It has been three years now and since I do not have enough time to practice as much as I like progress has been slower than I would like. But progress has been amazing. I am almost to he point where I can listen to a tune a few times and then, with no idea of what the chord chart looks like for the tune except that which a plainly hear, I can start improvising.
It is sad that the standard guitar tuning is what it is. It absolutely hinders the tightening of the ear-to-guitar link. I think a child can scat a goog solo be the time they are 8 or 9 years old. If the same child were to be born with an instrument in their hands and grow to learn to communicate with it in the same manner that they learn to sing imagine the musician that would emerge!
Once again, I really like your site. The emphasis on the ear-to-brain-to-instrument connection is fantastic. One criticism though. Your Song Randomizer is, in my opinion, an excellent tool for making this connection. Unfortunately, either the song list is not very long or your random number generator is a bit flakey because I get a lot of repeats when using it.
There is a site called Risa Song Lyrics Archives that has a rather long list of pop tunes that could be included in the Randomizer and Real/Fake Books are a great source. Of course you probably are aware of this and are simply dealing with a finite time constraint but for my money (what am I talking about ... it's free) the Randomizer is a fantastic idea that needs further development.
Thanks for the wonderful site!
I'm glad you're enjoying this site.
The simple song ear trainer currently has over 350 songs in the rotation and the list continues to grow over time. As for your repeats, it's certainly possible to get repeats, but I've found that it's pretty rare to get repeats of both the song and starting note. So, when I do get a song title repeat it usually comes with the opportunity to play the tune in a different key.
Thanks for the Risa site suggestion. I'll take a look and see if there are some more popular songs to add.
Seems that's the thing a good teacher would guide a student to become a musician is to get them grounded in hearing\understanding what they are playing.
As kids we grew up listening to jazz. It was in the air and sort of osmosis process was involved that you just absorbed what was in the air. I guess like learning any language.
But the math of the music: interals, and rhythmns have to be codeified and digested. Seems like as is discussed on this site quite a bit is Transcribing.
There maybe other ways, but transcribing, and playing back the phrases of those have gone before, and learning the jazz language is the way to go.
Seem like interval recognition in the relationship of the key is the answer. A lot didn't make sense to my ear until I was able to recognize the tones by number in relationship to the key. After I was able to get past that hurdle everything else made sense to my ear.
I know people have different acuity in hearing, as some people hear more critically than others but instant interval recognition comes in time and practice.
keep up the good work with your site
Great site. I was very fortunate in having the opportunity to learn to to improvise from Don Cherry when he was artist in residence at Dartmouth back in 1970.
It wasn't the specific things he had us do but the way he inspired us to consider what we were doing as VERY important that made it work. There was never any effort in improvising. In learning the instrument sure but not in expressing your Self through it.
Later I spent some time with Don in his home in Sweden and he taught a few of us some of Ornette Coleman's compositions which although they exist as written lead sheets are very difficult to learn that way. Don would play the tune over and over on the piano and encourage me to tap my fingers on the trumpet keys to get the rhythm of the tune and then blow some notes to get the attack and the breathing and low and behold after going through it a lot of times I quite accurately found the fingerings to the right notes. What is more I had the phrasing, breathing, attack and all that make Ornette's compositions so challenging.
I asked Don to explain the approach and he just laughed and showed me a page in the Beatles Yellow Submarine paperback that was laying around the music room at his house. In it John Lennon says, "We suggest that you all start singing" and McCartney follows with "In harmony if not always in unison".
I can still play those compositions even played them in a couple of concerts with Don but I have no idea what they would look like written out.
You say that ear training, though vital to inspired improvisation, is tedious. The way I do ear training is fun: it tends to wake me up when I am feeling a bit low. The first training I did was with different intervals; the next bit was in playing with records. This was not using one track over and over - to memorise the tune, but by blowing along with a wide range of styles.
I first used the method on double bass, but then tried trumpet. As it worked out, I didn't want to play melody, and didn't memorise melodies, but I did discover that I was a player of the Second Trumpet. Many years later, now, I am still using the harmony/countermelody thinking to get me through on Baritone Horn in a brass band - especially when the dots get too quick for me. In a jazz practice group I use the Baritone as a Second Trombone (with valves); all the rest are readers, but I still prefer to play by ear.
I actually spend quite a bit of time playing along with recordings myself. Like you, I find it to be one of the most enjoyable parts of my practice sessions. I've been meaning to write a new jazz blog entry about that for some time now, so maybe the time has come to actually do it!
As for my "tedious" comment... that was written a couple of years ago and referred mostly to when I was just beginning with ear training. Since that time I've added a bunch of new features to my ear training tools which have made my practice sessions much more enjoyable. Also, I've improved quite a bit over the past couple of years, so ear training definitely isn't as frustrating for me anymore. I just updated the last paragraph of this article to clarify these points.
Thank you for writing!
You are so on the money it is not true...many thanks ....I am taking lessons with a piano player that studied with Peter Ind...Tristano's bass player...and I'm learning Parker solos by ear...but I still cant do the nursery rhymes.. thanks for your help.But how many will listen?
I think I am a okay keyboard player does not know how to read music, but recently I really want to learn to play the trumpet but I could not find any information for a person who wish to play it or learn it to play by ear. After messing around with the instrument for some time now I am able to play some tunes. My question is I want to be a good trumpet player (does not read music) do you have any information to improve my trumpet playing skills. FYI I went to check with my local music store if they could help me learn the instrument to play by ear, I was told it’s not possible since I do not read music. I know that there should be a way since I play the harmonica, the key board & the guitar with no tanning to name a few. Please help
I would say if you desire to play without reading music and can't find a teacher on the trumpet then play along to records and tape the sound including the the record and your playing. Then listen and see how close you are coming.
As you say you can play other instruments by ear you must have a good ear so only a matter of learning to get the notes to come out properly which as you will have noticed is a lot less simple on the trumpet than on the piano and guitar or the blues harp.
I would say best to learn to play the chromatic scalefrom a fingering chart even if you don't want to learn what the notes look like on paper. once you can play up and down the full range of the chromatic scale in tune you should be home free. You will still find transitioning various other intervals between certain notes are more difficult to make while playing but at least you will have one set of the biomechanical lipping and fingering down and can spend time on your long tones etc with a feeling for how they fit in the range of the instrument and where you are while you play.
Another useful exercise that doesn't require reading is running up and down patterns like first value open and close (repeating that as you go up and back down) , then do the same with second valve, then third then one and two , then one and three, then alternate between first and third valve etc. there are a surprising number of combinations but it is a limited number and basically once you get the feel of all the possible transitions between valve combinations and can do that keeping the instrument in tune (listen to tapes of yourself doing it) you should have a good feeling for getting around on the horn and improvising.
If on the other hand your desire is to be able to play accurate renditions of very precise pieces by ear without resorting to reading then best to practice matching tones you hear. There are programs like pgmusic.com Band in a Box that will do that with you very well.
hope that helps some
Thanks you very much for the posting, Given all the odds I was surprised that I am able to play much better now, I sure will take your advice and start recording when I play. Thanks again
Thank you so much for your site. By chance, I found your site while I was looking for a free ear training program.
I found some, but I love your post on ear training .
I learned how to play the piano early and joined a a rock band at 19, then played keyboards there. I even took classic music theory class in scool.
What you said was exactly my problem. I could practice all day without sleeping, but the problem was I couldn't get "ear".
I don't think I did my best for ear training. Maybe I didn't know how to do~
I remember one day in 1991, there was a visitor in our studio, a keyboard player looking for a song in our albumself. He said he needed to play the song in a bar that night. He found the album with the song, he listen to the song once, twice while he wrote some codes on paper then played just once on the piano and left to paly the music in the bar. Give me a huge impact on me~~
Later, I gave up palying music since 23 and studied and become a businessman. But you know what, I couldn't forget something I couldn't get during my young era.
Now I became almost 40, but once I get aural skills, well, I might be playing again in a bar after I retire~~
I cannot spend that much time, but hope to practice time to time although it take more than 10 years until I get what I have wanted for years.
From a businessman in Korea
P.S. : When my brother wanted her daughter(5) to get the piano lesson, I told him to tell the teacher to focus more on ear training~.
I belive one can enjoy palying instruments more than 100 times if she/he has the aural skills.
Great site here.
I was in the same boat back in high school: playing jazz but not hearing. The worst part was that I didn't even realize that I couldn't hear, i just thought I wasn't that good. Then in college i met a lot of great players who had crazy ears and I reformed to become an "all ears" player. I got to admit, the best thing for me was learning to be able to identify all the intervals through song association. Also transcribing does wonders for your ears but it sure is difficult at first.
You're writing and website has really inspired me. Thanks so much. Keep up the good work!
Just a quick comment to say thanks Rick.
I actually play guitar not trumpet. I know the jazz theory well (for someone who has never formally studied it), but am still frustrated with my playing because it sounds like patterns and scales and arppheggios rather than music. It's been a rut i've been in for awhile. I came across the same realisation as you, that a lot of my heros never thought in theory, but played by ear. I sat down and tried to transcribe some solos, my ear wasn't even good enough to transcribe a Charlie Christian without a lot of frustration. So i've decided to take it slow. Your ear training tool is a fantastic starting point for me.
Thanks again and I'll be sure to keep visiting this site.
I am from Mumbai. India. Thank you for this great EAR TRAINER 2.0 and more so for offering it free.
I have been into ear training for the last 5 years. Must say that out of the many free ear training tools I have downloaded, this tool which I stumbled upon in May 09 by far, is THE BEST & ALL INCLUSIVE.
For me, at present, the Best part of EAR TRAINER 2.0, I think is the 'Melodies' Tab. This is because my hearing capabilities, I realised improved in leaps & bounds when I trained in exercises which were musical rather than exercises made up of just random notes.
A humble suggestion: If any one of you has spent a reasonable time with basic ear training and would want to now, advance quickly, I suggest learning Indian Music. It will give you a ear that you only dreamed of.
Also, in order to have ears like that great composers/players, instead of directly playing what you hear on your instrument, it is MUCH BETTER to transcribe it in your mind first and then play. I have learnt that music becomes much more exciting & beautiful when we lead it in our mind and then bring it out on the instrument.
This is great stuff!
Myself, new to music and any kind of playing, I was really struggling with learning the trumpet. I was trying to learn whole tunes..
Recently I picked it up again, memorized the chromatic scale, and I tend to just jam away over any kind of popular music recording.
I've found that I can naturally find a few notes that work.. then add a few more. It's like trial and error.. if I play something and it sounds off, I'll try to sharp or flat... usually before long I'm playing along and it sounds good to me.. I have no idea what key I'm playing in or even what notes I'm hitting sometimes...
I am still planning to learn my scales and stuff, but, your site and helped me realise I'm not learning things wrong. My goals are to jam/ improv along with other musicians, not to read sheet music.
I'm going to give the Ear Trainer a go later tonight - can't wait!
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