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Hello all,

I'm wondering if all proficient players hear what they are going to play before they play it. I was a drummer before going to vibes, and I was able to ear what to play before I would play it. Hearing and instantly knowing how to play spontaneously created melodies is a whole other dimension, though. I feel this especially when I listen to someone like Joe Locke -- he's hearing this stuff? And he immediately knows how to play it?! Good grief.

I'm almost completely convinced that it is indeed the case, however. That is what Kenny Werner in Effortless Mastery seems to be saying. The way I think of it is that I would never try to speak before knowing what to say. I also don't think, "Okay, article, subject, verb, proposition, object ... go! A tunnel will be walking under the pudding. Crap! That didn't work ..."

Music theory surely is in place just as a means to name recognizable, reoccurring sounds. Unfortunately, many of us learning to improvise are just told to play over certain scales and see what comes out. Perhaps if we do that long enough we will begin to hear lines. Perhaps, but it is not my experience. At the same time, I see the problem with only getting your lines from transcribing as that doesn't seem to facilitate creativity very well. Please comment on this. I think that learning to hear music is a rather mysterious process, and that most people don't know precisely how they came to be able to hear what they do; that said, I'd love to know what you think. I have only a vague idea of how I came to hear rhythms and patterns on the drumset, but it was not something I attempted to work at in a direct sort of way.

I have been trying to learn to improvise for over a year now (and have been listening to jazz for much longer) and am not hearing a whole lot. I have begun learning John Piper's method for ear training because I think it is brilliant (I was actually first introduced to the same kind of concept by Stefon Harris). I'm hoping to be able to play a few choruses of a few tunes by ear before I go to university next fall. Is that a reasonable expectation?

I'd love to know what your thoughts are.


p.s. just thought I'd add that I'm not trying to steal the thunder from toncils' thread. Decided they were two slightly different topics.


tpvibes Mon, 10/21/2013 - 10:00

Interesting subject. A little background -- I'm a day-jobber, so my skills aren't at top level. And I've always felt that my ears are the weakest part of my playing -- I struggle mightily with transcribing.

That being said, I feel that I do hear what I'm about to play quite clearly. It isn't just ear -- I can't improvise along with a tune I don't know and make the changes properly. But on a tune where I know the changes I'm definitely not just picking random notes from scales.

What I play is a complicated interaction of what I theoretically know -- chords, scales, licks, my "bag of tricks" -- and what I want to play -- what I "hear". My learning process really starts with the theory. If I want to incorporate a new sound in my playing, I first have to learn how it's done -- the theory. Once I understand that, I begin to incorporate it somewhat randomly in my practicing. After a while I begin to understand the sound and how it can work with other sounds -- in other words, really hear it. Once I'm there it goes in my bag of tricks.

The more you do this, the better your ears get. It takes time. You have to build a pretty big vocabulary to function at even an intermediate level. Playing with other people in live situations can really help.

Some people are much more intuitive about this than I am, but however you do it, you need to not just "hear" what's going on, but to "grok" it (see It's like if someone says, "Raise your right hand." You need to not just hear the words, but know what they mean, in that combination and which muscles to move to make it happen. That takes time and practice.

Tom P.

Marvel Tue, 11/12/2013 - 04:19

Found this article on a blog I check out from time to time:

I like it. I think it's a good reminder of how much more this is to learning to play music than just getting around your instrument.

Of course, it doesn't answer the question of starting to hear things in the first place. To get these sounds in our hears, people tell us to listen, listen, listen. I agree, but I think HOW we listen is more important. I've listened to jazz for years, but the notes still sound quite random to me -- on most recordings anyway. The notes of the transcription I just did don't sound random. The notes of my most listened records don't. The notes of tunes I know the form inside and out don't. I've stopped focusing on quantity of listening and more on quality. I find I progress faster that way.

Marvel Tue, 11/12/2013 - 04:32

A little question/scenario for you all.

I find that while soloing over one mode/scale, I can hear some simple ideas. Blues scale, the modes of the major scale. But to change that scale mid-song messes everything up for me.

For instance, over Blue Bossa, Tony recommends playing dorian over the I chord, as well as dorian over the IV chord. That means one note (in the key of C, the note A) is different. How does your head/ear make sense of this? Is it heard as the natural six changing to the flat six in the home key? Or does your ear change to hearing the IV (in dorian mode) as the home? Both at the same time?

To clarify, are the notes played always felt in relation to the home key, or are they felt more in relation to the present chord being played? Or do you somehow have to feel both of these things simultaneously?

Thanks for bearing with these masses of text.


tonymiceli Tue, 11/12/2013 - 20:15

In reply to by Marvel

i think you have to practice and practice and practice. i really hear stuff now. for better or worse. depends on the listener. and i hear similar things on similar tunes also. and i'll vary how i play something. none of this bothers me, because what i think matters is that you play from your mind.

play and sing. sit at a piano and sing your solo. it doesn't matter what the notes or chords are does it? so good. train yourself to sing a nice solo. you HEAR all these changes. i know it. it's just hard to do it translate it and play an instrument.

many times i get students singing over complex chords and harmonies. and it's easy to SING your solo. maybe you have to practice it a bit and not be shy.

but everyone hear can do it. otherwise none of this would interest you!