Improvisation by ear 101

Wade Cornell

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#1
Improvisation by ear 101​

There are two intertwined aspects to becoming a proficient improviser with the ability to play whatever you can hear in your head. The first thing is to exercise your innate ability to hear variations or create melodies. This requires practice and lots of listening to develop a mental library of references/influences. The second aspect is making the sax your voice and that’s a lot tougher. It’s a project that takes years...but is well worth the effort.

This is a good time to mention the alternative. Many learn to improvise mechanically. This is (as a generalization) interpretation of chord changes by memorizing patterns of riffs and arpeggios that can be cut and pasted to fit. It generally features fast technique but lacks creativity, melodic ideas and is mostly suited to 1950s style jazz. Some players after years of playing by formulae can develop the ability to play what they hear through this technique as well, but not many/all. Be aware of this alternative if you find these exercises don’t fit your abilities.

Exercise 1

Choose four notes on your sax and play these in any random order until you are positive that you can anticipate the sound of each note before playing it (this can take a while). With these notes in your head try to create a melody with them (in your head and not on the horn). When you have a melody set in your head see if you can play it on the horn. The object is to link the sound in your head with the notes you were playing. Try to be conscious of NOT thinking of your fingering or trying to visualize dots on a page. You are on a path towards rewiring your brain and developing a direct link between sound and your hands. This exercise sounds simple...it’s not and can occupy you for years by using a different set of notes and hearing different melodies. Make it a regular part of your practice.

Exercise 2

Turn on the radio and put it to a random station. It can be any kind of music but especially tunes you DON’T know. Student/University radio stations can be good for this exercise. Using your voice or whistling or just using your inner voice try to hear what the music is doing, where it’s going, and sing along. This means that you are in the right pitch, hear the chord structure, and anticipate changes of chords. Depending on how different and unusual the music is (compared to what you are used to) this can be easy or difficult. By forcing yourself to join in you are accomplishing several things. You’re not just listening, but HEARING and understanding the music to a point of being able to anticipate where it’s going. You’re matching in your head the pitch and chord changes. Don’t be afraid to sing wrong notes, but also see if you can correct them to right notes. This is another exercise that can be done for years with various styles/types of music and will increase your mental library by actively engaging with the music.

There are lots of exercises that can be posted. These are basic, yet can keep you busy for years. More exercises can be posted on request.

I’d be happy to hear questions or have feedback on this post or by PM.
 

Wade Cornell

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#4
Is it best to stick to one octave?

Jx
This is like learning to draw before you learn to paint. It's a "limited palate" approach. The fewer notes you use the easier it is to make the link between sound and hands. If using an octave you're really introducing another note. Nothing is set in stone with these exercises. If people can create a melody with three notes it's even more effective, but it usually doesn't sound very good. If you can link the sound of five or more notes and play these accurately then have at it!

The concept is to start simply and try to make the sound to hand link and not overwhelm. The exercise is simple in concept, but plenty challenging in practice. Changing your four notes to seemingly unrelated notes (e.g. use the whole-tone scale) can make this extremely difficult. Adding notes until you reach 12 tones is fine, but overreaching too soon can also overwhelm.

Thanks for the question Jeanette...it's a good one.
 

Jeanette

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#5
Thanks, as I was playing I decided one octave was best. Also good to close my eyes.

I felt too tired to play tonight but this was quite relaxing and soothing. I'm going to have another go tomorrow to see if the sound has stuck before trying to make up a melody :)

Jx
 

Keep Blowing

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#7
Improvisation by ear 101​

There are two intertwined aspects to becoming a proficient improviser with the ability to play whatever you can hear in your head. The first thing is to exercise your innate ability to hear variations or create melodies. This requires practice and lots of listening to develop a mental library of references/influences. The second aspect is making the sax your voice and that’s a lot tougher. It’s a project that takes years...but is well worth the effort.

This is a good time to mention the alternative. Many learn to improvise mechanically. This is (as a generalization) interpretation of chord changes by memorizing patterns of riffs and arpeggios that can be cut and pasted to fit. It generally features fast technique but lacks creativity, melodic ideas and is mostly suited to 1950s style jazz. Some players after years of playing by formulae can develop the ability to play what they hear through this technique as well, but not many/all. Be aware of this alternative if you find these exercises don’t fit your abilities.

Exercise 1

Choose four notes on your sax and play these in any random order until you are positive that you can anticipate the sound of each note before playing it (this can take a while). With these notes in your head try to create a melody with them (in your head and not on the horn). When you have a melody set in your head see if you can play it on the horn. The object is to link the sound in your head with the notes you were playing. Try to be conscious of NOT thinking of your fingering or trying to visualize dots on a page. You are on a path towards rewiring your brain and developing a direct link between sound and your hands. This exercise sounds simple...it’s not and can occupy you for years by using a different set of notes and hearing different melodies. Make it a regular part of your practice.

Exercise 2

Turn on the radio and put it to a random station. It can be any kind of music but especially tunes you DON’T know. Student/University radio stations can be good for this exercise. Using your voice or whistling or just using your inner voice try to hear what the music is doing, where it’s going, and sing along. This means that you are in the right pitch, hear the chord structure, and anticipate changes of chords. Depending on how different and unusual the music is (compared to what you are used to) this can be easy or difficult. By forcing yourself to join in you are accomplishing several things. You’re not just listening, but HEARING and understanding the music to a point of being able to anticipate where it’s going. You’re matching in your head the pitch and chord changes. Don’t be afraid to sing wrong notes, but also see if you can correct them to right notes. This is another exercise that can be done for years with various styles/types of music and will increase your mental library by actively engaging with the music.

There are lots of exercises that can be posted. These are basic, yet can keep you busy for years. More exercises can be posted on request.

I’d be happy to hear questions or have feedback on this post or by PM.
Very interesting reading and hopefully learning @Wade Cornell, thanks for posting.

Is this something you have developed yourself, and have you taught it with success to many people?
 

Wade Cornell

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#8
Very interesting reading and hopefully learning @Wade Cornell, thanks for posting.

Is this something you have developed yourself, and have you taught it with success to many people?
Thanks "Keep Blowing" for your interest and pertinent question. These exercises are the result of trying a number of techniques. It's aimed at those who are "auditory" in their learning, so will not necessarily work for everybody. The majority of people learn visually, but may have some auditory ability. I've never tried to expose a large number of people to these sorts of exercises. In a "one on one" situation it's easy to gauge responses and whether someone is auditory in their learning and how fast they can progress. The previous post was an attempt to let people screen themselves so that they don't be come frustrated. The exercises are difficult enough, even if you are an auditory person.

The technique that's being tried is a synthesis of relearning music bit by bit in the way a child learns language. There are exercises that require aural copying and anticipation. The other part of this is developing an association between sound and the keys played on the instrument. There are bits of teaching borrowed from neural linguistic programming which attempts to "rewire" thinking and response patterns. There are also vague aspects of Suzuki technique, but modified to achieve the specific goal of playing by ear.

I wish I could say this has been happening for decades, but it hasn't. It's still a work in progress, yet those who can already play by ear will usually recognize aspects of this that could be useful and possibly a shortcut through the use of more directed exercises. There are some conservatory programmes with vaguely similar studies/exercises. However it's certainly not the standard way most people are taught to play or improvise. It will be interesting to see how this works via the detached world of written language as compared to a person to person contact.

The standard method of teaching (in western cultures) is to learn to read music along with learning an instrument. This is primarily an eye to hand/fingers relationship and leaves out the auditory component except as a result. With a lot of practice some students can make the auditory connection, but it's not the primary goal of most music teaching. These exercises are a directed effort to increase composition/melodic thinking and make an auditory connection between your inner voice and the instrument. It's not a mutually exclusive way of playing, but could be considered highly desirable by some players.
 

Pete Thomas

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#9
This is really useful advice, and is great to have exercises that extend beyond the typical formulaic approaches of scales/chord theory etc.

One thing that I believe really helped me when I was starting out were impro workshops at the Oval House. These were based on a free form approach, but not your stereotypical "squeaky bonk" fast loud random brash anarchic that so many people associate with free jazz.

There were various disciplines and pieces were often based around very minimalist concepts of using just a few notes (not a hundred miles from what Wayne is talking about).

What it helped me was thinking melodically without (or before) any harmonic constraints. If you aren't thinking too much about playing notes that are "correct" within harmony, but notes that follow from the previous and into the next. As with Wayne's #1 exercise "You are on a path towards rewiring your brain"

And of course this approach can then be used along with concepts of harmony.

Of course, this purely melodic appproach is almost forced on you when playing one chord modal jazz, pop, funk etc. although it's one step closer to playing harmonic chord progressions as there is one chord or scale that is there as a backbone - but as you don't have to think t about what chord is coming up next, your brain is free to think about melody and intervals
 

Halfers

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#10
I've found that my ear for music and my 'musicality' has been super charged over the last Year or so of starting on the Sax. As a singer (with a small 's') I thought I had a reasonable ear, but for some reason, I've always struggled to find my way around a melody on a Guitar fret board or a piano keyboard, despite owning and playing both guitar and Piano for many Years. Something about the Sax has opened up my ability to pick up a tune in my head and although my technical Sax ability has a long way to go, my ability to think of a tune in my head and then play it on the sax has come on leaps and bounds.

The more I play this fine instrument, the more I want to just play the thing, without having to think about theoretical constraints (learn scales etc). I appreciate the importance of musical theory, and my knowledge is improving, but really as a result of letting the horn blow, rather than studiously following a theoretical approach. I think I'm finally becoming comfortable with this (and also the acceptance that I'm a musician! A concept I think I struggled with getting to grips with in the past).

The four note exercise above is as much a rhythmical exercise, as a note playing one. It's a great opportunity to have a blast, just creating riffs and expressions.
 

Keep Blowing

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#11
Thanks "Keep Blowing" for your interest and pertinent question. These exercises are the result of trying a number of techniques. It's aimed at those who are "auditory" in their learning, so will not necessarily work for everybody. The majority of people learn visually, but may have some auditory ability. I've never tried to expose a large number of people to these sorts of exercises. In a "one on one" situation it's easy to gauge responses and whether someone is auditory in their learning and how fast they can progress. The previous post was an attempt to let people screen themselves so that they don't be come frustrated. The exercises are difficult enough, even if you are an auditory person.

The technique that's being tried is a synthesis of relearning music bit by bit in the way a child learns language. There are exercises that require aural copying and anticipation. The other part of this is developing an association between sound and the keys played on the instrument. There are bits of teaching borrowed from neural linguistic programming which attempts to "rewire" thinking and response patterns. There are also vague aspects of Suzuki technique, but modified to achieve the specific goal of playing by ear.

I wish I could say this has been happening for decades, but it hasn't. It's still a work in progress, yet those who can already play by ear will usually recognize aspects of this that could be useful and possibly a shortcut through the use of more directed exercises. There are some conservatory programmes with vaguely similar studies/exercises. However it's certainly not the standard way most people are taught to play or improvise. It will be interesting to see how this works via the detached world of written language as compared to a person to person contact.

The standard method of teaching (in western cultures) is to learn to read music along with learning an instrument. This is primarily an eye to hand/fingers relationship and leaves out the auditory component except as a result. With a lot of practice some students can make the auditory connection, but it's not the primary goal of most music teaching. These exercises are a directed effort to increase composition/melodic thinking and make an auditory connection between your inner voice and the instrument. It's not a mutually exclusive way of playing, but could be considered highly desirable by some players.
Thanks for the Reply Wade,. It deserves a bit more than a quick thank you, I will reply again soon when I have a bit more time
 

altissimo

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#12
This is really useful advice, and is great to have exercises that extend beyond the typical formulaic approaches of scales/chord theory etc.

One thing that I believe really helped me when I was starting out were impro workshops at the Oval House. These were based on a free form approach, but not your stereotypical "squeaky bonk" fast loud random brash anarchic that so many people associate with free jazz.

There were various disciplines and pieces were often based around very minimalist concepts of using just a few notes (not a hundred miles from what Wayne is talking about).

What it helped me was thinking melodically without (or before) any harmonic constraints. If you aren't thinking too much about playing notes that are "correct" within harmony, but notes that follow from the previous and into the next. As with Wayne's #1 exercise "You are on a path towards rewiring your brain"

And of course this approach can then be used along with concepts of harmony.

Of course, this purely melodic appproach is almost forced on you when playing one chord modal jazz, pop, funk etc. although it's one step closer to playing harmonic chord progressions as there is one chord or scale that is there as a backbone - but as you don't have to think t about what chord is coming up next, your brain is free to think about melody and intervals
just one question - who's Wayne?
 

Wade Cornell

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#15
I've found that my ear for music and my 'musicality' has been super charged over the last Year or so of starting on the Sax. As a singer (with a small 's') I thought I had a reasonable ear, but for some reason, I've always struggled to find my way around a melody on a Guitar fret board or a piano keyboard, despite owning and playing both guitar and Piano for many Years. Something about the Sax has opened up my ability to pick up a tune in my head and although my technical Sax ability has a long way to go, my ability to think of a tune in my head and then play it on the sax has come on leaps and bounds.

The more I play this fine instrument, the more I want to just play the thing, without having to think about theoretical constraints (learn scales etc). I appreciate the importance of musical theory, and my knowledge is improving, but really as a result of letting the horn blow, rather than studiously following a theoretical approach. I think I'm finally becoming comfortable with this (and also the acceptance that I'm a musician! A concept I think I struggled with getting to grips with in the past).

The four note exercise above is as much a rhythmical exercise, as a note playing one. It's a great opportunity to have a blast, just creating riffs and expressions.
It's often said that the sax is the closest instrument to the human voice. And that's pretty true (but the duduk
View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5tcbD5in7k
is even more like the voice). You are using your breath the same way and creating dynamics through more or less breath as well as changing tone/timbre with your oral cavity. The sound and tone starts with you. Guitar and piano are strictly mechanical instruments that require mechanical solutions for you to give the same sort of expression...much more difficult.

Singers already have music they can hear in their heads...no other way to sing! So the exercise becomes being able to match what you can hear with the mechanical side of the sax. It's a joy when this can happen, but it usually takes quite a while. For me it was certainly years of improvisation practice and counting down by percentage of right/wrong notes. I got stuck for quite a while at around 95% accuracy, which sounds good, but means in an ordinary 3 1/2 minute tune you may have played 4 to 10 wrong notes. Not good enough! Fortunately I got better, but also learned how to "cover" a wrong note with what followed...but that's best left for much later discussions.

I also used to be a singer. It potentially gives you a big advantage. It's also why many of these exercises push people to always hear what they wish to play (whether they can actually sing or not).
 

Pete Thomas

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#16
It's often said that the sax is the closest instrument to the human voice. And that's pretty true (but the duduk...
I misread that at first to be:
"It's often said that the sax is the closest instrument to the human voice. And that's pretty true as well as the duck.."

I can relate to that every time I pick up my soprano.
 
Last edited:

Alice

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#17
misread that at first to be:
"It's often said that the sax is the closest instrument to the human voice. And that's pretty true as well as the duck.."
My eyes are terrible! I read it as;

"It's often said that the sax is the closest instrument to the human voice. And that's pretty true as well as the DavidUK”
 

Halfers

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#19
Guitar and piano are strictly mechanical instruments that require mechanical solutions for you to give the same sort of expression...much more difficult.
That's true, but playing the sax has also had the knock on affect of improving my ability to pick up melodies on the Piano also (I don't play much guitar these days). I think it's that process of having to hear the note before playing it. I don't think I ever got into the habit of doing that before playing the Sax.
 
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