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Improvising by Ear

jbtsax

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This probably goes without saying, but the step before the first step learning to improvise has to be knowing your way around the instrument. By this I mean learning to play the scales and arpeggios in all 12 keys. Hearing notes in your head and knowing what intervals they are from the preceding notes won't do you much good if you don't know what keys to press. ;)

Improvising on piano is relatively easy by comparison . You can see all of the notes and the intervals in front of you and using the right finger(s) isn't that important (till you get really fast). The saxophone on the other hand takes a bit more work and practice. However, using the mind and the "ear" are exactly the same.
 
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Wade Cornell

Wade Cornell

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Some interesting views coming forward. As Clivey intimates there is no one real way to do anything. Whatever the player wishes to play, whether they can hear it in their heads or not doesn't matter. If they are enjoying themselves and the process, then that's got to be good.

There is a misconception that goes something like this Jazz = improvisation and improvisation = jazz. Well the first statement is in some doubt since going back to the 1920s they played what they called jazz, but there was not necessarily any improvisation. The second statement (improv = jazz) is definitely not true. Improvisation can be used in any style of music. Once again you can check the Wikiloops files and find tracks in many different styles and all have been played as improvisations.

This post is simply a flag to players wishing to learn how to improvise. Improvisation is most often taught as strictly an academic exercise. That is not necessarily a criticism, it's just a reality. How do you teach creativity? Creativity can be encouraged, but by definition one can't say do this, which when copied = creativity. There is potentially a parallel path in which a player (who has the ability to hear the music they wish to play), can exercise this. It shouldn't be taken as a threat to any particular style. Improvisation is not limited to one style of music. It doesn't replace music education, learning how to play an instrument, read music or anything else. It's a parallel process in which the player works to make a direct connection between what they hear and making it come out of their instrument. Simple as that...but not an instant process. It can take years.

We are what we practice and play. If one learns to play in one style using one set of parameters, then the outcome is rather predictable. If that is exactly what that person wanted to sound like, then there is no problem. As Pete Effamy says he is surprised at the lack of listening in students. This also means that they may not have any fixed idea of what they would like to play or sound like. Good music education (IMHO) means that a wide range of music is presented. This is your memory's palate of colors. Teaching an instrument doesn't have to be a matter of teaching one style or "vocabulary". As jbtsax indicates we need learn to use the tool., but beyond that lies a whole world of music. Are we teaching and preparing students for that wider world? Have we helped open the minds of talented players to tap into their creativity?
 

Zugzwang

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his probably goes without saying, but the step before the first step learning to improvise has to be knowing your way around the instrument. By this I mean learning to play the scales and arpeggios in all 12 keys. Hearing notes in your head and knowing what intervals they are from the preceding notes won't do you much good if you don't know what keys to press.
Blimey gov, I sure don’t want to go up against you @jbtsax (here comes the but)
But knowing what keys to press to make all the notes is essential - after that, (as an ear player) you don’t need to ‘know’ anything, any more than you need to know what an adjective or a dangling participle is to have a conversation… or be Shakespeare.
 

randulo

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I must concur with @Zugzwang on this one, I was surprised by the "all 12 keys scales and arpeggios". I never knew all that on any instrument. Well, I know as in "understand how intervals work", but I can't play those on demand nor do I care to. What I do want, is to play what I hear and I believe that's the main part of the art called "Improvisation by ear".

I tremble at the thought of a scalding reply for going against your authority and obvious generosity, @jbtsax, but one must be honest with friends. >:)
 

Pete Effamy

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I surmise that @jbtsax was brought up on learning the scales and arpeggios like me. If you are, it's hard to see past that. A good or great player that says they don't know them (or never "learned them so they can't know them") - surely you just know them but ended up knowing them in another way - i.e. over time by ear. Louis Armstrong knew nothing of music theory, and so will say that he didn't know, say, F# - but he clearly did!

Anyway - we learn differently, we all know that. Self-taught musicians have the "luxury" of not being shepherded. Both good and bad in that, depending upon who you are. Mind you, all these great "self-taught" players - they lived amongst and played with lots of others, continually hearing and learning...
 

randulo

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Yes, this discussion is very simplified. If anyone has read many of my comments, it should be obvious I studied harmony and composition, but still can not sight read. But in the context of this thread, "Improvising by Ear", I must say, there are people who know absolutely nothing about music, other than what they hear in their head, and who have almost no technique other than to play those sounds that they hear in their head. So, in my opinion and experience, music is not related to theory unless you see it that way, which is a fine and honorable approach. But music theory came after music itself. No one sat down, wrote a piece and then said, "I hereby declare this to be music".

I have already agreed though, that to make music, the music you want to make, you need to know where each sound is on a given instrument... more or less.
 

jbtsax

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In my defense, what I was trying to get across is that in order to improvise or even play music, one must know their way around the instrument---in other words know it's "geography". Getting the patterns of notes commonly found in music under your fingers on your instrument by practicing scales and arpeggios is just one (time tested) way to accomplish that.

Improvising or reading "charts" requires a level of technique on the instrument sufficient to play either what's in your head or what's written on paper in front of you, Granted there are folks whose goal is simply to have fun and play a few songs they like, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. That, of course, does not require the same level of technique as the player whose goal is to be able to play anything in their head or any piece of music in front of them.

If mastering the major scales seems to be an insurmountable task, remember there are only 12 (actually 15, but 3 are enharmonically the same). They can be practiced one a week, and going around the circle of 5ths only one note changes from one scale to the next.
 
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randulo

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In my defense
You need no defense, sir! If backed into a corner, I will agree that knowing that stuff is a good thing. I wouldn't limit it to 12 major scales (which conveniently covers the 12 aeolian relative minors as well). I would add the various augmented and diminished arpeggios, the two whole tone scales and the hundreds of one-note symmetric interpolations and extrapolations enumerated by Nicolas Slonimsky. (Among these are found the very common whole-half dim scales used in nearly every jazz tune ever. Once you have that under the fingers, you can move on to the two- and three-note versions. And why should the good old chromatic scale be ignored, for that matter. All of that will help learn the geometry of these amazing machines. :sax:
 
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Wade Cornell

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Got to have a laugh here as there continues to be a major misconception that improvisation = jazz. Modes are not just Dorian, Phrygian , Lydian, etc. There are thousands of modes. Indian music has ragas that are essentially modes... around 10,000 of them! There are lots of middle eastern modes as well. Europe has a bunch of them like Hungarian minor, Verbunkos, etc. and then there are Asian pentatonics...which are NOT all the same. Playing by ear isn't just about jazz and playing a sax isn't just about jazz or classical. There's a big world of music out there besides those two categories and you don't need to go "exotic" to find it. Just turn on the radio and check how many stations play just jazz or classical. So if you want to play music professionally how prepared are you for that real world when the majority of jobs are not in either of those genres? Pete Thomas has certainly made it clear that the jobs he's landed they weren't looking for jazz or classical chops.

Bands that intend to play original music generally form around one or two players who come up with a basic song/tune. What happens from there is that they invite in other players (bass, drums... sax?). Who need to bring their abilities to that group WITHOUT their having written parts. So who gets the work? A sax player who demands a chart and only wants to play jazz licks when it's pop or rock music?

The guy who can play by ear and has the wider musical vocabulary is going to be the winner, even if he isn't as technically proficient as the Jazzer. What's needed in most music is a fit, not a one dimensional primadona. None of that negates the need to study, listen, and understand music, it comes down to what you play and what you practice. If you're wearing audio blinkers and have narrowed yourself into one style, especially if it's a style that's way oversupplied (jazz and classical) then you've also narrowed your possibilities. The player who can step in and play the wider range by ear is going to get the calls. Again...just ask Pete.
 

randulo

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The person who can say something great with a single note shouldn't be forgotten. Albert king used about three notes in most everything including The Very Thought of You, which has other than straight blues changes :)
 

randulo

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This is far from being the first discussion of the nature of learning to improvise music. I believe in the past, we have agreed that improvising at its best is spontaneous composition. When we talk about jazz, we are talking about a form of music that is primarily less than a century old. Over that century, jazz has moved from Dixieland and blues, to bebop, to modal, to funk and now to whatever new variations there are. There are some good players who are so ensconced in the standard jazz culture, that they'll always end up playing some conventional jazz-blues things in music that needs something else. On the other end of the scale, there are players who will always play the most out there stuff in places where it cold have been standard. This is mostly a matter of taste, what they "heard" in their heads, but improvised.

Today, the need for music is not so much in the orchestra pit or the bar, but in videos or from DJs. Putting aside the issue of money and earning a living, just to play anywhere requires a different set of skills. Remember movie scores of the 1950's? Composers had their score played by an actual orchestra. Today, it's all synthetic, and more hip hop than Herrmann.

How does improvisation relate to this?

I think we should look at what will be wanted from now into the future. Aside from the music, it clear to me that anyone who wants to produce or be a part of music will need some extra-musical skills, like editing, mixing, exchanging music with distant collaborators, and sometimes the ability to expose their product on social media, or possibly, to sell it on the numerous Internet outlets.

What musical skills will be valuable from now onward?

Reading is a great thing for learning, and it is very important for preparing high-level jobs, such as touring with performers like Chick Corea, but also with locals who have a book. None of this is part of my world. I have never had a job that required reading skills beyond being able to follow a chord chart, but I've worked with many musicians who have. How many positions of that nature, paid or unpaid, are there out there now?

I'd conclude on "improvising by ear" by saying that it will likely be the most widely needed skill going forward, combined with the ability to virtually mingle on social networks, be generous and personable in the real world and possess at least some of the technical understanding I mentioned above. "Improvising by ear" might even be better defined as follows:

Improvising by ear: Using a sufficient understanding of the instrument and an awareness of the musical context and culture, the ability to comfortably play in any circumstance. This requires a sense that taking part in the organised sound of any size group is not solely a matter of playing the right notes in tune that relate to the harmony and rhythm, but also knowing when to play and when not to play and how many notes to play. One of the pitfalls of practicing with tracks is the lack of musical interplay with others. Because we spoke of improvisation, the full implications of improvising a solo often require the accompanists to also improvise their response to the soloist. Not all the time, as in New Orleans, but when it matters for rhythmic, melodic or harmonic support. When I think of great live performances, I think of what the others are doing when someone is improvising a solo.

Musical ear is more important the the eyes or the fingers. Exposing your ear to varied music and making a mental note of particular aspects of that music comprise the "interest" to build your "capital" of musical culture. Before anyone brings up Evelyn Glennie, we'll need to realize that the ear itself isn't the only organ that can hear, so by musical ear, we are not talking about the actual ear, but a construct that allows you to absorb music.
 

randulo

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Something else occurred to me Wade said about staying in a tonality, rather than improvising every note. The thing is, that is exactly what drummers and percussionists do. They have a limited scale, albeit with much nuance, just as we have tones and sounds. So, even if you are flapping around in a mode or scale, it's still completely valid as an improvisation assuming you use rhythm to tell the story. Rhythm is the most neglected are of study in these things, but it fortunately comes naturally to many musicians.
 
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Wade Cornell

Wade Cornell

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Something else occurred to me Wade said about staying in a tonality, rather than improvising every note. The thing is, that is exactly what drummers and percussionists do. They have a limited scale, albeit with much nuance, just as we have tones and sounds. So, even if you are flapping around in a mode or scale, it's still completely valid as an improvisation assuming you use rhythm to tell the story. Rhythm is the most neglected are of study in these things, but it fortunately comes naturally to many musicians.
How right you are! Sax players are often taught to use a metronome, which is good for coordinating hands to beats, but "square". Jazz players will be taught to use syncopation, but that's pretty basic compared to what makes for a great groove. You probably already know about how (west) African kids become drummers. They are first encouraged to dance. Rhythm is felt in the body first, then expressed in the hands. One of the most useful and inspirational classes I've taken was with a Ghanaian master drummer who emphasized feeling the rhythm, which is totally different to mechanically matching a metronome. You don't need a whole lot of notes to set up a great groove.
 

randulo

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You don't need a whole lot of notes to set up a great groove.
"It’s all rhythm. Everything is rhythm, man. Vibration. Nothing exists without that." (Jack DeJohnette)

"But it's all rhythm. It's all about the rhythm. And tap dancing—watching great dancers like Bill Robinson at the theater right around the corner from my house, live shows. The chitlin circuit, it was called." (Les McCann)
 

Pete Thomas

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Am I way wrong to assume that the only kind of real improvising by default has to be by ear or it`s not improvisation at all?
Quite possibly.

I think when people say improvising be ear, they mean improvising without thinking about theory. But many people do think about theory and its still improvising if you are composing a melody on the spot IMO.

Impro is just composing on the spot, so just as you can compose something either with reference to theory or without - then it's still composing.
 
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