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Linking thinking to a note or sequence

DavidUK

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I only thought about this last night...

If I know a tune, I can think it and sing it simultaneously, hitting every note perfectly in my mind and then through my voice.

When I play sax, I find a tune to play, find the sheet music, read the music, translate that via conscious thought into what keys to press, and play the tune after many attempts and practice.

I can play a few songs on the sax without sheet music, as they're quite simple. I'm not really thinking about what I'm doing and the tune plays. Is that repetition? Or just thinking the notes? Or is it my fingers that have remembered the song?

What I'm getting at is that I'd love to be able to hear a familiar song, one I could sing without sheet music, think "I'd like to play that", hear it in my head, pick up the sax, and as I'm thinking the song through... just play the notes. In other words, I could play any sequence of notes just by playing the tune in my head and it coming out at my fingers. No sheet music, No thinking about where to put my fingers. I'd be controlling the muscles in my fingers with my mind in precisely the same way I can control the muscles in my mouth/throat with my mind at present in order to sing.

Occasionally my brain gets frazzled and loses the plot when I'm following sheet music. My brain hasn't a clue what I should be playing but I still hit the right notes. My tutor put this down to finger memory, but I'm not sure how it happens. I'm certainly not thinking the notes when this happens so it may not be relevant here.

Am I correct in thinking there are many experienced saxophonists who can just "think and play", and does this come automatically with years of playing or is there some short cut to learning how to do it?

Hope you can understand what I'm getting at!
 

JayeNM

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"Many experienced saxophonists who can...." ?

I would say no. I would say a quite large %age of musicians can actually hear (or conjure) a song, sing or hum it back well.

I would say it'd be a quite small %age of players who could hear a tune, hum it, then play it on their axe without taking a minute or so to fumble thru some wrong notes before landing in the right ones and getting it under their fingers.
 

jbtsax

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I know exactly what you mean. My understanding of this ability or skill has to do with thinking in terms of the intervals of songs and more importantly a thorough mastery of the scales and arpeggios on your instrument. I can do this better in some keys than others. Of course you have to start with easy tunes and then work your way up to the ones that are more complex. Once you learn a song this way taking it to other keys is a great exercise to begin to think in terms of intervals.

Take Somewhere Over the Rainbow for example. If one thinks of the tune in terms of notes of the scale through solfege or numbers then picking up your instrument and playing it in any key is possible. You can "hear" and your fingers "know" where do re mi fa sol la ti do of that scale are.

Sol sol ti sol la ti do do la sol, la fa mi do re mi fa re ti do re mi do. Sol mi sol mi sol mi sol fa sol fa sol fa sol fa sol la la. . .sol mi sol mi sol mi sol mi sol fi la fi la fi la fi la ti ti re la. . .(back to the beginning)

[ Disclaimer: I am way out of practice doing this and writing out "Somewhere" in solfege was not as smooth and forthcoming as it used to be }
 

Wade Cornell

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You may want to take the
One minute improvisation aptitude test
and then check

Improvisation by ear 101
Both of these are under the section Improv and Theory and are endorsed by Pete Thomas. This directly addresses your question and gives some exercises you could start with.
 

Tenor Viol

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It’s a variation on the ‘playing by ear’ debate. I think there are two parts here. One is being able to ‘hear’ and respond with the interval. Kodály technique can help with that. You also need to understand unconsciously that say a 5th up from F is C to be able to translate that on the sax. You need to understand the relationships between all notes. As a cellist you kind of have to do it. It’s fretless and it’s a mix of understanding relationships and recognising where notes are...
 

Keep Blowing

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I know exactly what you mean. My understanding of this ability or skill has to do with thinking in terms of the intervals of songs and more importantly a thorough mastery of the scales and arpeggios on your instrument. I can do this better in some keys than others. Of course you have to start with easy tunes and then work your way up to the ones that are more complex. Once you learn a song this way taking it to other keys is a great exercise to begin to think in terms of intervals.

Take Somewhere Over the Rainbow for example. If one thinks of the tune in terms of notes of the scale through solfege or numbers then picking up your instrument and playing it in any key is possible. You can "hear" and your fingers "know" where do re mi fa sol la ti do of that scale are.

Sol sol ti sol la ti do do la sol, la fa mi do re mi fa re ti do re mi do. Sol mi sol mi sol mi sol fa sol fa sol fa sol fa sol la la. . .sol mi sol mi sol mi sol mi sol fi la fi la fi la fi la ti ti re la. . .(back to the beginning)

[ Disclaimer: I am way out of practice doing this and writing out "Somewhere" in solfege was not as smooth and forthcoming as it used to be }

I am struggling to put this over in a comprehensible way but:
If a person can sing a song they hear without knowing any scales or arpeggios, presuming they know where all the notes are on their instrument, why can't they play what they hear.
 

Halfers

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I'm beginning to count myself lucky, in that I find it relatively easy to pick up lyrical lines and follow them through without having to rely on written music. I'm talking contemporary 'pop' music, on the whole and I'm not talking immediate note for note performance. I'm prone to many errors, but the gradual revealing of a tune that comes into my head, gives me much musical pleasure.

I find that because of the limited range of the sax, it helps to hone down where a melody starts on the horn. Does it sound like the first note is in the first first register? next question, does it sound like the 'upper' first register, or perhaps the lower second register? That should find me the first note of the melody, then work from there.

Many times I am noodling around (noodling is a regular constructive part of my practice regime) and I play an interval that brings to mind a tune. I then try and extend that to working out the melody. This process then generally 'reveals' the scale that the melody is based on. From experience there are certain intervals that I just struggle to hear, and they tend to throw me completely. When I get to a point where I have to stumble through chromatic intervals to find the right note, this shoves me completely off track and I then usually have to listen to that part of the song to get me back on track. I imagine, I am running out of my current abilities, however, I am pretty confident that through practice and repetition and continually challenging myself, this will improve.

The above doesn't quite address @DavidUK 's point about hearing a note and immediately playing the correct one, but I think it's a step in the right direction. Also, pick up the horn, mentally step back from playing and just blow and allow yourself to play any note on the sax, then another and listen to what is being played. Sometimes the intervals are attractive and nice to hear, others not so. After a period of playing like this, try to lead the next note in your head without worrying if the note you actually play resembles the note you thought of. Most of the time (for me), I don't quite hit my mental mark, but often the note that emits is as nice, or even nicer than the one I thought of (and sometimes, of course, the note played doesn't sound too good). The key, I think is not to get bogged down in whether you hit your mental note or note. Just play and see what happens.
 

saxyjt

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Nick Wyver

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I am struggling to put this over in a comprehensible way but:
If a person can sing a song they hear without knowing any scales or arpeggios, presuming they know where all the notes are on their instrument, why can't they play what they hear.
To do that you need perfect pitch. Most people don't have it.
 

Keep Blowing

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To do that you need perfect pitch. Most people don't have it.
My understanding of perfect pitch is: If a person hears any random note, they can recognise it, for instance if you walk into a bar and a Piano player hits a C, you know it is a C.. That isn't the same as someone playing a C and you knowing what a D sounds like, surely that is relative pitch. (that's the angle I am coming from).
 

Ivan

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If a person can sing a song they hear without knowing any scales or arpeggios, presuming they know where all the notes are on their instrument, why can't they play what they hear
Perhaps because they've been practicing on the voicebox a lot more, a lot longer, from an earlier age and using a different group of muscles than the sax?
 

jbtsax

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I am struggling to put this over in a comprehensible way but:
If a person can sing a song they hear without knowing any scales or arpeggios, presuming they know where all the notes are on their instrument, why can't they play what they hear.
I believe the answer has to do with the fact that most songs are based upon a given key. That key may have any number of flats or sharps or none at all in the case of C. Having the scale of that key memorized and "under your fingers" helps to hone in on the next note of the tune from the one you are on.
 

JayeNM

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I am struggling to put this over in a comprehensible way but:
If a person can sing a song they hear without knowing any scales or arpeggios, presuming they know where all the notes are on their instrument, why can't they play what they hear.
I am going to provide a different answer....

The reason folks can listen to a tune then hum or sing it and get it pretty much right is that they are not consciously considering what intervals the song is moving to from note to note. Most of these people couldn't even tell you what an interval is.

But when you translate it to playing your instrument, most players consciously have to think (or 'guess') what the interval might be, then take a shot at playing it. Or perhaps it is another learned, music-related association one is making.
For some players, that guess process can be very fast; others notsomuch.


There's an added step to the process in b).

Consider this: you are in an argument ....and the other person says something you consider outrageous. If you lose your cool, you may mock the comment by repeating it back to them in the exact same elocution. exact same pitch.

We can do this ....without even 'thinking'. We can do this immediately, really.

But, if you had your horn in your hand when they said this...you would likely not be able to play the pitches of the offending comment back to them, dead on...without hitting at least one or two clunkers....

Perhaps because they've been practicing on the voicebox a lot more, a lot longer, from an earlier age .....

Absolutely part of it.
 
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Dibbs

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I am struggling to put this over in a comprehensible way but:
If a person can sing a song they hear without knowing any scales or arpeggios, presuming they know where all the notes are on their instrument, why can't they play what they hear.

Part of it is that you hear and sing relative pitches rather than absolute ones. They all feel the same to sing (other than running out of range) but they feel very different to play. In other words you have press the relevant keys to go from say G to D and different ones for Ab to Eb rather than having a "go up a 5th" button. That alone makes it 12 times harder. to do on an instrument.
 

jbtsax

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I have a good friend who is a professional player whom I have watched transcribe a difficult solo one measure at a time for the most part hearing it once and then writing it down. I have also played "call and response" with him working on trading fours while improvising to changes in a tune. There are very few things I can play that he can't mimic right back to me with complete accuracy. When I ask him how he does those amazing things, he just says I practiced 3 or 4 hours a day all through college and I still practice 1 or 2 hours every day on a regular basis. I'm starting to think that "practice" might have something to do with it. ;)

He was also transcribing Dexter Gordon solos while still in Junior High so I suspect some inherent talent also has something to do with it.
 

spike

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In my opinion yer all making this a bit too complicated.
Most Musicians that I've worked with who had so called perfect pitch have never seemed to be able to improvise fluently and freely.
But that's another topic for discussion. Those with so-called relative pitch who've done nothing else day in day out for years and years just hear it. They don't need to know what key it's in, they don't even need to know the chord sequence.
If you play all kinds of music whatever your preferred genre every day for years and years your brain will automatically learn to recognise pitches and intervals. It will learn to recognise the most common key centers and chord changes.
With reference to @jbtsax 's post - ( and I agree ) to my mind "Practice and repetition" just might have something to do with it ;)
 

DavidUK

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I think it's a combination of what Spike, Ivan, and JBT are saying...

The reason we can mimic a tune is that we've been practising with our voices for decades, every hour of every day.

If we held a sax for so long, and had to speak only through our fingers, in song, we'd all be as fluent and our brains would control our fingers just as they do our voices, without thought or hesitation.

A child is taught to speak new words and to sing using books and pictures - their "sheet music", so is there a way we can be taught to play without all the "nonsense" of our sheet music or do we too have to go through this stage for many years, as we did as a child learning to talk and sing? Should I try to practice without any sheet music, just trying to hit every note in a new song which is firmly in my head? Even if, after many hours, I'd perfected this one song it doesn't mean I'd be any better at a different song. But "knowing" the new notes might be marginally faster for each subsequent one until, one day, I can hit every note of a new tune perfectly first time. Wouldn't that be great!

Should I throw away my sheet music and strive for perfection along this different road?
 

Halfers

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Should I throw away my sheet music and strive for perfection along this different road?

If you want to. But having both skills is surely beneficial? FWIW I think learning one song by ear has a positive effect on learning further songs by ear. For one, you've got the experience of learning one song by ear. You're telling yourself you're capable of doing it. I think there is a lot in that.
 

jbtsax

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Should I throw away my sheet music and strive for perfection along this different road?
Reading music and playing by ear are both important to becoming a well rounded musician. Rather than pick one or the other I would suggest trying to find a balance that works for you.
 

jazzdoh

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I think it's a combination of what Spike, Ivan, and JBT are saying...

The reason we can mimic a tune is that we've been practising with our voices for decades, every hour of every day.

If we held a sax for so long, and had to speak only through our fingers, in song, we'd all be as fluent and our brains would control our fingers just as they do our voices, without thought or hesitation.

A child is taught to speak new words and to sing using books and pictures - their "sheet music", so is there a way we can be taught to play without all the "nonsense" of our sheet music or do we too have to go through this stage for many years, as we did as a child learning to talk and sing? Should I try to practice without any sheet music, just trying to hit every note in a new song which is firmly in my head? Even if, after many hours, I'd perfected this one song it doesn't mean I'd be any better at a different song. But "knowing" the new notes might be marginally faster for each subsequent one until, one day, I can hit every note of a new tune perfectly first time. Wouldn't that be great!

Should I throw away my sheet music and strive for perfection along this different road?
I think you are right with this David
We use our voice/ear/brain from birth and use it for best part of 15 hours a day, this is why we are able to better use it for songs/tunes recall, although not everybody can sing in tune, in our minds it is perfect.
 
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