The world of jazz can be an intimidating place for beginner musicians. Well, let’s be honest, it can be intimidating for advanced musicians too! Improvisation is an integral part of jazz that sets in apart from other genres but often people think that you fit in one of two camps: “musicians who can improvise”, and “musicians who can’t”. Fortunately though, improvisation is actually a skill that can be learned.
If you are a total beginner to jazz improvisation check out our previous tutorial on getting started improvising jazz for a summary of the basics.
We asked 13 of the top professional jazz musicians and educators:
“What ear training advice would you give to someone just starting out with jazz improvisation?”
These experts have studied and taught at the best music schools. They have written books on jazz, they run the most popular jazz education websites, and they have performed with some of the all-time jazz “greats”.
Read on to discover their insights on why ear training is so important, and which specific ideas, tools and exercises you should use to develop your own jazz improvisation skills.
- Martan Mann (JazzSkills for Piano)
- Matt Warnock (Matt Warnock Guitar)
- Denis DiBlasio (The Maynard Ferguson Institute of Jazz)
- William Flynn (Wichita State University)
- Mike Lebrun (The Woodshed)
- Chris Cooke (LearnJazzFaster.com)
- Dr. Ed Byrne (Byrne Jazz)
- Mark Meronek (Pianobreaks.com)
- Julian Bradley (Jazz Tutorial)
- Willie Thomas (JazzEveryone.com)
- Marc-Andrew Seguin (JazzGuitarLessons.net)
- Steve Nixon (FreeJazzLessons.com)
- Camden Hughes (Learn Jazz Standards)
Martan Mann (JazzSkills for Piano)
Ear training begins with the ability to recognize and label sounds and emotions. I recommend that you start by training yourself to name intervals. You can do this by thinking of the beginning intervals of various songs in all keys. If you know the names of the interval for each corresponding song, then you can recognize and name them when you recognize hearing the song’s first two notes.
Here’s a useful exercise: play a Dominant Seventh to Major (or Minor) Triad over and over in every inversion and in every key. The V7 to I resolution is the Authentic Cadence in classical training. Play any tones of the chord across the entire keyboard until you can easily recognize the emotion and tension release in any song. This is everywhere in music.
Matt Warnock (Matt Warnock Guitar)
This may seem like a strange answer, but improvising from memory rather than looking at a written chart is the best approach to ear training for beginning jazzers.
When people make mistakes and they’re reading, they look “outside” themselves for the answer, on the page. But if they’re playing from memory they look to their ears, “inside” themselves for the answer.
It may seem like a small thing, but this approach builds a solid foundation between a player’s ears and hands, one they can build upon when they get into transcribing and other advanced ear training exercises.
Denis DiBlasio (Maynard Ferguson Institute of Jazz)
Be able to hear intervals.
How do you do that?
Play a simple melody slowly in different keys (or just starting on different notes). This helps the inner ear learn to “take aim” at the next note. This works like a skeet shooter aiming and firing at a flying clay pigeon.
Doing this technique slowly allows the next note to sound internally in the inner ear, becoming the target. Your instrument is the gun that shoots and hits that target. With practice this skill improves until the target can be hit directly almost every time. Many players are really great – and I mean really great – at this!
This is the type of ear training that helps a player survive in the real playing world. If you can recognise intervals and hear a melody you can get to the point where you can easily play that melody in all keys.
→ Learn more about intervals
William Flynn (Wichita State University)
For anyone new to jazz improvising, I would advise he or she transcribe jazz solos as often as possible.
In the same way that a fluent speaker of German has ears that are familiar with the German language, to be a successful jazz improviser, one must have ears that are familiar with the musical language of jazz.
Jazz musicians gain this aural familiarity through critically listening to solos by great jazz improvisers, slowly figuring out (through trial-and-error) what notes the improviser is playing, and then playing the newly-learned phrases of the solo back while listening to the recording.
This process not only trains the musician’s ears and hands to recognize, recall, and execute authentic-sounding jazz vocabulary, but also teaches the musician how to play that jazz vocabulary.
Much of the magic in a great jazz solo comes not from the notes themselves, but from the ways in which the notes are played. Great jazz improvisers make their solos come to life through the ways in which they articulate their notes, dynamically contour their lines, and (above all) swing their eighth notes!
These are very subtle (yet powerful!) elements of the music that can only be internalized through listening to and mimicking great jazz improvisers.
→ Learn more about transcription
Mike Lebrun (The Woodshed)
As an improviser, your ear is your most important tool. If you can hear it, and I mean really hear it, chances are you are going to be able to play it.
Hours and hours of listening to jazz, both actively and passively, will allow you to start hearing the language in a meaningful way, and there’s no substitute or shortcuts here.
If you’re just starting out, the 12-bar blues provides an incredible foundation. It’s the most commonly played chord progression in jazz. When you’re listening to music, try to pick out these blues-based tunes. Once you’re comfortable identifying a blues progression, transcribe (meaning write down and learn to play) a few basic and short blues solos that resonate with you. Sit with your teacher of a seasoned jazz player and analyze the harmonic function of each note and phrase.
Once you understand the basic outline of the blues, you’ll discover there are lots of different ways to play the blues. Listen for the details: are they playing a ii–V going into the IV chord? How are they treating the 6th bar – sticking on the IV, going to the ♭5 diminished, or moving to minor 4 (then dominant flat 7)?
Being able to identify the blues variations instantly by sound is going to do wonders for your harmonic ear, and it will lay the groundwork to hear and play over more complicated tunes down the road.
→ Learn more about the 12-bar blues
Chris Cooke (LearnJazzFaster.com)
Note: Chris shared five excellent tips with us for starting out with jazz improvisation. Here are just two of them, and look out for a full guest post from Chris coming soon with the full set!
The first and perhaps most important thing for any musician to do is to understand that music is the art form of the ear. Developing your musical ear is your most important priority.
If you’re a beginner improviser, you’re actually in a great place. To “play what you hear” it’s best to start by playing very simple ideas and not getting carried away with your physical or theoretical chops.
Tip 1: Learn the music you love.
Don’t worry about learning every detail from beginning to end. Learn bits and pieces of the music you love by ear from the recording.
Completely internalize these bits and pieces with as much detail as possible until you can hear and play them auto-magically without thinking.
If you’re just starting out, don’t choose Coltrane or Wes Montgomery. Find something that you can actually wrap your ears around. Start with just two notes if that’s what you can hear. But start somewhere and regularly assimilate music that you dig and make it into your own vocabulary.
Tip 2: Follow Your Ear.
Practice letting your ear guide your playing while improvising. This means you’ll have to keep it simple.
You can try playing completely free to experience this: that means no form, no time, no meter, no rules.
Or, you can simplify the context you’re improvising on to experience this: play on just one chord, use just one or two notes, use a preset rhythm, slow it down, play each chord for four bars instead of one, etc.
Do anything it takes to find “the edge of your ability”. That place where it’s challenging – but doable.
Dr. Ed Byrne (Byrne Jazz)
Make yourself aware of the sounds around you by transcribing TV commercials, traffic jams, bird calls, and the cricket symphony in your back yard. Transcribe them in your head with solfeggio, which in a single syllable identifies the hierarchical relationship of each and every note in relation to the Tonic (do) of the key (i.e. its interval).
1. Internalizing Intervals
One method of learning intervals is to concentrate on the sound quality of the interval, the way it rings and resonates—its timbre. Another way is to identify intervals by using famous tunes you know.
Solfeggio is the best tool for internalizing intervals. The beauty of solfeggio is in its naming of the relationship of each and every note within the key—in a single syllable. For example, Te says “Minor seventh of the key”. Sing solos with it too: Start with small phrases, whatever you can handle, and go from there.
Singing will act directly as an adjunct in the service of your instrument, as should also the keyboard. Many believe they are incapable of it, because they haven’t yet done it, or they had a bad vocal music teacher in school—and it does take time to develop these skills. We all, however, must use our voices for tonal memory, learning vocabulary, and ultimately for communicating musical ideas to other musicians.
Practice singing intervals at the keyboard or with the guitar, and carry a pitch pipe with you. Play the intervals up and down throughout the entire range of your instrument. Sing it and it will gradually become internalized. Do this with every interval. After a while you won’t have to calculate at all.
Apply this process to each of the four triad and twelve seventh-chord types; repeatedly sing each chordal arpeggio. Memorize how each sounds in every key. Learn the harmonic clichés in the same manner. Improvise on all of the above. Create 4-measure phrases. Mix all this up until it swings and feels like music.