How to Turn Boring Theory into Your Next Brilliant Solo…

You may think you know music theory. And you’re probably willing to bet good money that you know the chords to your favorite tunes. Most musicians would…Hell, a few years ago I would’ve looked you straight in the eyes and said without a doubt that I knew all the music theory that I need to know.

But here’s the thing – As a performing musician knowing this stuff isn’t good enough…

To create your own music in front of an audience, you have to transform this mental knowledge into living and breathing sound. You need to be able to play it on your instrument.

You need to be able to improvise with it.

And to get there you must do some very specific things…

How to learn anything in 3 steps

In our last post, we uncovered the essential elements of jazz theory that you need to know.

But this information is only useful if you can do something with it in your solos.

Today we’re going to show you how to transform those elements of jazz theory or those tunes you’re learning into usable knowledge. To get you from the point of “knowing it” to the point of improvising with it.

And this process has 3 steps…

For anything that you want to learn the steps are the same: Memorization, Repetition and Visualization.

It could be a scale that you’re learning in your private lessons, a tricky chord in a jazz band chart, or the changes to a tune that you’re desperately trying to learn before a performance…

If you want to master it you’ve got to go through these 3 steps.

3 Steps to Mastering Music Theory

Each step of the process is vitally connected to every other step. To memorize information you need to repeat it over and over again, and to repeat it you must visualize it in your mind…

The goal of this process is to quickly ingrain any musical information you encounter. That way you won’t have to think about the nuts and bolts of music when you perform, you can focus on being creative and having fun.

Let’s break the process down…

I) Memorization

Memorization

You’ve probably memorized multiplication tables in school…

And there was a specific reason for this. When it came to solving complex math problems you could immediately produce a result without spending precious time crunching numbers.

And the same is true for music.

To play a great solo you need to have some basic information ingrained. That way when you’re put on the spot you’re not stuck thinking about the notes of a scale or the names of chords.

This process starts with memorization.

Whether it’s theory, tunes, or the solos you’re transcribing, the goal is to get this information into your ear and your mind. To the point where you can close your eyes, think of it, and play it without any music.

Because I could walk up to you and say “Hey play an Ab major scale” or someone at a jam session could say “Do you know this tune…?” Or you might get handed a solo in the key of C#

In each situation you need to have something to play.

So where do you start?

If you want to have a solid foundation for your solos you should start by memorizing the following information:

Memorize

Think of it like a library of essential information that you can immediately produce in your mind in a split second. It’s the stuff you’re going to rely on when you don’t have any music and don’t know the tune.

But remember, memorization is only step one…

II) Repetition

Musical Repetition

The part of music theory or learning tunes that’s holding most players back is not a mental understanding…

it’s transferring the information to their instruments.

Most players “know” their scales or chords and they can remember the melody to a tune, but they don’t have it to the point where they can improvise solos with them.

You’ve memorized the information, but now it needs to come out of your instrument.

And this comes from repetition.

This part of practicing isn’t glamorous. It’s you in a practice room repeating a musical idea 10, 20, 30 times in a row till you get it right.

Repeating that one scale or chord or melody until you don’t have to think about it, until it’s ingrained in your fingers.

Bruce Lee quote

For example, let’s say that the F#7 chord is giving you some trouble.

Every time you encounter this chord in a tune your mind draws a blank. You can’t see it, you have to think hard about it, and your fingers can’t seem to find the right notes.

F#7

If only you had a minute to think about it you could play something, but when you’re put on the spot in performance you freeze up every time!

Not to worry, here’s how to fix this with repetition…

Breaking down the F#7 Chord

F#7 Intervals

* Repeat each interval until it’s ingrained. Start slowly and gradually increase the tempo. Continue until you can play the entire arpeggio without thinking about the notes.

The goal is to have this chord in your muscle memory, to hear an F#7 chord and immediately have your fingers go to the right place.

Use the practice technique of repetition for the:

  • Scales that you’re learning
  • Chords in the tunes you’re learning
  • Jazz language or lines that you’ve transcribed
  • Melodies to tricky tunes like Donna Lee and technical etudes

III) Visualization

Visualization

To improvise well, you need to see large chunks of music at a time.

Not just one chord or scale, but an entire progression, an entire key.

The great improvisers that you love to listen to weren’t just thinking about one chord, they were architecting a solo over an entire tune.

And this requires foresight.

You need to see this information in your mind. To be able to visualize it.

In the practice room you must create a mental map in your mind of the chords, scales, and tunes that you are going to improvise over.

Imagine a performance where you’re able to see and anticipate the notes of each chord, where you can see the lines you want to improvise. This is the power of visualization.

Getting to this point however, requires a combination of the other two steps – you must know the information and you must be able to play it immediately.

If I say Ab7 you should be able to see that chord in your mind. Or if I say ii- V7 I in F# you should be able to see that progression in a split second…

And if I call the Blues in B you should be able to see that chord progression in your mind:

Vizualize the blues progression in b

Try the same thing with chord tones, common chord progressions in all 12 keys or even the progression to tunes like Giant Steps.

If you need more practice with this, check out our new ebook Visualization for Jazz Improvisation.

visualization cover

Inside you’ll find exercises covering:

  • Chord Tones
  • Chords
  • Common Chord Progressions
  • Jazz Standards
  • The Jazz Language
  • In All 12 Keys

The great thing about practicing visualization is that you can do it anywhere. When you’re sitting on the couch or laying in bed you can review scales in your mind or run through the chord progression to the tunes that you’re practicing.

Get started in the practice room today

As a creative musician, there is a ton of information out there that you need to know. But remember, for anything that you want to learn it comes down to 3 steps.

You haven’t mastered any piece of musical information until:

  1. You know the information (Memorization)
  2. You can play it on your instrument (Repetition)
  3. You can see it in your mind (Visualization)

Give it a try with the scales you’re learning, the tunes you’re memorizing, and the solos you’re transcribing. Chances are you’ve memorized the information, now it’s time to take it to the next level!