Developing Aural Knowledge: How to Turn Music Theory into Music

Jazz is smart people music! I first heard these words from the great pianist Harold Mabern. Walking through the practice rooms at school one day, as was usually the case, a group of eager students was huddled around him as he told a story. An impromptu musical lesson that didn’t involve scales or chords, but just as valuable – maybe even more so. This man probably has two stories for every tune he knows and he literally knows a thousand tunes. To hear one of them was to get closer to the music, the history you’ve only read about in books, your musical idols from Lee Morgan and Miles to George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, and Freddie Hubbard.

But, there was something about that particular phrase that stood out for me: smart people music.

If you’ve ever spent any time around this legendary musician, chances are you might have even heard him say this phrase and more importantly, if you’ve ever tried to play jazz or improvise, you know he’s not kidding around!

It’s no secret that it takes brains to play jazz. The typical improviser is determined, focused, dedicated, well-rounded, and studied…and that’s just a list of what it takes to get some basic instrumental technique and music theory down.

Getting up on stage in front of an audience and improvising in real time demands the utmost from both your intellectual and your physical senses. It’s an understatement that you need to be intelligent to survive in that situation, however “smart” is a word that we carelessly throw around along with other words like “genius” and “talent,” these mysterious qualities that appear to be genetically predetermined.

But what does it truly mean to be smart?

Take a close look at any “smart” person and you’ll find much more than raw intelligence or talent lurking beneath the well polished sheen of that outward image. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find hours of focused practice and study, an unforgiving honesty about shortcomings, well defined goals, and a strong willed determination to improve.

Jazz is certainly smart people music, but smart people, like great improvisers, don’t just materialize out of thin air.

When knowledge is not enough

One thing you may have already realized is that those so-called “theory smarts” are only going to get you so far as an improviser. At a certain point you’re going to hit a wall, wondering how everything got so difficult. You’ve memorized your scales, but why do those “right notes” suddenly sound so wrong?

Without meaning to, you’ve stumbled upon one of the most frustrating realities about improvisation: music theory knowledge doesn’t equal great improvised solos.

You can spend your time memorizing an entire book of music theory. You can study every imaginable scale and carry around the scale syllabus in your back pocket. You can analyze books of transcribed solos, circling every 7-3 resolution and ii-V7 line that you see. But, despite all of this study, memorization, and analysis, it’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to improvise a great solo.

In fact, it won’t even guarantee that you’ll be able to play a mediocre solo.

Aspiring improvisers complain about this intellectual and artistic disconnect all the time. “I’ve learned all my scales and I’ve memorized the melody and chord progression, but for some reason I still have trouble improvising over that tune!” This phrase and it’s accompanying frustration are more widespread than you might think.

For a lot of things that we do every day, mental knowledge is the beginning and ending of “knowing” something. Pass a test in your history class, give a quarterly progress report in front of your colleagues, prepare your taxes – if you know the facts you’re going to perform well, you’ll even look smart.

However for jazz musicians, a mental understanding of theory is just the tip of the iceberg when approaching a tune or an improvised solo.

“Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”~Anton Chekhov

Relying on memorization and theory rules for your improvised solos is like quickly studying an incomplete and vague map before embarking on a dangerous trek into the wilderness. You might remember a few landmarks or trails when you start out, but to survive when the going gets tough, you need to know this information in your bones.

Improvisation is not simply reciting memorized information, it is creating music in real time. When you rely on thinking through theory for every note that you improvise you’re standing on very thin ice, one tentative misstep and you’re sunk with no way out.

If you want to see improvement in your playing, you must transform this mental theory knowledge into an entirely new level of understanding. You need to transfer this knowledge into the real world, into physical technique, into time, and into sound.

Despite what you’ve been told the truth is that you don’t improvise with your analytical mind alone. You improvise with your ear, your physical body, your emotions, and with subtle social cues within a group setting. Intuition is as much a part of the improvisatory process as is conscious calculated thought.

If you relegate the process of improvisation to the simple facts and figures of music theory, you’re leaving out 60% of your musical tools and potential. You need to bridge the gap between that mental understanding of theory and the physical aspects of playing it. Sure you’ve got the brains, but what about your ears or your technique or your emotions?

Ok, ok we get it already, stop thinking so much when you improvise!

It’s easy to say you want to stop thinking so much every time you take a solo, but how exactly do you escape the confines of your analytical mind and turn that theory in your head into tangible technique and listenable music?

Turning knowledge into sound

Time and again we’ve returned to the idea that music, and specifically jazz, is a language, and it’s this connection to language that can give us the key to transcending the limitations of music theory.

Jazz, spanning from the time of Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to the great improvisers of today, is a continually evolving musical language. It is just as true however, that the language we speak and communicate with on a daily basis is also in many ways inherently musical.

Like a listener at a musical performance, we hear spoken syllables and words and phrases and translate these sounds into meaning. There is a strong, yet unconscious connection between external sound and internal meaning, however, this connection did not happen instantaneously.

Over thousands of years language has evolved from the crude guttural exclamations of prehistoric man into the complex sentences that we speak today. We take this connection between sound and meaning for granted, but it’s hardwired into the way we’ve evolved.

Sound is sound, whether it’s language or music, and the way we learn to experience this sound affects us as speakers and improvisers alike.

Everything becomes a little different as soon as it is spoken out loud.~Hermann Hesse

On one hand, there is a poetry to the spoken word, an aspect of language that exists separate from its meaning. Devices like alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyming, and meter catch our ear when we hear an especially gifted speaker, just as the tone, articulation and phrasing of a great improviser draw us closer to the music.

There is a musicality to the way we speak or can speak if we choose to, but it can be all too easy to forget what language sounds like. Today we often use words to get across the basic meaning of an idea, like the transfer of data between computer files. In these cases language has become predictable and almost utilitarian in nature, a tool with which we only impart meaning with those we are speaking to.

We often use the same words everyday like an over used lick in a solo and after awhile we stop hearing the sound of the words we say. We’re speaking and following the rules of grammar and pronunciation, but we are just hearing our intended meaning, not the physical words or syllables.

However, we can change the way that we hear language. There is a phenomenon in spoken language where you can separate a word from it meaning, it’s called semantic satiation. Through sustained repetition, a common everyday word can essentially be separated from its meaning and transformed into something completely different.

Don’t believe it? Give this exercise a try. Take the word envelope and repeat it as many times as you can in the next :30 seconds, Go!:

envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, envelope, onvelope, onvelope, onvelope, onvelope, onvelope, onvelope, onvelope, on-valope, on-valope, on-valope, on-valope, on-valope, on-valope, on-vuh-lope, on-vuh-lope, ahhn-vuh-lope, ahhn-vuh-lope, ahhn-vuh-lope, ahhn-vuh-lope, ahhn-vuh-lo-puh….

After about ten seconds of repetition the word envelope starts to lose its meaning. You begin to hear the sound of the word, slowly becoming conscious of each individual syllable. What’s more, you become acutely aware of the physical actions required to produce those sounds. The subtle movements of your lips and tongue, the manipulation of the oral cavity, and the air moving through your vocal chords.

No longer does that word produce an image in your mind of a rectangular piece of paper or a letter you would receive in the mail, instead you hear the sound of the syllables and the elementary building blocks of language that go into forming that word. Once more you can hear the sound separate from its meaning, as if you were hearing the word for the first time.

Incidentally, you don’t have to just stick with the word envelope when doing the exercise above…

The key to this process, whether it’s over a period of 30 seconds or 30 days, is repetition. As our brain is bombarded with this information, we start to experience it in a completely different way. Information that previously existed only in our minds is manifested in physical form, into sound.

We understand that information in a new way, this time with with multiple senses. The word is the same but the way we’re accessing it’s meaning and experiencing its sound has changed.

So if we can change the the way we hear the sound of language, why not change the way we hear music, or more specifically the way we hear the concepts of music theory?

Changing your definition of music theory

For many schools to study improvisation means to study music theory – the names and rules behind the notes. Which scales to play over which chord, the guide tone lines between a chord progression, Major 7th chords, diminished scales, tritone substitutions, pentatonic structures, dorian modes…

Solos, tunes, and harmonic concepts are intellectually analyzed on a piece of paper. The theory and the names of notes becomes the emphasis rather than the actual sounds of the notes. Consequently when a student goes to improvise they get tied up in knots trying to think through chord progressions.

In this regard, just as with some aspects of language, music has become utilitarian through the use of theory – a mental exercise with cut and dry rules. This probably sounds familiar to many of you. Right now every thing musical is in your head, you have to consciously think of it before you can play it.

You’ve become like that giant brain in those second rate science fiction movies, this emotionless blob that calculates information and somehow ends up nearly destroying the world at the end of the movie. Needless to say, this is not the way to improvise!

Now you may not be a giant evil brain, but we could all stand to use a little improvement in the way that we approach improvisation. Take a few seconds and ask yourself these three questions:

  • Do you choose the notes to play in your solo based on the rules of theory, do you think of a scale to play for every chord that you come across?
  • Do you approach the chord progression to a tune by thinking of a series of memorized chord names?
  • Do you think of note names or visualize the notes on a page to play a melody?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, it’s a good sign that you’re still stuck inside your head when you’re improvising, however, don’t despair. If you’re caught in the theory trap it doesn’t mean that you’re headed in the wrong direction, it just means that you haven’t gone far enough.

You’ve done a solid amount of work just to get that theory under you belt and to memorize those tunes and progressions, but remember that this is only the first step. Keep going!!

Hearing music vs. Thinking theory

When you hear a tune you want to be able to recognize each interval, chord tone, chord, and progression by its unique sound as opposed to associating each chord with a matching scale or lick or each melody with a series of note names.

Remember, the saying is “Play what you’re hearing” not “Play what you’re thinking!”

The goal here is not to forget about the theory concepts or to forget their definitions, rather we’re learning to hear these sounds for the first time. In effect turning those music theory words in your mind into actual sound, turning theoretical knowledge into aural knowledge.

“I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”~Richard Feynman

Just as we took the word envelope and transformed it into a completely new experience – a new level of understanding, we’re going to take the elements of music theory and learn to actually hear them. To understand these concepts through experience rather than a memorized definition.

By making this one simple adjustment you’ll see a major difference in your ability to improvise and the satisfaction that you get out of creating a solo.

As an example, let’s take three examples of music theory and using the same concept of repetition, we’ll turn those mental concepts into aural knowledge.

I) Intervals:

For many musicians intervals exist as note names: F to Bb, D to C#, G to E, etc. Yes, it’s helpful to have those note names memorized, but this isn’t going to help you when you are trying to figure out learn a melody or transcribe a solo. To do that, you need to turn those note names into sound, to turn that meantal knowledge into aural knowledge.

Take the interval of a Perfect 4th for instance. In the same fashion that you repeated the word envelope above, repeat this interval until you hear it in a new way. Start slowly in half notes, then move to quarter notes and eighth notes:

Repeat this interval over and over again until you are just focusing on the sound of those two notes. Sing the notes, play the notes, and then sing them again. Instead of focusing on the note names F and Bb, your goal should be to recognize the unique sound of that interval and the feeling of producing it on your instrument.

Aim for that instant where that “switch” occurs and you are just experiencing sound and physical motion. When you get that, take this exercise through every interval in every key – now you know your intervals.

II) Chord tones:

Another crucial aspect of improvising is the ability to recognize chord tones. Whether you are learning a tune, transcribing a solo, or improvising over a tune you’ve never heard, the ability to identify chord tones with your ear is essential and it will make your life as an improviser much easier.

The beauty of this process of transforming theory into sound is that it’s all the same: slow practice and repetition.

Take the flat 7th of a chord. This chord tone occurs in V7, minor, and half-diminished chords, and you can imply it over Major 7 chords or wherever else you’re hearing it. Start with the sound of the flat 7th over an E7 chord:

Again, repeat this exercise until you are just hearing the sound, until you forget about the chord name or the note names. You may have to repeat this exercise dozens of times over the period of a week or hundreds over the course of a month, whatever it takes for you to internalize the sound of that chord tone. Sing it and play it repeatedly, focusing each time on the unique quality of that sound.

Keep in mind that the term “Flat 7th” is just a word. Knowing the definition of that chord tone doesn’t mean you can hear it or access it in your solos, however internalizing the sound of that chord tone puts you on an entirely new level of musical understanding.

Once you “know” the sound, you can find it in any key, in any chord, and in any tune. Now that’s useful!

Do this exercise with every chord tone on a single chord, then switch to different keys and different chord types. As with all of these exercises, after you get the sound of these chord tones in your ear, the names of the notes don’t really matter anymore.

III) Chord Progressions:

Finally, in order to improvise freely you need to hear the movement of chord progressions in any tune that you play.


Let’s take the ubiquitous ii-V-I progression for starters.

This progression occurs in 90% of the jazz standards that we play as improvisers. If you can hear this progression and conquer its challenges, improvising will be much easier, however if you try to mentally approach this progression, most of the tunes you play are going to give you the same exact problems.

You probably understand that a ii-V7-I is the minor ii chord, the dominant V chord, and the Major I chord of a key, but just knowing the names of those chords and their corresponding scales is only going to get you so far. If you want to improvise musically with ease over this standard progression you must have it in your ear.

Start by playing the progression at the piano.

Listen for the root movement, hear the movement from minor to V7 to Major, and play and sing the 7-3 resolutions. Repeat this until you can hear the progression with out thinking about the chords, until that sound is physically a part of you.


Ask any improviser about the blues progression and they’ll say “It’s easy, it’s just I-IV-I-V-I.” However, if you ask any improviser to play over the blues you’re going to hear a wide range of results. It’s one thing to name the chords to a tune and it’s an entirely different thing to solo well over that tune.

You can immediately tell when an improviser is thinking about theory and when they are actually hearing the the chords and the lines that they are improvising.

Take the first four bars of a blues progression:

Right now you can probably name the chords to a blues progression in any key, but what you want to be able to do is to hear and play that progression in any key. This may seem like a ton of work, but it’s definitely achievable – all it takes is some focused repetition.

First, sing and play the root of each chord as well as the 3rd, the 5th, and the 7th in one key. Next, find the half-step resolutions between each chord and play those until you have that sound ingrained. Finally try improvising a simple line over those four bars, hearing each chord go by and hearing (not thinking) about the notes you want to play.

Now all of this is not to say that you can simply forget about theory, scales, and chord tones, you can’t. But you can take that knowledge to a completely new level and you must if you want to get to that next step as an improviser.

It’s akin to the concept of learning to walk before you can run, you need to master the basics before you can make meaningful improvement. Many improvisers are trying to run the 100 meter dash at full tilt before they’ve even taken their first steps.

Trying to work out lines over Moment’s Notice and Blues for Alice, when you have trouble hearing the third of a Major chord or the sound of a ii-V7 is a sure bet for frustration and confusion.

You may have even tried to hear the sound of these theoretical concepts before, but if you didn’t get that “switch” from mental to aural you didn’t go far enough. Remember, you need to learn to hear the basics first because everything you learn from here on out is based on these fundamentals.

Learning to hear what you already know

“Art is the uniting of the subjective with the objective, of nature with reason, of the unconscious with the conscious, and therefore art is the highest means of knowledge.”~Leo Tolstoy

For thousands of hopeful improvisers, jazz exists as music theory. Scales, chords, modes, patterns, etc. Sure we love to listen to records, but as soon as we go into the practice room it’s right to theory. Improvisation is not just cut and dry music theory, nor is it a completely free and spontaneous creation. It is rather a combination of these two sides of ourselves, and to master both is essential to improvising at the highest level.

The single most important thing you can do to improve as an improviser is to turn that menatl information into sound. The great improvisers we study like Bird and Trane weren’t these improvisers with minds like supercomputers or these naive natural talents that succeeded with pure instinct and talent.

They learned to hear the music and for years they studied and listened and practiced and tried harder than anybody else.

This idea of developing aural knowledge can completely transform the way you improvise. I remember struggling with scales, and guide tone lines, and the problem of connecting chord progressions and playing longer lines vividly. It felt like I was stuck in that musical roadblock for years.

However, something changed when I started to focus on developing my ears and transcribing tunes and solos directly from the record. I started to deal with the actual sound of the music, I was finally hearing all these theory terms that I struggled with musically, but understood intellectually.

Understanding theory is the easy part, but learning to hear that theory takes some serious work. You may be struggling to improvise over a standard, you may feel like you have nothing new to play, you might feel like you are lost with all of this theory and chords and scales, and you may even be the improviser that knows all of the theory yet can’t seem to find the right notes to play.

Whichever player you are, the answer is same: you need to learn to hear this music – to hear the theory of intervals and melodies, of chords and scales, of lines and progressions. You may be the smartest person in the room when it comes to music theory right now, but if your ears are lagging far behind your brain, those smarts are pretty much useless.

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