Great Jazz Ears: How to Get a Vivid Aural Imagination

The extent to which your aural imagination is developed, largely determines: the quality of lines you play, how you play those lines (articulation, swing feel, inflection), and the sound you play with. Nothing has such an impact on your playing than your aural imagination. If there were a secret to improvising, developing your aural imagination would be it.

Ok, ok. I didn’t say oral imagination. You’ll have to go to the other 98% of the internet for that. Get your mind out of the gutter 😉

When we go to improvise, we draw from a well of knowledge. This well is filled with things we’ve practiced, listened to, or studied theoretically. The stuff, though, that actually emerges during improvisation is the stuff that we can really hear. Want to change the way you sound? Change the way you hear.

The way we hear is the most neglected aspect of practicing improvisation. We simply expect to have great ears. The problem: great ears don’t just happen. They are something that are consciously developed over years and years of practice. But what does it even mean to have great ears and a vivid aural imagination?

We all hear differently. However, many traits of great ears can easily be identified. The ability to:

  • Hear and sing intervals
  • Hear and sing specific chord tones while a chord plays in the background
  • Hear and sing the roots of a progression
  • Hear a line from a recording and retain it. Slow it down in the mind. Then Sing it and play it.
  • Hear the qualities of chords and pick out chord tones
  • Hear subtleties in the many voicings of chords
  • Hear tonal color in our mind
  • Hear and change volume at will in our mind
  • Hear various articulation in our mind

And the list goes on. Seems a bit more exhaustive than your typical classical ear training class, doesn’t it? Yes, there is a lot of ear stuff to master, but not to worry. You have your whole life 🙂

Be excited. Developing your ear is equally gratifying to playing your instrument. In essence, they are the same. Think of your instrument as an amplifier for your aural imagination. We spend so much time learning to play our instrument. We need to spend just as much time developing our internal instrument.

As you can see from the list above, good jazz ears are a lot more than simply being able to recognize intervals and chord qualities, although that is a small piece of the puzzle. It’s a combination of hearing/singing/internalizing the melodic and harmonic elements of the music (also the rhythmic but I’ll have to devote an entire article to just that to give it its fair treatment), and being able to manipulate that information in various creative ways in your mind.

Raising the volume in your head

When an interviewer asked Dizzy Gillespie what it sounded like in his head while he played, Dizzy sang a bebop line, but very loudly.

We are limited by our voice, both in volume, range, and tonal color. Our mind does not have these limitations, yet we artificially impose these restrictions on it. Dizzy heard lines loudly. Do you hear lines loudly, or at a faint whisper?

Raising the volume of the musical radio in our head takes time. This may sound odd, but I’ve found the following exercise to help me visualize the sound in my mind expanding and becoming louder.

Hear a note or a line from a solo or tune you are working on in your mind. Focus on the sound intently. Now, close your eyes if it helps you, and picture that sound as a light inside the center of your mind. See the light clearly in your mind while you listen to the sound. Now see the light getting bigger. See it expand to fill your entire head. The idea is to try to emulate what it would look and sound like to have sound vibrating throughout your entire skull!

This exercise seems a bit out there, but try it. Besides trying that visualization, simply try raising the volume of the sound. You may have the sound in your head at a particular level because it never occurred to you that you could change the level. The beauty is, you have complete freedom over what things sound like in your mind.

Increasing ear retention

Developing your ability to retain larger and larger chunks of musical information in your mind will greatly raise your musicianship. The number one way to do this is transcribe without a pencil and paper in hand. I know what you’re thinking. How will I remember the line I’m working on once I go to the next line? Well, you won’t remember it permanently if you write it down.

In jazz, we are not looking to use the kind of memory that you used in high school biology: study for a test the night before, memorize everything you need for the test, regurgitate it on the test the next day, and then forget it. That’s pretty much the exact opposite of what we’re aiming for. We want something beyond memorization. We want internalization. We want the material operating on a much deeper level than simple memorization.

I can’t stress it enough. Get rid of your crutches! I’m telling you from experience. I wasted years. You don’t have to.

During the actual the process of transcribing, I never write the solo down. After I have the solo completely internalized, often a period of months, I sometimes write it out to see it from a different perspective and view it more from an analytical point of view. Just make sure you’re not writing the solo down to remember it or to play from the written copy of it. You should already have it memorized and not need to ever look at a written copy to play it.

Moreover, If you don’t remember the solo days, weeks, or even years later, you never truly learned it. It is an awesome feeling to learn a solo and know it for life. You feel like you have these precious documents that you can carry around with you all the time. Maybe you feel this way because they are precious documents. Believe me, it took a lot of self-convincing to finally learn a solo to this degree. If I can do it, so can you.

After picking a solo you love, learn the first line. Play it for 30 minutes straight if you have to! Anything to master it. Then go to the second line. Repeat. Then play the first two lines together for 30 minutes if you have to. Again, anything to master each little bit. It may take six months. It may take a year! Learn a solo like this and I promise you, you’ll never regress to any other method.

Back to retention. Learning a solo in the manner just described will greatly help you hear longer bits of music in your mind because you’ll be able to hear the entire solo perfectly in your mind’s ear.

During the process of learning a solo, work on improving your retention. When you get to a longer line in the solo, you may have the urge to break it up into smaller chunks, making it easier to hear.

This is a great place to start and something I still tend to do, however, gradually begin to try to hear the entire line and retain it in your mind as one cohesive unit. Or, still hear it as several chunks of information, but hear them as connected in your mind. This is difficult, but that’s why we work on it. Every time you work on another solo or another line, you have another opportunity to slightly increase your retention.

Your sound and aural imagination

The actual sound, the tone you produce on your instrument is more greatly influenced by your aural imagination than anything else. Yes, I love my horn and mouthpiece, but I can pick up virtually anybody’s equipment and, despite the difficulty to play some people’s setups, still sound like me. I’ve had numerous lessons with incredible players, where they have tried my set-up and sounded exactly like themselves. Granted, they were not as comfortable on the foreign equipment, but their sound carried over.

It’s more clearly illustrated on a piano. Keeping the same piano, 10 different players could play the same line, one after another, and all play with their unique voice.

Our sound is in our mind and ear. Aim to hear the sound you desire in your mind. Focus on it. Meditate on it. Truly hear it. That’s how you’ll get closer to reproducing it. If you hear a quality in one of your hero’s sounds that you love and want to adopt into your playing, get it resonating in your skull. Hear it vividly. Let it play in your head throughout an entire day.

It’s like the scene in Shawshank Redemption when he was put in the hole. Andy (Tim Robbins) says:

“I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company…(points and taps to his head) It was in here. (Gestures over his heart) And in here. That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you. Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?”

Ear training exercises

A high-level view, yet oversimplified view, of improvisation is the following: Hear in your mind what you want to play and simultaneously play what you are hearing. Sure, seems simple enough. It’s amazing how such simple ideas can be so difficult to attain. I’m not sure even the greats heard every note they played. Lennie Tristano, however, claims he did.

We can’t all be Lennie, but we can get closer. Standard ear training as taught in most classical ways does not suffice for jazz. For instance, solphage is not nearly as beneficial to a jazz musician as thinking in terms of numbers are to denote pitches within a scale or chord.

Now find someone to practice ear training with and get started with the exercises that follow. All the exercises can be done alone as well, however, they are more fun and random with a partner. You can also check out The Ear Training Method for a complete course to take with you on the go.

Each bullet point is an exercise. Spend at least ten minutes on each exercise. Pick one and focus on it for a few weeks.

Interval jazz ear training exercises

  • Have your friend play two sequential notes, one after the other. Your job is to first hear both notes in you head, then sing the pitches accurately, then name the interval and direction.
  • For this exercise, have your friend play the notes at the same time instead of one after the other. Then do the same as in the last exercise: hear the notes perfectly in your head, sing the pitches accurately, and specify the interval and direction,
  • I do this one often, mostly with a friend if someone is around. Play a note (or better yet have your friend do this) on the piano and specify an interval and a direction, such as a major 7th down. Now sing that interval in the specified direction from the note playing on the piano. Wait, don’t sing yet! HEAR the note that you are about to sing perfectly in your mind. Now hear it louder. Hear it so clearly and let it expand throughout your skull! Now sing it, matching that note you hear in your head. But wait, don’t take your attention of that musical radio in your head. Keep laser focus on that note playing in your mind.

Notice how these exercises are about much more than simply naming intervals. Any idiot can name an interval. What you want to take away is the improved hearing in your mind. Hear those notes resonating in your head like it’s Maynard James Keenan screaming them.

Chord tone jazz ear training exercises

  • Have your friend (you can also do this alone of course) play a chord and you sing the root. Then have him play another chord and sing the root.
  • After you spend ample time, a few weeks or so, and you feel confident on hearing and singing the root of any chord, try the same exercise with 3rds. The same exercise can of course be done with 5ths, 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, or any altered chord tones as well.
  • Have your friend play a chord in the left hand, followed by a chord tone from the chord in the right hand. Now hear and then sing the chord tone in the right hand, followed by identifying it.

Notice that these exercises are about much more than simply naming a chord tone. They are about hearing chord tones in context.

Chord quality jazz ear training exercise

  • Have your friend play a triad in root position. Hear all the chord tones of the chord clearly in your mind. Raise the volume. Sing the pitches accurately. Name the triad quality.
  • Have your friend play a seventh chord and go through the steps just mentioned.
  • Have your friend play inverted triads and go through the steps just mentioned.
  • Have your friend play a chord voicing and go through the steps just mentioned.

Getting good ears and a vivid aural imagination

What I’ve detailed above is a great place to start. It’s a lot of information consisting of stuff I’m still working on all the time. You can never know it well enough. Work on areas that need the most improvement. Maybe you notice during an interval exercise that hearing a major 7th down from the note your friend plays is fairly difficult. Isolate that interval and do it over an over until it’s second nature to hear and sing that descending major 7th.

Once you get material in your mind, an interval, a line, a part of a solo, learn how to raise the volume, slow it down, speed it up, all in your mind. Own it.

The important thing about developing your ear is that you focus on that voice in your head to expand your aural imagination. Otherwise, it will not translate to your improvisation. Don’t waste your time by skimming the surface. Approach developing your ears with patience and creativity.

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