The Path to Finding Your Own Voice

The notion of being original and innovative goes hand-in-hand with the idea of improvisation. The inspired act of being in the moment, creating on the fly with others in a group setting, and ultimately developing an original voice are all central ideas when it comes to jazz and improvisation.

Musicians everywhere, from beginning improvisers struggling to navigate foreign chord changes to seasoned improvisers striving to incorporate new concepts into their playing, are working to create a musical identity. It’s the simple idea of developing your own musical concept and unique approach that is shared by all as a motivating force.

The only problem is that developing a unique voice in jazz is anything but simple.

Through our immersion into the music, we aspire to follow in the footsteps of those who developed their own style and in turn, were revered for their originality and innovation. We achieve this through listening, transcription, and concentrated practice, but this alone does not guarantee innovation or musical recognition.

The outcome of this obsession with uniqueness and individuality, though, is that a novice improviser will often make attaining a personal musical concept the initial goal of their musical pursuit, sometimes sacrificing the understanding of fundamental concepts or even avoiding transcription to ensure this. It’s important to remember, however, that an approach without study or a model to follow, regardless of how unique, is ultimately headed nowhere.

A natural response to sound

For centuries, the most inquisitive minds have noted the magical and mysterious effect of music on people. From Confucius to Nietzsche to Schopenhauer, philosophers have continuously marveled at the redeeming qualities of music and it’s powerful effect on the human condition. More recently, scientists have tackled this enigma, working to identify and study the human response to music, specifically, mapping the correlating reaction in the body and brain to sound.

In a recent study at McGill University researchers analyzed the brain patterns of subjects as they listened to their favorite pieces of music. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the McGill researchers identified activity in multiple parts of the brain and subsequent dopamine release during the emotional high point of listening to a musical excerpt. Not only that, but the scan also revealed brain activity in expectation of the emotional high point. More or less, just the simple act of anticipating our favorite moments in music can lead to dopamine production.

As reflected in the study, and reinforcing through research what we already know, different people respond positively to different types of music. What triggers dopamine release and pleasure in one person, could have absolutely no effect, or even an adverse effect on another. In this sense, you truly do have “Your Sound” – the sounds, harmonies, intervals, instruments, ranges, rhythms, etc. that naturally create a response within yourself.

Choosing language

When you first begin listening to music and checking out records, you’re already on your way to creating your own musical concept, whether you realize it or not. It’s the music that you choose to listen to or reject that creates your musical personality and largely determines your musical direction.

The records that you love, the players that you emotionally respond to, and even the musical styles that turn you off have an immense impact on your musical conception; and this is something that can’t be copied or replicated, it’s unique only to you.

The idea of forming an original musical concept is not new to jazz and it’s practitioners. The pianist Brad Mehldau writes very eloquently of this topic on his website:

The first period of a jazz musician’s development is full of input. There is listening, listening and more listening. The young musician might transcribe solos, learn standards, or study a particular set of exercises or system of scales. He or she might study the way a great singer or instrumentalist interprets a standard. Exposure to others is key at this point – old dead masters, living peers, what have you. As the young player immerses himself in a variety of output from other players, he finds that he responds favorably to some music, and negatively to other music. In this way, he develops his own sense of taste, and that taste, which will become increasingly more sharply defined as he grows older, will determine his own style. (from Jazz’s High Stakes and Tragic Failures)

You may naturally respond to Major 7 #11 chords, the interval of a perfect fifth, or music in 3/4. Musicians like Miles or Monk may inspire you, you might prefer Stevie Wonder and the Beatles, or composers like Bach and Stravinsky may be your personal favorites. You may discover a type of Indian music that resonates with you, delve into electronic music, or even create a combination of all these styles rolled into one encompassing influence.

Whatever the case may be, these factors will inevitably create a unique musical personality. You needn’t strive at the detriment of all else to become an original, but rather by simply following your musical intuition, studying your musical heroes and remaining true to yourself, you will inherently form your own style.

Cultivating “your sound”

Realizing the sounds that you respond to and defining your musical taste are only the first steps in developing an improvisatory concept, and by no means guarantee a quick path to becoming an innovative improviser.

Just as you must spend years transcribing and developing the language that you pull from your favorite recordings, you must also define and develop your personal language. How is this achieved? Actually, in a process very similar to the way in which you ingrain and alter the lines you’re transcribing.

For example, in the same manner that you isolate language from a transcribed solo, you can isolate ideas or concepts which you have personally discovered or find interesting. If you like the interval of fourths or are interested by a particular scale, explore that sound and incorporate it into your practice and eventually into your improvisation.

Create your own scales, chords, and intervallic patterns based upon the sounds you respond to. Write out exercises and compose music based upon these ideas and eventually develop them into a part of your improvisatory concept. Think of how Coltrane used composing (Giant Steps, 26-2, Moment’s Notice, etc.) and the reharmonization of standards as a vehicle for working out his new concepts. In the same way that it takes time to incorporate transcribed language into your playing, it will take years to work out these new concepts, but eventually you’ll emerge with a sound that truly is original.

Trust your musical instinct

Masters like Coltrane, Miles and Woody Shaw set the standard in striving to master the music and craft a personal style which led to innovation. Today, players like Mark Turner, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brad Mehldau, and a number of others continue this tradition of studying the music and in turn working hard to create their own voices and harmonic styles. It’s through this same process that you’ll eventually develop your own voice in this music.

The crucial action is to avoid the need to validate your influences with what is currently accepted as the standard in the music. Giving up your vision because it doesn’t fit in with the current definition of “jazz” is inconsistent with the creative origins of this music. Not to say that you should ignore the tradition, but through immersion in the masters coupled with your own unique influences and musical taste, you can innovate upon that which has come before you.

Keep in mind that developing a unique voice in this music takes time and dedication. The path to originality in this music begins with imitation and immersion and slowly, with foresight and effort, winds its way to innovation. Without an in-depth study of this music, we haven’t a foundation upon which we can build our own contribution. As Mehldau writes later on in his insightful article…“Rootless players are all alike, but every rooted player is rooted in his or her own way.”