When it comes to jazz or any music that revolves around improvisation, having strong ears is of utmost importance.

What is improvisation anyway? It’s playing in the moment. There is no time to pre-meditate the lines you are going to play. You don’t get to try a bunch of variations of a lick and decide on the best version. You just have to respond to the musical environment around you.

I’ve heard it said before that musical improvisation is just composition sped up, and to me, the only difference is there are no 1st, 2nd, or 3rd drafts. You just have to play. You have to play off of what you hear the other musicians doing, play off of the last line you created, and play the music that you hear in your head.

Ultimately, if we want to do this at a high level, we have to have a keen set of ears; ears that can recognize intervals, chords, chord progressions and melodies in a flash. Not only that, we have to have the ability to translate what we hear to our instrument. Sounds like a tall order right?

The truth is all of us can achieve the ears that we need to become great improvisers. But like all things good, it doesn’t come cheap and easy. You have to have training.

Jazz musicians know that the more you learn jazz standards by ear and solos by ear, the better your ears will get. These practices naturally incorporate some ear-building exercises, all while learning jazz language.

However, too many musicians neglect basic ear training and are missing out big time. 

What are the fundamentals of ear training? Different people will give different answers, but these are what I consider the main ones:

  • Intervals
  • Chords
  • Chord progressions
  • Melodic Dictation

This is the logical progression:

Intervals

If you can hear whether a note is higher or lower in pitch from a reference note, you can identify and sing intervals (minor 3rd, major 6th…etc). If you can identify and sing intervals then you can identify the notes in a chord.

Chords

If you can identify the chord quality of a triad and sing the arpeggio, then you can recognize 7th chords and extensions. If you can recognize chord qualities you can start to recognize chord progressions.

Chord Progressions

If you understand how to build chord progressions, and can recognize chords and intervals, you can recognize chord progressions by ear. If you can do this, you can learn any song by ear.

Melodic Dictation

If you have all of these fundamental ear training elements under your belt, you can hear the music in your head. All that’s left is to translate it to your instrument. Melodic Dication (hearing a melody, and quickly reproducing it) helps you get faster at relating those sounds you are hearing to your instrument.

To me, these are the foundational building blocks of sharp ears; ears that can pick up any melody or chord progression in an instant. Having ears like this will automatically set you apart as an improviser and give you a huge advantage.

So does working on ear training seem like something as jazz musicians (or any musician) we should be doing? Definitely. But if you’re not convinced, here are some deeper reasons why ear training is important:

1. Hearing is better than knowing.

What do I mean by that? Often when musicians want to learn how to play something, they go straight to sheet music, tabs, or some visual element to help them get immediate results.

Take for example a C major scale. If you want to learn how to play a C major scale, you can easily do a quick Google search or pick up a beginners book to help you out. In other words, you are getting the answer right away by using a written code. Suddenly you know how to play the C major scale on your instrument in more of an intellectual sense.

One more example. If I asked you to play a perfect 5th down from a given root note, could you do it? Well, as long as you know what I mean by “perfect 5th” and understand how your instrument works, you could probably deduce what note that is. But if I asked you to sing it without touching your instrument, could you?

Simply knowing is not enough. That’s only half what it takes to become a fully competent musician. You need to hear the music. If you can hear the music in your head first and then know how to play it on your instrument, you will be operating on a totally different level.

2. Great improvisation is not calculated.

Ever heard someone play a solo and it just sounded like they were running scales and patterns the whole time? Maybe you find yourself in that boat.

The problem was they were trying to play “the right notes.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting to play notes that sound good, but in the wrong hands this ends up sounding like a mathematical calculation.

Great improvisation is not calculated. It doesn’t sound like someone is boxed into a scale, shape or pattern. It sounds like an organic stream of melodies. Sometimes it doesn’t sound perfect, but it does sound genuine.

When we practice ear training fundamentals, we are building up our ear, not our knowledge of where the “right notes” are on our instrument.

3. Hearing makes improvisation easier.

If we try to improvise from intellect alone, not only will it sound non-organic, it will be impossible to respond in the moment.

Improvisation demands that you respond to your bandmates, the energy, and the melody you are building. When you improvise, you can’t be thinking. You just have to be playing.

When we work on ear training, we are conditioning our brain to respond automatically not calculate.

When you were a baby, you were learning how to speak your native language simply by hearing your parents talk to you and each other. Because of this, speaking is completely natural, something you don’t even have to think about.

That’s what ear training helps us do. It helps us get to a level of playing music that exists in the subconscious, where you can create great music without having to think about it.

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Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for learnjazzstandards.com which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publications “500 Jazz Licks” and “Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar.” To learn more, visit www.brentvaartstra.com.

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