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LJS 115: How to Balance Music Theory and Playing by Ear

Welcome to episode 115 of the LJS Podcast where today we are talking about the balancing act of music theory and playing by ear. In the jazz world sometimes one or the other can be overemphasized and as a result, can cause a player to miss out on a balanced jazz education. Learn the importance of working on both and how to balance them in your practicing. Listen in!

Listen to episode 115

In our Learn Jazz Standards Facebook Community, emails I get from subscribers, and general conversations I have with musicians, I witness a few different philosophies about learning jazz.

The two extremes are the world of learning music theory, and the world of playing and learning by ear. In reality, these two shouldn’t be separated things. They should work together. Yet sometimes one or the other is overemphasized in someone’s jazz education.

I think it’s important to talk about creating a balance between the two. Both are important to our overall musical education and need to be apart of what we do.

Here’s some of what I talk about in today’s episode:

1. The benefits of learning music theory.

2. The benefits of learning and playing music by ear.

3. The negatives of leaving out or overemphasizing one or the other.

4. How a healthy balance creates a completed circuit.

I hope you enjoy today’s episode and examine what role both of these play in your own practicing. Are your practice sessions balanced, or is one being ignored?

Important Links

Learn Jazz Standards Community Facebook Group

The Jazz Standards Playbook eBook and Companion Course

Read the Transcript

Brent: Check, check, check it out. What’s up? My name is Brent. I am the jazz musician behind, which is a blog, a podcast, and videos, all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician.

Hey, welcome everybody. Whether this is your first time ever listening to the show or if you’re a regular listener, I want to thank you so much. I appreciate you for just being here, hanging out with me, and taking a little time out of your week just to learn alongside of me. And so I appreciate it. I don’t take it for granted.

And on today’s episode 115, I did have an episode planned that was more music theory based, but it got me thinking, since we had such a heavy music theory episode last week … which was an awesome episode, by the way, 114 with special guest Dan Carillo talking about minor tonality … such a great episode, but a heavy episode. As I was thinking about today’s episode, I thought it would be great to talk about how to balance music theory and playing by ear, because you know, sometimes we get overwhelmed with one or the other.

Sometimes we get overwhelmed with there being too much music theory to think about when it comes to jazz. Sometimes we get banged over the head as well with learn jazz solos by ear, learn jazz standards by ear, all these things by ear. We get hammered on both sides of the spectrum, so I thought it would be great to talk today a little bit about that, how we can balance that out and the importance of doing both of them. And so that’s what we are going to have in store for today’s show. So stick around, make sure you listen to the end.

But hey, before we get started here, if you’ve been listening to the show for a while, but you’ve never subscribed on iTunes or your favorite podcast listening service, now’s the time to hit that subscribe button. Make sure you’re not missing any of these episodes that are coming out. Make sure you’re checking this stuff out, because I don’t want you to miss out on all the goodies that we have to offer on this podcast, all the special guests that we have coming out. So hit subscribe.

All right. Let’s jump in to today’s topic. It’s been a lot of fun over the last, I think it’s been a few months now since we’ve opened up our Learn Jazz Standards Facebook community group, which by the way, if you’re not a part of that, it’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot of cool conversations going where people are using the hashtag #ask or the hashtag #tip to ask questions or give tips to each other, and it’s just been a really fun place for everybody to support each other. And you know, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people who listen to this show and who follow our blog, and they’re all getting together and they’re communicating with each other. And that’s really exciting for me. So if you want to get involved with that, that’s You’ll be directed to that closed Facebook group, and you can ask to be let into that, just exclusively for being a podcast listener.

But inside of this group, I’ve been noticing that the ones that tend to love to talk the most are the more advanced musicians in the group. You know, someone who might be a little bit of a beginner or intermediate asks a question, and then you get a flood of people who are a little more advanced, which is really amazing, and I really appreciate all those people who are interacting and helping out everybody else. And one thing I noticed, though, is that a lot of people give very music theory-centered answers to things. We start talking really quickly about secondary dominants and backdoor dominants and the modes of the melodic minor and modal interchange, all these things that can be really heady, and they’re important topics, but they’re very music theory based.

All that stuff is really important. The reason they’re mentioning these things is because they are indeed really helpful topics that can help us understand things. At the same time, there’s this other side of it where sometimes we have this situation where the answer that people want to give is just listen to more music, just learn more jazz solos, do more ear training, all this stuff that has more to do with listening and ear and learning the language in more of a creative sense and more of an internalization sense, rather than analyzing and trying to pick apart the science behind everything.

And there’s kind of these two different types of answers that float around that I’m seeing in the community, but not only that, things I get with emails from subscribers and just from being around in the music scene, just hearing different conversations about music and different ideologies and philosophies on how to learn music.

At the two extremes, I find that in the jazz world, there is a group of people sometimes that are very … You know, jazz is not about theory or being bogged down by rules, or it shouldn’t be this education-focused systematic approach. It needs to be … That’s not the spirit of the music. You need to be learning it by ear, and you need to be listening, and it’s about self-expression, and if we get bogged down with all this theory, it’s going to hold us back from doing that. And then you get this other group of people that are a lot more academic usually, and they’re really focusing in on music theory, understanding the systems behind it, and really get inside of that.

Now, on the two extremes there are risks with both of them. On one side of the spectrum, there’s the risk of ignoring theory completely and not trying to understand how things work. And then on the other side of things there’s this potential of becoming robotic, because everything is approached with this theoretical, analytical mindset. So there’s dangers to both, but I think that if we combine both of them in a healthy balance, we’re probably going to be better than off than leveling to one of those extremes.

So let’s go over each one of these really quick. Let’s view them as two sides, even though at the end of the day, like I said, I don’t want them to be two separate things. But let’s view them that way for a second. Let’s talk about music theory, why you should be learning music theory, what it’s important for, and then let’s talk about the ear side, learning things by ear, learning the language that way, and its benefits and why you should be doing that.

Let’s start with music theory really quickly. Now, music theory, like I said, is kind of the scientific approach. It’s the analytical approach, trying to understand how things work. So if we have a tune like “Autumn Leaves”, for example … that’s just an easy one to use an example … we can learn the chords by ear, we can do all that stuff, and that’s the right way, in my opinion, to learn a tune, but it’s important and it’s helpful to understand how those chord progressions work, because if we can understand how that harmony works, then we can become better improvisors over top of it. It’s that knowledge is power thought process there, that if you understand the inner workings of something, then it’s going to help you express better.

For example, when you first learned … English may not be your primary language, but whatever is your primary language, I’m sure everybody when they were in elementary school and they were learning, in my case, English and how to write and how to read and how to properly construct sentences, things were really picked apart.

You learned about adjectives, you learned about prepositional phrases, all this stuff that now, when I’m talking, I’m not thinking to myself these sorts of really analytical things about how to build a sentence and how to construct it and why you put this word here and why there’s these different rules for the English language. I don’t think about those things at all anymore. In fact, I would say those things at this point are useless to me, but those were really helpful back then, and they were foundational for understanding the structure of something, which in turn has made it so much easier to communicate.

Maybe we don’t think about that, we take that for granted, but the reason that’s part of the educational process while you’re young and you’re a developing student is because those things help you understand the structure, the base structure of something. So it’s the same thing with theory too. For example, if I have a minor major 7th chord, let’s say it’s a C minor major 7, so sounds like that … It’s that chord. The first question that should come in everybody’s head, because you see that on a chord chart or you hear that chord, and you want to know how to approach that or how to even play it or improvise over it, well, the first question is what makes up a minor major 7th chord? How do you construct it? You find out that it’s root, it’s a flat 3, minor 3rd, it’s a 5th, and it’s a major 7. So you learn all those chord tones, and now you understand how to actually construct that. Whether you’re a chordal instrument or not, you know how that is built.

The next question that might come after that is well, okay, so what other notes can I play? What are the pitch collections I can use? And there’s a lot of different ways to conceptualize that, but one way to conceptualize that is to say well hey, let’s talk about the melodic minor scale. So you have the minor major 7th chord, and you can play … Those sounds outline that chord. Then you can start figuring out how to play music over top of that. I mean, you can start trying to make actual melodic lines out of that stuff.

But at the end of the day, do we want to be thinking melodic minor? No, we don’t want to be. When you’re in actual improvisation setting, you don’t want to be thinking, “Here we are, it’s the minor major 7th chord, time to play melodic minor” or “time to play the chord tones 1-flat 3-5-major 7.” No, no, you don’t want to do that. What you want to do is just play those sounds and create melodies from that stuff. But it can be helpful if we take a step back and try to figure out what way can we conceptualize that? What pitches can we use over top of that?

But then there’s even more questions that arises. Well, that’s just one isolated chord. What came before that chord? For example, it’s pretty common in this situation that there would be a V chord resolving to that as a I chord. The C minor major 7 is the I chord. So we’ve got a G7 alt, going to a C minor major 7. So we have that resolution sound. Well, that’s going to influence your line too, and so what can you play over a G7 altered, G7 flat 9. You can play the altered scale. That’s a way to conceptualize. Again, I like to think of scales as pitch collections, not necessarily as notes you play in a particular order, but they’re a map of the notes that you can use.

Another example of how to conceptualize something is, in the last episode, episode 114, Dan Carillo talked about … I think he was using an example of A minor … if you have the 7th chord is an A-flat diminished, going into an A minor 7th chord, so it’s … to the A minor, really you can think of playing over top of that A-flat diminished 7, you can think of just playing an A harmonic minor. Okay, so A-flat diminished 7, going to an A minor 7, resolving to the A minor 7. So that’s a A harmonic minor played over top of an A-flat diminished 7.

Well, that’s one way to think about it, because it’s that pull from the V. It’s that V to I sound. And if you think about it, an A-flat diminished 7 is really like an E7 flat 9. It’s really kind of the same thing, if you really think about it. And what is E7 flat 9? It’s the V chord moving to the I, the A minor 7. So everything is … and that’s another set of theory there, how dominant 7 flat 9 chords are related to diminished chords.

So it’s all these different ways of thinking about it, and the more of this theory stuff you learn, sometimes you learn something it doesn’t really click, but other times you do learn a theory concept and it’s like bingo, hey that makes so much sense to me, and that helps me understand this concept so much better. And it’s not that you want to think about that while you’re improvising, but by slowing down and taking the time to look at that, it can be very helpful.

And it’s the same thing with analyzing the chord progressions of jazz standards, like I talked a little bit about “Autumn Leaves” earlier. If we want to understand a tune like, let’s say … Let’s not do “Autumn Leaves”, let’s say “Stella by Starlight”, that’s a really complex tune, so if you want to understand that, it’s helpful to break things down with Roman numerals and understand how chord progressions work and all this stuff so that you can start figuring how those chords actually connect together, because those are a big, weird, jumbled mess of chords unless you kind of somewhat understand what’s going on there.

That’s why I made my new e-book and companion course, “The Jazz Standards Playbook”, where I go over these 10 in-depth studies of jazz standards, where we do Roman numeral analysis, we map out the guide tones, we map out the chord tones. We do an improv lesson over top of that, and we do all these studies that have a lot to do with theory, because they help us look underneath the hood of that jazz standard to understand it a little bit better. So music theory’s helpful for all of those things. It helps us conceptualize things differently.

I’ll give you one more example of how you could conceptualize something. If we have a B-flat major 7 flat 5 chord, sounds like this … something like that. Well, the common go-to for that is to use the Lydian mode, so the Lydian mode would be this … but what if you could conceptualize it differently and still accomplish a similar goal here? Let’s play an A minor pentatonic over top of that chord. So here it is … and then here’s the A minor pentatonic. You can hear that sound. That sound is still there, because it’s hitting all of those notes that we want to be hit, but it’s conceptualizing it a totally different way.

On one hand we have the Lydian mode, which is based off a major scale, and now we have this A minor pentatonic scale, a five-note scale that we’re thinking about it. So we’re playing essentially a major 7 flat 5 chord, but we’re starting a minor pentatonic scale a half step down from it. That’s an example I always like to use, because it’s just another way to think about it. It’s not necessarily a right or wrong way, it’s just another way to think about how to do that. And again, it’s not that I want to be thinking A minor pentatonic over top of that, I want to be hearing those sounds, but by breaking it apart, it helps to kind of get that foundation of understanding. That’s music theory. That’s why it’s important.

Now, on the other side of the spectrum, we have learning jazz language by ear, which is insanely important. I mean, you’ve heard it preached all the time on this podcast, on our blog, on our videos if you follow Learn Jazz Standards closely, learning jazz solos by ear, learning jazz standards by ear. And then we go into ear training, because you have to have the ears in order to do that. All this kind of stuff is really preached on this medium, and the reason that’s important is not only because the tradition of the music is such that it is learned by ear, it is that improvised music, and especially jazz, requires a set of language skills. In order to learn that language, you do have to just get immersed in it, be listening to it, and mimicking what other musicians are doing. And that’s the only way you’ll ever really get the music, is if you’re doing that.

Again, the danger with all that is some people will take that to the extreme and go, “Well, then all I need to do is transcribe solos all day long, and all I need to do is learn licks, and all I need to do is just listen and just jam on tunes,” and that’s a really great thing to do, but then you can kind of forget about that analyzing part there. But it’s important to be doing this stuff to get that language in your ear.

For example, if I’m just improvising a little bit … you know, none of that was scales. None of that was … you know, I’m not thinking any theory there, that’s just simply me having learned jazz language, me just understanding these chord progressions and just improvising. I’m not thinking about any of those things at all, and that can really only come from learning stuff by ear, from listening to the music, from just internalizing it and always trying to improve upon your ability to express that language. And so that’s why it’s so important.

So if we can combine those two things to balance, I think it’s really great. Okay, so let’s talk a little bit about that balancing process, so we don’t overload ourself with one or the other. Back in episode 88, I talked about my LIST process for learning jazz language by ear, and I was really honing in on solos, but it also applies to learning tunes. It’s listen, internalize, sing, and transfer, and pretty much all of that has to do with aural skills, learning things by ear, internalizing that language. But since then I’ve also taught it as the LISTS process, with an “S” at the end, so it’s LISTS. And that “S” stands for study. In other words, analyzing. So whether it’s a solo, whether it’s a jazz standard, but really taking a deeper look at that material and trying to understand how it actually works.

If you kind of just think about all of this stuff in that LISTS process, then it kind of combines the best of both worlds there, because you’re allowing … whatever material you’re learning, you’re allowing yourself to learn it by ear, and that way you internalize it better, that way it sinks into your subconscious more, and that’s obviously what we want when it comes to improvising, but at the end you’re taking the time to study it, to understand it better. You’re taking that extra step to analyze the material, understand how the progressions work, understand maybe some scales that you can apply over different situations, and note map things.

In other words, that “S” at the end of the LISTS process, the study, it kind of ties everything together. The process isn’t quite complete without it, and when you take that extra step to go into the science of how things work, to try to find things to conceptualize the language you’ve just learned, then it ties everything together. It completes the circuit. So if in our practice sessions we’re always approaching things from that mindset, like learning this by ear, internalizing this, but then at the end of that we’re always asking the question, “Now how does that actually work?”

You know, I am really into cooking. Cooking is something I really like to do. It’s kind of like, I guess you could call it my hobby, and I get the opportunity to cook quite a bit. I particularly like French cooking. I mean, I like cooking all kinds of food, but I like French cooking, because there really is a lot of technique to it, but at the same time, it’s so creative too. There’s so many things you can do. You know, you can flavor the sauces the way you want to flavor the sauces. There’s all kinds of different approaches that you can take your own liberties.

In fact, I pretty much never follow a recipe verbatim. That spirit of improvisation, that spirit of jazz that I guess lives in me is taking that recipe or multiple recipes and combining things together. But at the end of the day, there’s these specific … if you want to make really good food, there are specific techniques that you can follow. Like if you want to know how to make a sauce, then you have to know how to make a roux, and all these different things that you need to be able to do in order to do it correctly, to get rich flavor, to get good tasting food.

There’s actual technique behind it. There’s theory behind it. It’s not just, you know, I feel that this is what I should do. There are things in there that if you want to do it on a high level, you have to learn those techniques, because everything, even the subtle things, do make a big difference. So I think cooking is actually a really great example for how we need to balance our practice sessions. Yeah, we need that creativity, we need that mimicking process, we need that spirit of adding your own voice in there, adding your own improvisation, but you also at the same time need to kind of look at the foundation, the theory, the technique of how to actually execute those things as well.

So that’s what I want to say about all this today. I want to just say that yes, theory’s important, and yes, learning language by ear is important, but alone, if you do one on its own or you over-emphasize one, it can kind of start to defeat the overarching idea. You know, I talk to some other people in the online music education space that are outside of the jazz realm, and one thing that I’ve heard time and time again is that a lot of their subscribers, a lot of their audience is intimidated by jazz, because it seems like you have to have a ton of theory knowledge and all this stuff to even get it at all. And the truth is, there is a level of that that yes, we need to be diving into, but it’s not all about that. And sometimes we make it all about that, and it shouldn’t be.

On the other hand, there’s some people that make it all about learning things by ear, all about just hearing solos and learning, and then you’ll finally get it. And that doesn’t resonate with those people either, because it’s like, “Well, I’m not getting it. I keep listening and all this stuff.” But yeah, they need some basic theory. They need to understand how to build chords. They need to understand how to voice lead into chord progressions. There’s all these things that they need to get as well. So if we … like a recipe, like a good recipe, if we combine the right things together, you can get a really good, full musical jazz education if you combine those together.

All right, that’s all for today’s show. I want to thank you so much for listening, and I hope some of this helped you just to get that frame of mind that we need of that balancing act between those two things. You know, if you are interested in really analyzing things a little further, analyzing jazz standards, trying to get inside some of this jazz theory that can help us become better improvisors, I want you to check out our latest e-book and companion course, called “The Jazz Standards Playbook”.

I mentioned it earlier in the show. It’s an in-depth study of 10 jazz standards. These jazz standards, if you know them, if you really get inside of them and understand them really well, it can make learning any other jazz standard so much easier. This is really where we do get into that process of really analyzing and digging deep into some of this stuff that can help unlock some of those closed doors in our jazz improvisation.

So if you want to do that, you want to check that book and that companion course out, go to,, and you can check that out there. And one last thing. You know what’s coming up if you’ve been listening. I always ask it, and if you haven’t done it yet, make sure you do it. Make sure you leave us a rating and a review on iTunes, a kind rating and review, or your favorite podcast listening service. It just helps other people finding this show, know this is a show worth listening to. So go and leave your rating and review. Thank you so much for doing that. I really appreciate it. I’m looking forward to seeing you next week. We’re going to be having episode 116. See you then.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. Great podcast, Brent. I have often struggled with this (seeming) conflict between theory and ears, and have discussed it with fellow musicians. I think you have provided great insight into this issue. One way that has helped me deal with getting overwhelmed with theory is to take a tiny bit and practice it on my instrument. For a beginner, that might mean learning to play the appropriate scales and chords over the blues. Thus, we don't allow theory to remain theoretical, but immediately practice and apply it. The information grows from intellectual understanding to organic expression through our instruments. The same process can be applied to information that we gain via listening. Get a bit and apply it. Gradually theory and ear training merge. We can use theory to help train our ears; and analyze music that we originally understood aurally. We can become overwhelmed through either approach (theory or aural). So it's important to find an appropriate level of difficulty and gradually grow from there. Practice then becomes doable and sometimes even fun. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and discouraged, we can hear actual progress.


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