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Improvise Using Music Theory OR by Ear?

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One common question I get is, should I ever have to improvise using music theory or should I do it mainly by learning stuff by ear? Jazz solos, licks, all these sorts of stuff?

Well, in today’s video, I’m going to go over some pros and cons of each approach and help answer that question.

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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. Dear Brent,

    Whilst the theory is very useful for both improvising and writing ear has to come first. I think that many young players who have spent more time on theory and playing patterns from books fail to sound unique in the way that the Jazz giants did. Many sound the same as each other! One only needs to listen to Stan Getz to realise that ear is of paramount importance.
    Best, David

  2. As always, Brent, thought provoking, but the answer to your question is clearly 'ear'. I have picked up the tunes, perhaps using lead sheets, and then 'extended' the melodies. As an academic exercise, your discussions of chord progressions and relationships are very valuable to building up my confidence about what is to come. But to rely on theory as a basis for improvisation leaves me in a nether world of not-improvisation, an environment too structured for such, sort of a semi-classical place. Ear, for sure! Regards,

  3. I learn melodies pretty good, but chords are harder. Don’t have the technical knowledge use looping and slow down devices. Jabs bought them all and don’t know how to use. Don’t even know how to send comment, but I’m typing and trying anyway. Dame difficulty reaching out to PianoGroove. I’ve never figured out how to comment on their lessons. And they like you assume it’s just second nature. Bull…..!!!

  4. I'm with Dave M. Get started by ear and bring the theory in later. This is a natural way in my opinion.
    My thinking at the moment is the theory identifies what's available to play and facilitates what needs to be practiced to get there. Theory helps organize and direct my journey by putting names to the concepts. Theory provides a structure needed to grasp this complex challenge. Theory opens up what might otherwise be a very limited existence.
    If I was a music teacher, I would emphasize memorizing the circle of fifth's fairly early with a student that had developed a little improv skill and really wanted to go further.

  5. Without a doubt, both! Although there are musicians who improvise only with their ear, and there must also be others who only improvise with their musical knowledge, no doubt both things make improvisation red. If you do it only by ear, you will surely lack resources to express yourself musically. If you do it only for the theory, surely your music, lacking intellect, will lose expressive wealth. Let us not forget that musical theory is only a convention, while musical sounds come from nature, they do not need theory.

  6. I would choose to learn by ear, BUT, the theory is useful as a conceptual tool, to be able to quickly put ideas into other contexts, keys, etc. Same with learning a language – one must hear the sounds, and be able to think in the sounds, but knowing a few grammar rules helps too.

  7. As a guy who tried to be a good improviser mainly by theory for MANY years, I agree with your "both" assessment, 100%. I thought the path to success was to understand the mechanics of music and more specifically, jazz. In a sense, it's a natural way for humans to respond to the challenge of learning anything, because most learning is academic. it wasnt until I learned to trust my ear that I started to have meaningful success in jazz improvisation. For example, I thought the way I would learn tunes was by memorizing the changes, as If I was memorizing the presidents of the United States or the periodic table of elements. When I tried to play using that approach, it sounded exactly as I was thinking. In reality, we might start out by analyzing the changes, to get some idea of the underlying structure of a tune, and the harmonic movement/structure, but ultimately when you are performing that tune, you should have moved past all that and you should be playing aurally. As a bass player, it was playing other genres of music that got me to realize that I could learn and play jazz standards by ear. When I was asked to play in some other bands, and the expectation was to memorize all the tunes, I had to stop using "academic" memorization and start to trust my ear. I realized that I was playing tunes on those gigs, without really "thinking" about the changes. As I applied this to jazz standards it was an "aha" moment in my development as a musician. Now, 4 years later, I've learned about 75 jazz standards, because I abandoned the idea that I was just memorizing chords through my eyes, and accepted the idea that I was "memorizing" them through my ears.


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