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#1297519 - 11/01/09 01:02 AM Re: Playing by Ear [Re: etcetra]
jazzwee Offline
7000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/25/07
Posts: 7203
Loc: So. California
etc, I know what you mean about saying that Bill Evans or John Coltrane works out their solos. Yes, like you I listened to multiple takes and I hear them do that.

But realize that this doesn't apply to everything they do. John Coltrane obviously worked out general patterns on Giant Steps, and you bet that Bill Evans will sometimes pre-arrange a solo. You can tell if it's pre-arranged though. Bill Evan's Autumn Leaves is played the same way in multiple versions years apart.

You over extrapolate that though to everything they do and I was told that is not the case. For example, my teacher's recordings were done in ONE take, just like a live performance. And clearly from the errors he pointed out (that I couldn't hear), they didn't even work out the details. It's real jazz. Real improvisation. I asked him for example what he played on a track, and he couldn't remember. We had to listen to it and then he'd think of what he was doing at the time.

I asked the same questions you asked several years ago. I almost felt that if Jazz was pre-arranged, I don't think I wanted to do lessons anymore. I would just be a composer instead. But I was assured that it is not pre-planned.

I asked specifically about 16th notes. Are those sixteenth note patterns just pre-arranged muscle memory patterns? I really thought that. Then he demonstrated to me. He played some regular improvised lines in eighth notes. Then he continued the thought process but this time in sixteenths, proving to me once and for all that it was not pre-arranged. They can hear it faster, these top level guys.

I think that each player arranges the Heads though, to their preference. I spend a lot of time arranging Heads. I think because the Head sets up the solo so full understanding of it puts everything in the right place.

Etc., I have no doubt that a large population of jazz players play as you describe. Pre-arranged and chock full of preset-vocabulary. So your question is really valid since that's probably what we observe most often. But I doubt those players will be getting a Jazz Grammy anytime soon.

BTW - did you see that video of Brad Mehldau (Documentary) talking about improvising? He clearly talks about how he develops the line by starting out with an idea and moving from there. Isn't that pretty direct there?
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#1297525 - 11/01/09 01:16 AM Re: Playing by Ear [Re: etcetra]
jazzwee Offline
7000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/25/07
Posts: 7203
Loc: So. California
Originally Posted By: etcetra
Ear is important, but I am getting the impression that what Gyro and other people mean by it is totally different than what jazz musicians mean by it. When my teachers say learn by ear and get out of books.. they meant that if I am learning a new tune like Airegin, don't go to lead sheets.. learn the melody and chords to the tune on the instrument without written music in front of you. It does take more work to learn that way but you learn so much more doing it that way.

I try to learn everything by ear that way.. the solo is not too difficult,like Bobby Timmons solo on Moanin, I can learn it without having to write it down. And I get a lot out of playing along with the record note-by-note.

If it's a difficult solo/song like Brad Mehldau's solo, I have to write it down and figure out whats going on. Chances are you wont hear the subtlety just by listening to it. He does a lot of accenting every 4th triplet, but he starts in the different parts of the triplet, which makes the time seem even more obscure. I wouldn't have figure that out unless I wrote it down and analyzed it.

So in my opinion there is a learning aspect to the whole playing by ear thing that people seem to neglect.

Etc. I personally don't buy the concept of just "dig in" and it's all random and it all comes out well. Even in classical music there are "rules". Well jazz follows the same rules of Harmony.

Somehow concepts of "Playing by Ear" vs. "Improvisation" is made to imply Random playing and it's nonsense. Again the top players can improvise well because they have COMPLETE understanding of Harmony. It doesn't have to be understood as Music Theory books but I read the story of Dizzy Gillespie and the early times when Bebop was being developed. I was amazed at the late night/early morning Jam sessions between the likes of Dizzy, Bird, Monk etc. and how they spent all their time talking about the structure of the music. I said to myself, my gosh, they really understood this just like Classical composers. Same with Miles Davis and of course Brad Mehldau who both clearly take from Classical literature.

Everyone who says play by ear (without some structure) should demonstrate their playing. I would expect it to sound like folk music.
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#1297538 - 11/01/09 01:38 AM Re: Playing by Ear [Re: jazzwee]
etcetra Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/25/08
Posts: 1457

Even folk music would sound better than what some people call playing by ear smile

Speaking of Dizzy,


" When Dizzy spent a week as a guest with the Phil Woods Quintet, I learned that, to be able to subdivide tempos accurately, Diz and I had created similar exercises when we were young. For example: taking a bar of 4/4 and playing five quarter notes per bar. Then making each of the five quarter notes pairs of eighth notes but playing them in four-note-groups. The effect was as if one were playing eighth notes in a slightly faster tempo than the 4/4. I did this with as many subdivisions as I could find. Eventually, as Dizzy confirmed, one could play any notes anywhere within the tempo and subdivide accurately.

I agree with you. Every great player have Books worth of stuff figured out in their head... You have to analyze, tear things apart and shed all these things. I just don't see how you can go far with just playing by ear, or just "hearing what's in your head and play it", without working things out deliberately.

So If anything, we can agree that what these great players do is a result of everything they've worked out. It's a combination of building fundamentals, muscle memory, ear training.. theory..time..etc that allows them to play the way they do.

I am not necessary saying that these players are just playing patterns pre-worked ideas.. But I am pretty sure that Brad Mehldau, and all those guys were like that at one point in their lives. When you are playing giant steps for the first time, chances are you are playing lots of patterns over it. But after shedding and playing it over and over again in gigs, you'll start to break free from that pattern and just wail on it.

So I don't see anything wrong with working out patterns/muscle memory in practice..esp if its ideas you worked out in your head, or something you heard that you want to assimilate. it's just a means to an end, its a big part of 'paying your dues'.. I just don't agree with those people who flat out deny the importance of these things for ear... why can't you do both?

Heck, some people go through that and toss all that out of the window.. but they did work on it nevertheless. Shouldn't the goal be shedding all these stuff at home so that you can just forget them and just wail when you get on the stage?

Yes I saw the brad mehldau video.. what he says is pretty straight-forward, but if you listen&analyze his playing you realize that it's not as obvious.

Edited by etcetra (11/01/09 02:33 AM)

#1297546 - 11/01/09 02:11 AM Re: Playing by Ear [Re: etcetra]
etcetra Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/25/08
Posts: 1457
What Brad or Dizzy is doing in a lot of way is this kind of "dual time thinking" where you are playing a different time over a given time.. he talks about it in the video..so how do you actually work on it?

For me I made up exercise where I am playing an ostinato bass line in 7 with the LH, and RH is playing a 5 note pattern, and placing them on different parts of the beat. It tricky when you place them on like & of 5.. because LH would naturally want to go with RH. You can also try stuff like grouping 8th notes in groups of 3, 6 against the bassline. So you would in the 5th beat of the 2nd measure if you've played 3 8th note groups cosecutively 8 times.

I know this sounds like a lot of math.. but these kind of exercise helps you know exactly where you are, and it gives you a lot of options when you are 'varying ideas' rhythmically, because your rhythmic variation will not have to be dependent on the barline or even the meter for that sake. I first read about this in a book, but I actually started making exercise on my own after transcribing Brad's solo and hearing how it works in actual playing.

To me the 'general concept' for anything is straight forward.. but working on them is a total different story.. its very time consuming. It's almost like being a scientist&gymnist at the same time.

Edited by etcetra (11/01/09 02:40 AM)

#1297611 - 11/01/09 08:53 AM Re: Playing by Ear [Re: etcetra]
jazzwee Offline
7000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/25/07
Posts: 7203
Loc: So. California
etc., that kind of rhythmic play is very complicated, and I'll tell you is very specialized.

I have a teacher who's stuck to 4/4 for his entire career, other than an occasional 3/4 here and there. He told me that it's not necessary to delve into odd meters to play jazz. So he discouraged me from getting too deep into that.

But newer players are challenged by Mehldau so we all try to do it smile. I actually enjoy playing tunes switched around to 3/4. And I've even tried ATTYA as 5/4. It was doable. I wish you luck in this endeavor. As you know, you pick some skill and it takes time, and it takes away from time to do something else.

In my case, I'm targetting LH independence in soloing as my next long term goal (meaning not ostinato smile ). It is TOUGH! I showed my teacher where I was at the last lesson and my RH is still way too dominant.
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#1297670 - 11/01/09 11:03 AM Re: Playing by Ear [Re: jazzwee]
tremens, delirium Offline
Full Member

Registered: 10/16/09
Posts: 155
One more thing I forgot to mention - when you're a pro you don't have a luxury to play always what' in your head. It's not possible, when you play gig every night to be in the "mood" at request - then weed, music memory, patterns and licks come to play. When you in that level audience won't even notice that you're copying phrases from the past. But all these doesn't matter, it's just performance, something like trained monkey do...

This is also a reason some start to use drugs to help the mood...

#1299615 - 11/04/09 06:59 PM Re: Playing by Ear [Re: tremens, delirium]
Wizard of Oz Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/12/09
Posts: 873
Tremens you are delirius, keep smoking that weed.

#1312924 - 11/26/09 06:59 PM Re: Playing by Ear [Re: etcetra]
VideoTiger Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 07/28/09
Posts: 14
etcetra, I think your point has validity. When improvising there is a very fine line between playing by ear and by muscle memory. My guess is you may be using both at times, or switching back and forth unconsciously.

For those that think improvising is fully done by ear try doing it to a musical style you are completely unfamiliar with, music that uses very different harmonies and rhythmic patterns to what the stuff usually play, and try to improvise over it.

People with exceptional ears may come up with something semi coherent right away, but a truly good deep improvisation isn’t likely.

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