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I'm honestly curious about the division between how many players would classify themselves as playing by "theory" (you can take this as playing the changes, using riffs, arpeggios, and memorized patterns) Vs. those who listen to the melodic line and play melodic variations by ear. This is obviously very generalized and there is no judgement about which is superior or better, although each of us may wish to think that way! I'm guessing that there's more who follow a "theory" route as that fits the predominant mode of teaching. Melodic playing or playing by ear is difficult to teach. I'd especially like to hear from those who were taught by "theory" and went on to being able to play by ear. Is there a desire to progress or broaden one's style from "theory" playing?
 

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I'm honestly curious about the division between how many players would classify themselves as playing by "theory" (you can take this as playing the changes, using riffs, arpeggios, and memorized patterns) Vs. those who listen to the melodic line and play melodic variations by ear. This is obviously very generalized and there is no judgement about which is superior or better, although each of us may wish to think that way! I'm guessing that there's more who follow a "theory" route as that fits the predominant mode of teaching. Melodic playing or playing by ear is difficult to teach. I'd especially like to hear from those who were taught by "theory" and went on to being able to play by ear. Is there a desire to progress or broaden one's style from "theory" playing?
I’ve got my popcorn ready.

:)


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I find I rely on both for my improvisations. I generally follow the chord progressions and base lines and use those to get me started but I take it easy enough to find the right notes by ear.

By taking it easy, I mean playing fewer notes and attempting to be melodic. I give my ear a chance to land on a chord tone or extension that I am comfortable executing.

I am definitely not attempting to play “sheets of sound.” I lack the theory and/or ear to pull it off.

Finally, I rely on licks that I have internalized and I try to play variations of these to keep things interesting.
 

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Which one is more organic? Which has more soul?
 

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I use both. In HS I was a terrible sight reader and chord progressions meant nothing to me thus I played around the melody of the head. Once I studied at University I realized using alternative scales and actually following the changes makes one sound much more advanced.

For instance I perform in a local group that plays jazz at large events and they modernize the arrangements so I play in a more pop jazz style following the head but when I go to perform with cats that are playing straight ahead I have to up my game and use the scales I have learned to create a something fresh.

FWIW my two cents.
 

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Paraphrasing melody and sticking to chord tones and surrounds is a Swing Era approach. Following chord/scale relationships ala George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept, and learning what notes sound like what you want through working on patterns is more of a Bebop/Post-Bop approach. If your goal is to play using your ears and your brain about equally, with knowledge of where you are in any given chord, scale, or progression, I find the latter to be more effective. Train your ears and use them, also knowing where you are in any given chord on a scalar basis on a more intuitive level gained through repetition, and be able to hear what everyone else is doing too, and be able to react to that. But that's just me, and a hundred thousand other music school knobs. If you want to stay focused on American Songbook and play things that a broader audience will like, nothing flashy just nice music, maybe the former approach is for you. It boils down to what works for you.

When playing R&B and rock oriented material I tend to lean on blues materials more, but using your ears is still vitally important, especially when playing outside, which I often do on those gigs. Clean sound, tonally symmetrical in a way that the audience will easily understand. I try to discard a bop mindset, because playing that stuff on R&B just sounds like a Jazz player that doesn't get it, to me.
 

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I would have thought that what contrasts with "playing by ear" is "playing from written music" not using "theory (i.e., playing the changes, using riffs, arpeggios, and memorized patterns)".

It seems that some people think of "playing by ear" as relying purely on intuition/inspiration/etc. and without giving any conscious thought to the changes, arpeggios, etc. I find this largely incomprehensible, to be honest. I don't doubt that some people may do it, mind you, just that I can't understand it!
 

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I would have thought that what contrasts with "playing by ear" is "playing from written music" not using "theory (i.e., playing the changes, using riffs, arpeggios, and memorized patterns)".

It seems that some people think of "playing by ear" as relying purely on intuition/inspiration/etc. and without giving any conscious thought to the changes, arpeggios, etc. I find this largely incomprehensible, to be honest. I don't doubt that some people may do it, mind you, just that I can't understand it!
++
 

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Discussion Starter #9
I would have thought that what contrasts with "playing by ear" is "playing from written music" not using "theory (i.e., playing the changes, using riffs, arpeggios, and memorized patterns)".

It seems that some people think of "playing by ear" as relying purely on intuition/inspiration/etc. and without giving any conscious thought to the changes, arpeggios, etc. I find this largely incomprehensible, to be honest. I don't doubt that some people may do it, mind you, just that I can't understand it!
Most people can sing a simple tune e.g Mary had a little lamb, twinkle twinkle little star etc. Is it hard for you to sing this with different start notes? Probably not if you have any musical ability. That's you conceiving (hearing) the music in your head and configuring your vocal chords to produce the right sounds. The sax, or any other instrument, can be an extension of your voice where you can play whatever you can hear in your head. That's not reading, and it's not theory. It's making the instrument an extension of your voice. Many experienced players can do this, but it takes time, practice and a desire to play by ear. There are players who never attempt to play by ear, or as some have indicated use a mix of following changes until they feel free/comfortable playing by ear.

There's the old joke about a musician being asked "do you know where the bathroom is" and the musician saying "hum me a few bars and I'll play it". Many (most?) pop/jazz musicians from the 1920s to the 1960s aspired to (or achieved) being able to play back a tune they had just heard. This could include variations or an improvisation. It's a matter of being able to play what you can hear. This aspiration may have been lost somewhere along the way and I'm just trying to see if it's still alive with some.

Your honest answer indicates that you are totally unaware of this as a musical possibility. That's particularly interesting. Thanks for your reply.
 

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The more you know about music the more able you are to use those building blocks to construct better improvisations. 'Playing by ear' is the ability to play music you have heard before without using written music and the ability to automatically learn written music that is played regularly so that at some point you no longer need the music. Players who can do this typically also are able to improvise more melodically and generally always play music even when practicing, taking an exercise and making it musical. Or put another way, they turn even a major scale into something more musical by making a song or riff out of it, so even when practicing we are learning new ways to make music.
I don't think the original question is valid. No matter how much 'ear' and talent a player has, he must know theory in order to advance. A player with 'big ears', a head full of knowledge and a great technique derived from years of practice can be anything he wants.
Interestingly, I had the thought tonight on the gig that when I'm playing, I don't see a sheet of music in my head. I realized that I think of the notes by their positions in the scale or chord that I'm working with and/or by their concert pitch since I always think in concert. Now if I'm playing a number that I once used sheet music for, I continue to 'see' the music but not in good detail. I don't see this as a conflict or paradox - if you consider what ear players are doing is 'playing something back' the ability to 'see' the music on 'paper' is just another way of doing it and most likely is simply how the brain is wired. IOW, if I learn something off a record with no written music involved, I just learn it by listening and trying it - I remember it by sounds. If I play something that I learned while reading it, it 'plays back' by sound as well as the visual of the music, but the visual is sketchy and incomplete. Having this ability can be peevish too, like when I was playing with a group that had been playing 'Pick Up The Pieces' for 14 years and the other horn players had to have the music every time. I'm thinking 'You have played this simple thing 1000 times and you still need the chart?' I learned it when it was on the radio in the '70s including the Brecker solo and have been playing it ever since. Right now I'm playing with two different groups and have all the songs in my head. I never sat down and tried to memorize them, it just happened. I have over 50 years of material in my head but realistically could only claim to be able to instantly play the ones that are from the more recent past. The others I might have to listen to in order to fully 'get it back'.
 

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My goal as an adult getting back to improvising, is to play a simple tune by ear in several keys after my long tone warmup every day. That being said, I don't think its either / or. In jazz especially, but any style of music or improv a musician should be able to play by ear and have a mastery of several theoretical approaches / chord substitutions. The top musicians can keep the listener interested by having a variety of source material to draw from and constant fresh approaches to the harmony.
 

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Most people can sing a simple tune e.g Mary had a little lamb, twinkle twinkle little star etc. Is it hard for you to sing this with different start notes? Probably not if you have any musical ability. That's you conceiving (hearing) the music in your head and configuring your vocal chords to produce the right sounds. The sax, or any other instrument, can be an extension of your voice where you can play whatever you can hear in your head. That's not reading, and it's not theory. It's making the instrument an extension of your voice. Many experienced players can do this, but it takes time, practice and a desire to play by ear. There are players who never attempt to play by ear, or as some have indicated use a mix of following changes until they feel free/comfortable playing by ear.

There's the old joke about a musician being asked "do you know where the bathroom is" and the musician saying "hum me a few bars and I'll play it". Many (most?) pop/jazz musicians from the 1920s to the 1960s aspired to (or achieved) being able to play back a tune they had just heard. This could include variations or an improvisation. It's a matter of being able to play what you can hear. This aspiration may have been lost somewhere along the way and I'm just trying to see if it's still alive with some.

Your honest answer indicates that you are totally unaware of this as a musical possibility. That's particularly interesting. Thanks for your reply.
You'll notice that I said that I don't doubt some people may do this. Obviously, children can sing without any training or knowledge of music theory, and some people are such highly skillful intuitive singers that they have long careers and never need to learn anything whatsoever about music theory. And I don't doubt that some people may be able to just pick up an instrument, and without any musical training whatsoever, be able to play what they hear in their head. (Well-known cases of musical savants being a case in point.) But that is, by far, the exception, not the rule. The average skilled musician who plays an instrument at a high level has worked long, long hours honing his or her craft, and it's not done without learning and practicing basic musical principles. Even those renowned musicians who play at a very high level but never learned to read music typically spent hours upon hours practicing, experimenting, honing their skills -- they didn't just pick up the instrument and immediately start playing like a child who can just intuitively sing.

The fact that "[m]any (most?) pop/jazz musicians from the 1920s to the 1960s aspired to (or achieved) being able to play back a tune they had just heard" doesn't really show that they didn't rely at all on theory; it may very well be that they simply learned it all so thoroughly and incorporated it so completely that they no longer had to think about it -- it became part of their reflexive equipment, so to speak. When Parker said "first you learn your instrument, then you learn the music, then you just forget it all and just play", surely he meant that you reach a point where you can control your instrument and you understand the theory so completely that you no longer have to consciously think about it, but that doesn't mean that it's not there at all.
 

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In the past you had some jazz greats like Miles Davis who came out of Julliard filled with theory and still needed players like Dizzy to show him jazz tips. Back then there weren't many jazz books and written jazz transcriptions to follow, so most of it came from ear and feeling. At some point beginners should put the books down and just play what they feel. In the past players found their sound from within and not totally from jazz theory books and written solo transcriptions. They had to play records over and over to get it "in their ears". I show players another means of leaning the sound of jazz as language.
 

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Knowing and using theory will sharpen your ear.
A sharp ear will help you understand theory.
Use both.
 

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I'm honestly curious about the division between how many players would classify themselves as playing by "theory" (you can take this as playing the changes, using riffs, arpeggios, and memorized patterns) Vs. those who listen to the melodic line and play melodic variations by ear. This is obviously very generalized and there is no judgement about which is superior or better, although each of us may wish to think that way! I'm guessing that there's more who follow a "theory" route as that fits the predominant mode of teaching. Melodic playing or playing by ear is difficult to teach. I'd especially like to hear from those who were taught by "theory" and went on to being able to play by ear. Is there a desire to progress or broaden one's style from "theory" playing?
The best thing is to do both. I never went to music school, am mostly a self-taught jazz player. I played by ear before I knew how theory even worked. There's only so far you can take that, and you get bored quickly. After getting very frustrated, I went to an instructor who taught me theory, and when I began applying it, very simply at first, it was like going from black and white to color. Suddenly there was an unlimited new world to explore, and it revitalized my music career. But I went too far into theory based playing too, e.g.. looking at chords and applying scales and patterns. At some point that starts feeling like speed bumps and pot holes. I have found the very best system is to learn the changes, memorize them if possible, then throw them away. There are many chord progressions that are reused over and over in tunes, and so if you can learn a tune like All Of Me in 12 keys, you will have the changes of many, many tunes under your fingers and your ear will take you to the right notes automatically without even thinking about the changes.

You can think of it like learning a language. The best way to learn a language isn't from books and classes, but from going somewhere where everyone speaks that language and being forced to learn it. However, I know a lot of immigrants who learned enough English to get by but their grammar, syntax, etc is horrid, and they speak with a lot of mistakes forcing others to speak to them slowly and explain multiple times. Other immigrants I know actually went to the trouble to perfect their English with supplemental classes, and now speak it as well as natives. So the natural way is just to play, but if you want to get really good, you absolutely must learn theory and apply it continually in your learning processes.

Regarding theory, Bird said it best: "Learn that stuff and then forget it."
 

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I suppose there has to be a balance between the two, ear and theory. In my case i am good enough visualizing chord tones and lines when thinking in changes but these has take me to a kind of automatics that i try to fight against when playing. I would like to 'sing' more when playing. What about specific exercises to deal with that?
I am beginning a concentrated study of one standard song, and i think the daily repetition of its harmony and playing thru it mades me hear more in my head. I play it also on piano slowly and this helps a lot. I try to put bebop playing and substitutes on the sax but they come from theory more than internal hearing. Anyway i repeat them over and over until they are in my head. Everything seems to be ear training once you focus.
Any other exercise to help leaving the just theory approach?
 

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I don't think you can separate them. Two sides of the same coin. What you can, and need, to do is internalize the theory/harmony to the point you can get beyond thinking about it when you are applying it to create a great melody.
 

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The more you know about music the more able you are to use those building blocks to construct better improvisations. 'Playing by ear' is the ability to play music you have heard before without using written music and the ability to automatically learn written music that is played regularly so that at some point you no longer need the music. Players who can do this typically also are able to improvise more melodically and generally always play music even when practicing, taking an exercise and making it musical. Or put another way, they turn even a major scale into something more musical by making a song or riff out of it, so even when practicing we are learning new ways to make music.
I don't think the original question is valid. No matter how much 'ear' and talent a player has, he must know theory in order to advance. A player with 'big ears', a head full of knowledge and a great technique derived from years of practice can be anything he wants.
Interestingly, I had the thought tonight on the gig that when I'm playing, I don't see a sheet of music in my head. I realized that I think of the notes by their positions in the scale or chord that I'm working with and/or by their concert pitch since I always think in concert. Now if I'm playing a number that I once used sheet music for, I continue to 'see' the music but not in good detail. I don't see this as a conflict or paradox - if you consider what ear players are doing is 'playing something back' the ability to 'see' the music on 'paper' is just another way of doing it and most likely is simply how the brain is wired. IOW, if I learn something off a record with no written music involved, I just learn it by listening and trying it - I remember it by sounds. If I play something that I learned while reading it, it 'plays back' by sound as well as the visual of the music, but the visual is sketchy and incomplete. Having this ability can be peevish too, like when I was playing with a group that had been playing 'Pick Up The Pieces' for 14 years and the other horn players had to have the music every time. I'm thinking 'You have played this simple thing 1000 times and you still need the chart?' I learned it when it was on the radio in the '70s including the Brecker solo and have been playing it ever since. Right now I'm playing with two different groups and have all the songs in my head. I never sat down and tried to memorize them, it just happened. I have over 50 years of material in my head but realistically could only claim to be able to instantly play the ones that are from the more recent past. The others I might have to listen to in order to fully 'get it back'.
You have a 'gift'. I started a thread about memorizing vs. sight reading a while back and I've been trying to memorize some pieces I've worked on for a long time. I struggle. I can remember the first page or so then it gets sketchy even though I know how it's supposed to sound because I've read it 1000 times. My way of learning has always been visual. I'm the kind of guy that reads my camera manual through from cover to cover. I wish I had your gift. It's probably something you developed through practice. I believe I can learn to memorize music but it will always be harder for me than reading the notes off the page. I am able to read ahead so I'm anticipating what comes up which helps. I think most pros are more like you than me.
 
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