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When soloing over Jazz Standards on Jam Sessions, I've mostly played by ear so far. I've recently tried to work more on theory (using modes to improvise over the chord changes for example) but the more I read about that the more it seems kind of nonsense to me. I mean, isn't it really bad for creativity if you constantly have to think about what you are playing?
I'm not sure if that's a good idea, especially since many people have told me they like my way of improvising and think it's a unique style.

what's your experience with that? do you think theory helps with improvising and if yes, what would you recommend to learn?
 

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this is one of the most controversial items on SOTW and has been the source of lots of angry exchanges of nasty salvos over the time. (mostly created by the play by dots people whom feel superior to the play by ear folks and often have accused the play by ear plethora of being ? lazy? for not wanting to play by the book) .

I like B.B. King comment when he was playing with U2 and they were telling him the chords progressions of the things they wanted to play with him.

? Gentlemen, I don?t do chords!?.



I play by ear because is the only way I know to and have constant better results over many ? play by dots" people whom might very well play arranged music but apparently find difficult to improvise on any given thing.

The way that I play or improvise is not any different from the way a singer scats.

Do they know what key and chords are they scatting in? Most don?t.

I am a melodic player (I make variations and alterations of the basic melody), playing music that has little melody to speak of is then very difficult and indeed chods and keys are well suited to THIS way to play.

Music forms in the brain and is retained there stored, waiting for the next time that you want it to play or sing ( I am sure that you like everyone else can easily sing, impromptu, songs that you haven?t sang for years and years and and every time you add to your repertoire of riffs and patterns. Melody navigation and retention is not for everyone the same though. The singer that I play with (a very talented singer) comments very often that she doesn?t understand certain melodies (Like, incredibly, ? Night in Tunisia? ) that she finds very ? abstract and difficult to improvise.

Anyway, there are many ways to skin a cat. Improvise by ear, by dots or by a combination of the two is all good ...if you can get it, and you can get it if your try :).
 

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I was an ear player for years because I couldn't wrap my head around theory. That was OK as long as I was dealing with simple stuff like rock, pop and blues. No way in hell I could sit in on a jazz standard that modulated through several keys centers as they often do. I've been relentlessly studying theory and practicing more advanced concepts and it has become very obvious how much better I have become. By the way, I am a very poor reader. I am more interested in seeing a chord chart and understanding the way chords and harmony function than reading notated music. In the end, I still follow my ear but have way better ability to play what I hear in my head. And the stuff I hear in my head is way more sophisticated, having tension and resolution in the right places at the right time.

Maybe some people can hear and follow the more subtle/complex harmonic structures and movements, but I had to do lots of study before it has even begun to sink into my ears and intuition. And I considered myself a pretty decent ear player.
 

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A can of worms waiting to overflow.......:popcorn:
 

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A can of worms waiting to overflow.......:popcorn:
You can catch a lot of fish with an overflowing can of worms ;>)

It seems to me that opening post is confusing. Two examples of what I mean:

Player A cannot read sheet music and knows no theory whatsoever. Player A plays and improvises completely by ear, and sounds great. In other words, Player A is moving through the changes vertically or horizontally (although in almost all cases horizontally) intuitively, strictly by way of 'hearing' them, generally with the help and musical cues of accompanying instruments. It sounds fine, because Player A is actually conforming to harmonic theory and basic melodic line without necessarily realizing it.

Player B is a good reader and prefers to learn new music from a score. He/she likes to have a grip on the chord changes of a song before improvising on it, so that he/she can keep those changes in mind while playing. On stage, Player B likes to have at least a chord chart to refer to, although on much played songs, the changes are familiar and even the chord chart is not necessary. Player B knows the theory of what he or she is doing, roughly were he/she is going (these double pronouns are a pain, aren't they), and may consciously decide to take little excursions off the main route.

Is Player A all that different from Player B? Player A conforms to theory and the melodic line without knowing it; Player B does the same, but knows it, and is certainly not constrained by that knowledge. Either player may be mediocre, pedestrian, cliched, repetitive, and boring; either may be brilliant. My personal opinion is that no knowledge is bad knowledge (unless your name is Adam or Eve, and even on that one the jury is not yet in).
 

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If the end result (solo) is good, who cares how you got there?

My ear is garbage and I end up trying to "play the changes" which results in technically "correct" solos that make sense but lord I wish I could just play a melody based on something I heard in my head.
 

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When soloing over Jazz Standards on Jam Sessions, I've mostly played by ear so far. I've recently tried to work more on theory (using modes to improvise over the chord changes for example) but the more I read about that the more it seems kind of nonsense to me. I mean, isn't it really bad for creativity if you constantly have to think about what you are playing?
I'm not sure if that's a good idea, especially since many people have told me they like my way of improvising and think it's a unique style.

what's your experience with that? do you think theory helps with improvising and if yes, what would you recommend to learn?
You have to know music theory in order to have the resources to draw from when improvising over a tune. Its like you have to know the structure of a building before you can add on to it or embellish it. So, you have to know how that tune was built before you can create new lines/melodies during improvising on it. This even helps on simple rock/blues progressions that frequently are only different in melody - when you know more, you're able to overcome routine and be inventive.
You have to study chords and learn how they sound and how that sound 'throws' the mood of a tune in a certain direction. There are plenty of books on the subject but everything starts with the chords and how they are strung together, which forms the 'platform' or 'structure' of the tune. It is common in jazz for a popular or interesting platform to be used to make different tunes. The tune 'Cherokee' has been the basis of hundreds of numbers. Once you know this platform, all you need to know is what key the song is in and you can solo on it.

You'll notice that I have not mentioned 'reading'. That's because 'reading' has nothing to do with improvisation - that's what 'improvise' means - to create on the spot. Its like saying you want to paint like Da Vinci so you should practice connecting the dots. Reading is of course the basic skill that a player needs which is why students always learn reading first. A good reader can listen to a solo they want to study, then read the transcription when they play-along and pretty quickly get it down, assuming they are technically capable of playing it in the first place. IOW, you can use reading to help you learn a solo that some great player improvised, which might help you improvise something in the future, but reading otherwise is not connected with improvising.
 

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BB King had NO knowledge of any music theory and he didn?t seem to do too bad. Even when playing with a great artists who knew about this.

The best players I have met are players whom have an interior intuitive knowledge of all the components of their playing.

Start simple, play the blues, over and over and over after having listened to it over and over and over again.

Anyone would know how a blues goes because there is nothing too difficult about it.

Don?t start on complex music because it will lead you nowhere.

There is NO way that one can play, in the moment, while analyzing the theory.

At best you can hope that after that you have studied the theory this has been interiorized and therefore part of your baggage as melody obviously is (if you can sing it you know where everything is).

My piano player often starts playing in rehearsal?s intermissions and goes anywhere he feels to go. The bass player (who can only play the dots) stops immediately, he is lost hopelessly in seconds.

I follow and lead too, we have always a laugh because there is nothing written or spoken about these runs in all directions.

There will be few people in most native type of improvised music whom have any idea of any music theory. They play what they hear in their heads.

It is like anything else.

You put things in there and then you take it out.

The more you do this the easier it gets.

Where do most free jazz players get their music?

Where did Eric Dolphy get this ? You don?t know what love is? in his last album? Of course he could play the dots and had a great flute education. Bu there was nothing in front of his eyes when he recorded this.

The piece wan?t even scheduled to be played and recorded. He went on with it and the band followed.

Of course, the piece is a standard and we all know it. He must have played some versions of it for thousands times (as I hope anyone has done), but he di this then and there and it was all born out of his mid.

Of course they all knew what they were doing, but so would a singer even if he or she cannot read dots.

Music existed way longer before dots or writing was invented.

The ? theory? only explains what was ALREADY THERE before the theory was written!

But as usual, dots readers are convinced that if you don?t do chords things aren ?t the way they are supposed to be while I think that dots are a great ionvention but if you can?t play without them you are at a greater loss than I am.

 

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Thing is, everybody plays "by ear". The dots, or chord names, are just a code, but they do not contain all the information.

There are two attitudes commonly heard, both of which are incorrect: 1) that "ear players" don't know what they are doing, so they can manage well enough on simple things like the blues form, but fall apart when faced with something more complex; and 2) that "reading" players have their creativity stifled.

In my opinion it's a lot more accurate to think of improvising a solo (when done well) as analogous to talking with someone. You don't plan out every single word, but what you say generally follows the rules of the language and uses its vocabulary. Some people use a large complex vocabulary and subtle sentence structure, developed from extensive reading and study, while others use a simple vocabulary and brief but expressive statements. Both are able to communicate effectively.

It is also true that individual players will move between modes of improvisation, depending on the tune, or even from moment within the tune. For myself, if I'm playing a solo on a complex tune I've never played before, I'll use the written changes (if available) as a guide to what I'm coming up with. If the band leader calls "12 bar blues in Bb, standard form" I don't even think about the changes. On the first tune, if I play several choruses, I will probably be referring to the written changes less and less with each successive chorus.

Finally, I think the example of great jazz players in the history of the music provides numerous counterexamples to both stereotypes.

Highly educated players who knew a ton of music theory and were also supremely creative:

Charlie Parker
Dizzy Gillespie
Coleman Hawkins
Art Tatum
Miles Davis
John Coltrane
Cannonball Adderley

Players who probably didn't know a great deal of music theory:

Erroll Garner
Jelly Roll Morton
Zoot Sims
Ornette Coleman
 

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Ella Fitzgerald, my favorite example. :whistle: ( should anyone think that the voice is any easier to use , try, if you don?t have anything to sing in your head you won?t be able to do it). It is not the instrument it is the vocabulary.

She knew nothing about any theory. She knew music and singing though.

Lack of theoretical knowledge didn?t stop her. Maybe because she didn?t know that it should.

Ever.

 

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Playing by ear is not something everybody can do. In fact, only an incredibly small percentage of players develop this gift. And yeah, it is a gift. So if you're able to do it, more power to you. However you can't cheat on the notes. You have to know the language or you might find yourself limited in how you express yourself; falling into predictable patterns and boxing yourself in.
 

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Look, at this point in history everyone knows that you can be successful playing jazz without knowing much music theory. There's no value in continuing to belabor the point.

I think most jazz players who are not caught up in being defensive about their own lack of formal training would say that knowledge of music theory as applied to jazz improvisation is not required; but that it helps; and that the more you know the more options you will have.

Getting back to the original question:

1) The use of modes to define scales which are played over chords is certainly not "nonsense", but it's not the complete answer either. You can take up this knowledge and use it as one tool to develop things to play while improvising, or you can choose not to do so. There are a variety of other tools as well, each of which you can choose whether or not to learn how to use and incorporate into your playing.

2) Creativity is not "inhibited by thinking about what you're doing" because the detailed analysis and study of the place of each note and its function are done at home in the practice room, not on the bandstand. It's like learning a foreign language. At home you work through all the stilted practice sentences to learn how you put words together in that language, but when you travel to the country you make up your own sentences as you go while communicating to other people.
 

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I think most jazz players who are not caught up in being defensive about their own lack of formal training would say that knowledge of music theory as applied to jazz improvisation is not required; but that it helps; and that the more you know the more options you will have.
This.

And this: Orson Welles: ?The enemy of art is the absence of limitation.?
 

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?Vocabulary? is what I often come back to in these conversations. Learning a jazz vocabulary will provide more ?words? to use when expressing yourself in improvisation. Whether it is chord-based, fragments of scales, patterns, or other, the more you know - and have at ready use under your hands, the more you will have available to use in your creations.

And yes, you can learn by ?ear?, but if you don?t explore music theory, there will be many options that will never be a part of your vocabulary. Some things won?t seem ?natural? or appropriate until you use them a few times, a flat nine for instance.d

Pick your path, and consider leaving your options open.
 

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When I do transcribing I am adding new elements to my aural vocabulary. I'm learning to play things I hear others do that I'd like to be able to copy or expand on. When I memorize and develop master over chord changes I'm working on my ability to quickly go to a melodic note within a chord. Or once I know when a chord is coming I can anticipate that chord. Or substitute another chord over it to reharmonizes the background. So I think for me i work both avenues and both ways to get better at improvisation. On the other hand I can think of many many occasions where I didn't know a song and sounded better than those of the performers that did. That happened at a jazz jam years ago ( I rarely go) where you could tell the rest of the soloists were trying to play their II V licks over changes and I was making music. I got asked by all the rhythm section to include them in any gig I got? I didn't sound like someone practicing , I sounded like someone creating a musical thing. And at many many rock gigs where I simply play sax a whole lot better than they can play guitar/harp/keys. so I can play a better solo simply because I'm a better player on my axe, even if I don't know the song and they supposedly do. So for me it isn't either or . I transcribe songs/solos I like to get better at whatever I like about the solo (Inflections, note choice, space, added harmony) and I memorized and work on chord progressions so I can quickly get to a chord tone no matter what else I'm doing. If you look at the transcribed solos that I like ( or the omni book) 60 to 70 percent are chord tones and the rest passing notes. So even if like to play nothing but unresolved tensions in your solos at least you ought to know why the note you are playing is a tension note and where it might resolve to? K
 

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There are, apparently, two initial states of improvisers: those who hear the theory and improvise; and those who study theory and improvise. In the advanced stage, everything goes to hearing. What does it mean to "hear a theory"? - It means hearing the interaction of overtones, because there is (almost) all the harmony. How is the interaction of overtones studied? - The way that is accepted in classical Indian music for thousands of years: improvisation on the drone. In this way, by listening to digest the main principle of music that reflects our life: stress and calming.


 

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I don't see what's so controversial or divisive about the topic. To me, it's common sense.

The advantage of playing by ear is that it implies that you know the changes and tune (form, tonalities, etc.) intimately. You know these elements so well that they are second nature and you are concerned with more creative things when you play. Liberating.

The advantage of being able to read, is the opening to you of much literature, shortcuts to learning, quick ensemble playing and a reference to a tune and it's elements.

Why should one negate the other?

p.s. I'll add that you can only do what you can do. Some people just have problems with memorizing. So use music. But why rationalize doing it by putting down playing by ear , or ear-players demagoguing those who do?
 

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I am a by-ear melody-player. I can't sight-read music worth a darn. I can identify the written notes, though. It is just the rhythm (those little dots, ties, and rests, etc.) that gives me fits.

It took me years to understand the chords that I was playing through. Oh, I heard them and I played the right notes so that it all made sense. But I had to teach myself the name of the chord and how it was constructed.

I did so by getting ahold of a chord-book my music-reading wife had for piano. Once I did that and understood the construction of a chord (while playing it on a key-board), I was able to significantly improve my saxophone playing.

After all these years, I still don't understand modes and most the musical jargon that some use on this site. But I can sound out a melody on my saxophones (Bb, Eb, and C) in all the concert keys by simply hearing it, and I can read a chord chart when I come across an odd-ball chord that stumps me (like those pesky minor-sixth chords that are so prevalent in the better trad jazz tunes). DAVE
 

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We've had many discussions on this topic before and, for some reason, there's a tendency for people to view this subject in very black and white terms, as if it were a battle between pure, illiterate geniuses with zero knowledge of theory on one side vs. PhD's in music theory on the other. In truth the vast majority of professional and amateur musicians fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

If you're happy playing by entirely by ear, you don't have to learn theory. It's certainly true that there have been some extremely gifted individuals who made beautiful music with no or very little knowledge of music theory and as long as you can skillfully navigate the music you're playing, no one is likely to quiz you.

However, learning fundamentals of music (how to read music, basic chord construction, common scales, different time signatures) can open up new dimensions in your playing that you might not just figure out intuitively on your own. It also gives you a way to communicate with other musicians which can be very helpful in a band setting or even on a forum like this one. Music theory might seem like rocket science, but it's really not if you have a patient teacher or good self-study materials.

Finally, the idea that learning theory will stifle your creativity is sheer nonsense that's easily disproved by listening to any of the great musicians who had a working knowledge of theory, which is to say most famous jazz, classical, and studio musicians.
 
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