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Playing what you hear

Discussion in 'Music Theory [DB]' started by Mikewl, Oct 2, 2005.

  1. Hi,

    I'm 19, and have been playing bass for just under 2 years now. When I first started to play, I knew so little about jazz theory that my goal was to learn all about chords, scales and so on. When I had a fairly good grasp of harmony, and a decent control of the bass, my aim was to write good walking basslines, and play them so they sounded good to me. My next goal was to be able to pick up a leadsheet to a tune and fake my way through (basslines, not soloing). After a whole lot of practice, I eventually got that down pat.

    When I read the posts on these forums, I can see most people advocate for "playing what you hear" - I completely agree with this, but it's much easier said than done. I've spent so much of my practice time learning how to "play what I see", that when I put down the leadsheet (even to a tune I know quite well), I can stumble through some of it, but I'll eventually forget one of the chords and it'll throw me off.

    I've devoted much of my time now to learning tunes without the lead sheet in front of me, but the problem is I'm still not playing by ear. I am STILL learning tunes by remembering where my fingers go on the bass and following the root around. While I'm not playing with any sheet in front of me, I still feel as though I'm not "hearing" before I play, but just playing what I know is right.

    I want to ask you guys: how do you really learn to internalise a tune's harmony? How can I learn to play a bassline without thinking of symbols or numbers... When guys say that they only play what they hear, how do they learn to to actually hear their own basslines in the first place?

    Thanks a lot in advance, Mike.

    By the way, I did have a teacher, but I've just moved interstate. There's only one bass teacher in the city that I'm aware of (Eric Ajaye). It may be a couple of months before I start studying with him, and I can't wait till then to start my new journey!
  2. Hi Mike,
    I have found that if I first internalize the melody then I have a much easier time playing by ear (or playing what I hear). I practice melodies against recordings or Jamey Aebersold play alongs, and by hearing the harmony against the melody, this really cements my understanding of what I need to play. You are right, it is very difficult to look away from the page and trust that you are going to get things right, I certainly still need that crutch at every gig, but the songs that I have down pat are the songs that I know the melody to and can solo on.


    Paul Arkell
  3. hdiddy

    hdiddy Official Forum Flunkee Supporting Member

    Mar 16, 2004
    Richmond, CA
    I think everybody's starting point to answer this is to learn to sing your lines before playing them. If you're just moving in a mechanical way, you're not really making much in terms of music, but just cranking out notes that fit some rules or physical conditioning you've learned. Internalizing the melody can help you come up with ideas, but the main point is to come up with your own ideas. I think such things lead to motifs, licks, or call-and-response ideas that can be used to develop a theme during a solo or bassline. "Singing" can lead to "hearing". So a great way you can start is by just scatting and start making all kinds of noises as if you were soloing. It'll sound stupid at first, but the more you get used to it, you'll start to see more ideas that you can develop in that process.

    In an interview I read by some famous person (I forget who), they were asked the question "how do you teach a student to improvise". To which they answered that teaching improvisation is like teaching someone how to imagine things - something that you' really can't teach, and that the student just needs to start trying to imagine things themselves.

    The best way to start is to just start doing and making lots of mistakes. After a while, you'll start to figure out what works and what doesn't. A teacher then can help you understand more of the possibilities and how to expand your imagination.
  4. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    What HUYDIDDLEDIDDLE said. I really think that singing is the key. I've had a lot of success with This method, both in my own personal growth, and with my students.
  5. JimmyM


    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    +1 for singing. At an early age, I was told, "If you can sing it, you can play it." It's the absolute truth. If you can't sing, you can trick your fingers into playing what you should be singing by using the rhythm of singing to guide you along.
  6. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    Not necessarily. It's all mental. My kid started down that road when he was nine 'cuz nobody told him it's much easier said than done. It's taking me a little longer.

    Right. You don't trust yourself.

    I can't tell you how to stop thinking. Maybe you're just not supposed to stop thinking at this moment in your life; I dunno. But what you're aiming for is the most direct connection between your ears and your hands.

    And what you have to realize is that as long as everybody knows the tune, nobody cares what the letter or symbol of the chord is. The audience doesn't care if it's Eb 7 #9/A or A7 #9 #11. The other players don't care, either. They're just listening and going.

    Perhaps you're reading, worrying about your amp-sound, wondering about what tune is next, scoping out that person in the front, checking the ballgame on the TV over the bar and trying to follow the band. If so something's gonna get left out.

    Go cold turkey -- JUST DO IT. Put yourself in situations where you have no choice except to trust yourself. Turn the music stand around. Leave the book in the car. Put the book on the floor where it's uncomfortable to see.

    Load a bunch of Miles Quintet records with Paul Chambers into your changer, turn off the bass and set it for "random play." You have no idea which tune is coming, what tempo, what key . . . ya just GOT to play anyway.

    Eliminate the extra stimuli. Just leave your fingers and your ears. You WILL play bad stuff. You WILL continue to live and breathe afterwards. You're not flying a passenger plane, Mike. You can make a goof and see where that leads.

    Everybody's got their own things that work. Part of it is just learning bucket-loads of tunes, which generally equates to time (in terms of years). Part of it is learning how things sound. Part of it is trusting yourself.

    Try banging a random note on the piano behind your back, then playing it on the bass. Try picking a short random phrase off the radio and playing it on the bass. Whatever works to reinforce the ACTUAL FACT that your hands already know what your ears are hearing.

    Finally, what we're talking about here is LEARNING, UNDERSTANDING AND FORGETTING. Trust your band-mates to bring you to a place you all want to be.

    Have fun.
  7. Alexi David

    Alexi David

    May 15, 2003
    I internalize tunes by listening to recordings of them over and over and over again. Then I can use my ear to figure them out quickly.
  8. Phil Smith

    Phil Smith Mr Sumisu 2 U

    May 30, 2000
    Peoples Republic of Brooklyn
    Creator of: iGigBook for Android/iOS
    This is a process that happens over time and you've only been playing for two years. It takes a few more years of practicing and gigging before you start hearing in the moment. If you keep practicing and more importantly playing in actual musical situations you will begin to hear a lot more.
  9. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    My dad used to turn on the car radio to the oldies station (which, back then, meant Sinatra, big bands, opop singers from the 40's and 50's) and would pick a key and have me tell him the changes.
  10. Savino


    Jun 2, 2004
    Everyone here makes a great point. Music IS singing. The ultimate goal is to make your instrumental voice as natural as your speaking voice. I got to a point years back where i could play fast, i could do some flashy things. But , I still felt unsatisfied. I realized that my connection with my instrument was often on a physical level. It requires tremendous concentration to remain in a musical moment without distraction. This itself requires it's own type of practice. I have developed some exercises I use to improve my connection with the bass.

    1. Warm up with a drone. Sing a note, play it. repeat
    2. Sing a short phrase, play it. Sing another phrase starting on the note you ended on, play it. Don't worry about being exact or what chord your trying to sound.
    3. Set the metronome, Play a steady stream of notes, strictly quarters, then eigths, sixteenths, and so on. Focus your ears in on what you are playing and try to shape your notes into cohesive statements. Sing along. Your musical flow will begin to emerge.
    4. I Tunes is awesome. Practice with it. Play along with it on random trying to decipher as much information as you can. I have a rule. No skipping songs. If Stravinsky comes up, I play along with it same with Michael Jackson.

    When your ears are tuned in, it's quite hard to sing a bad note so letting your ears guide you will prevent playing one.
  11. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    I've found the opposite-ish to be true. I'd like to talk that over with you sometime. I've tried to lay it out here a few times in text, but a live demonstration is a lot more effective.
  12. Savino


    Jun 2, 2004
    I can see where you're coming from Ray. At your level it becomes easy, but from a beginner's standpoint, Being on a bandstand trying to remember the changes, worrying about your sound and time feel, wondering if the trumpet player is vibe-ing you or not, etc. all can be big distractions when you are trying to play music. I do firmly believe that concentration is one of the biggest challenges of a musician. How many times when you are practicing do you feel your mind wander off to the Con Ed bill or the car alarms, or the crackheads yelling on the streets?
    Ha ha, that's MY neighborhood, I'm not sure about yours but . . .

    Been a long time Mr. Parker, hope we can hang soon
  13. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    Stop by Arturo's tonight. I'm not playing, but will be hanging. I'll also run my stuff by you and make the argument for this stuff being good for beginners, too.

    If you go, get out there about or after 10:30pm -- most of the pizza-eaters are usually gone by then.
  14. Savino


    Jun 2, 2004
    I'd love to bud, but i've got somewhere to be. Thanks for the invite. Soon we shall have that discussion
  15. Thanks for all the info, guys. I guess I have always underestimated how useful singing can be. Now I have to work on being able to hear things in my head and play them at the same time! A big change from just mindlessly following a chart almost without thinking at all.

    I'm just excited that now, as hdiddy said, I'll start to really make music, not just play mechanically.

    Thank you all once again.
  16. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    Don't overlook a more "formal" approach to ear training-identifying and singing intervals through the second octave, triads in inversion, in closed and open positions, 4 part chords, with one and two tensions. It's a lot of work, but hearing with clarity is what being a musician's all about.
  17. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    I thought it was the ability to eat chili after midnight.
  18. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    I sit corrected.
  19. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    ...or obstructed...
  20. hdiddy

    hdiddy Official Forum Flunkee Supporting Member

    Mar 16, 2004
    Richmond, CA
    Do you guys think there are any pitfalls to singing while you solo? I mean, we've all heard this type of thing countless times from Slam Stewart to you-name-it.

    Normally, I don't sing my lines but try to hear them in my head. My lines seem to have a little more cohesion if I sing them (read: less mechanical), but I don't have a urge to sing everything I play. Should it be something that's ok to develop further and use all the time or is it a learning-tool/crutch I should wean myself off of? Does it really matter?