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Who can play the music that's in their head?

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by Wademeister63, May 17, 2005.

  1. Wademeister63


    Aug 30, 2004
    Denton Tx
    I used to think every "real" musician could play whatever tune might be playing in thier minds. Just like humming or whistling to a tune, playing it without having to learn it or figure it out. Some of the stuff I've seen or read more recently has been sort of encouraging to me since it seems I'm far from alone in having to work stuff out before I can play it. I mean I can get along fine with my familiar patterns and stuff, but if I want to do some harmony or fills that are out of the ordinary I have to experiment for a while and sort of work that to the point of being comfortable.

    Do you have to work stuff out, or can you just lay it down as it comes to you? How about double stops, chords, or whatever? Just how rare is it for people to be able to just let it out as they hear it?
  2. Psyrcle

    Psyrcle Guest

    Everyday I hear something in my head that makes me want to be able to play it on bass, guitar, piano, drums, mandolin, or even just to get the right people to harmonize it. But I know where you are coming from. That kind of **** pisses me off when I can hear it in my head but my hands won't replicate it on an instrument.
  3. Planet Boulder

    Planet Boulder Hey, this is a private residence...man

    Nov 10, 2001
    6,482 feet above sea level
    I once had impure thoughts. Oh, and I pluck my ear hair.
    I've found that the best way to do it is to slowly sound it out vocally while playing it. When I come up with new tunes in my head, I'll continue to hum them until I can sit down and it put it to the fretboard. This humming really draws attention at funerals and wakes, however.
  4. Brad Johnson

    Brad Johnson

    Mar 8, 2000
    Gaithersburg, Md
    DR Strings

    There are many degrees of this. The key is ear training, learning intervals and understanding how to apply them to your instrument. On one of my open mic gigs I not only have to play the stuff in my head, I have to play stuff other people hum to me.

    This actually came up during a break last night. The guitar player was wondering if I had perfect pitch and I told him, no... even though I can figure out the pitch if I think about it. In my case I use "Portrait of Tracy" as a reference and that'll give me C, from there I can figure out what other pitches are.

    Or I can just pluck a string;)

    Anyway, what I explained to him is that the majority of what I do is based on relative pitch. I don't care where a song starts, everything after that starting point will be in the same relative place. Makes transposing a piece of cake.

    For me...

    Perfect pitch -not all that important
    Relative pitch - extremely important.

    If you know in your head what relation the pitches have to each other, it's not so hard to put them on your fingerboard. Most people know what the commonly used pitches sound like, lots of people don't know what they're called... which really isn't that important unless you're trying to communicate to others what you're thinking. Most people know what the half step sounds like ("Jaws"), they know what a I-V sounds like or a I-IV (tuning your bass) or major and minor thirds and easiest of all, octaves. Really internalizing the rest, like flat V's or 6ths or 11ths, etc. is what really makes playing what's in your head easy.

    Take small steps, learn a piece at a time, burn it into memory and soon your vocabulary is bound to increase.

    Use corelations whenever possible, meaning understand how one thin is like another. If you know that basic bassline to "Smoke on the Water", playing the basic riff to "Another One Bites the Dust" should be easy.

    Doublestops and chords are all interval-based. A I-V doublestop will have the same relative sound no matter where you play it.

    All of this stuff takes time and practice. It helps if you enjoy the discovery.
  5. +1

    The only thing that I would like to add is that the more you do anything... the easier it will become. I sit in with some friends all of the time that do a jamband/ electronic trance kinda deal and a lot of the time I have to follow a keyboard. This took away my ability to cheat off of the guitar and I had to start using my ears more. It was a little weird at first but I can pick up on most keys and changes fairly easy now. And it helps when writing new music too.
  6. With-in reason (depending on the music) if I can hum it, I can pretty much play it.
    I do a lot of subbing with top40/dance bands, and most of the time I don't even get a disc of the tunes they do, but a set list.
    And like others I assume, if I've heard it enough, I can play it.
    It pisses my wife off, cause I'll get a call for a gig, maybe get a disc or two,I'll listen to it for a day or two and go play the gig. She doesn't get it at all.
    Now, it's not like that for more complicated stuff so much(say, jazz or fusion), but your standard top40/funk/dance/rock/country stuff, pretty much all day long.
    Do I have perfect pitch?!? I dunno. But I do chart out some stuff without using my bass.
  7. Matt Till

    Matt Till

    Jun 1, 2002
    Edinboro, PA
    My lord, I compose symphonic masterpieces in my head... but I can't get them out...

    Skru ThERoRY!!

    ... I suck.
  8. slinkp


    Aug 29, 2003
    brooklyn, NY, USA
    Very interesting topic to me. I've been wrangling this one all my life as a musician. I think playing what's in your head is one of the most important things a musician (any musician) can cultivate. In fact I'd place it at number two, right behind number one - the ability to listen to other musicians.

    Yep, like everybody said above, there are degrees.
    I can play "the music in my head" as long as it's not too fast and complicated. It varies a lot with how in shape I am, and also with what kind of stuff I've been playing. Sometimes I find that if I'm playing exclusively guitar-oriented music and then have to play with a keyboardist, I get thrown off because they routinely do chord changes that most guitarists never think of. It's like my brain and hands get tuned to average guitar music and something atrophies, and everything else confuses me... I hate when that happens!

    +1 on relative pitch being more important than perfect pitch.

    Here's an excercise: listen to something (anything), stop the playback, then try to play what you just heard. This is different than playing along with a CD because it forces you to internalize the music and play from that. Good to do this with stuff other than basslines too - play vocal melodies, vocal harmonies, guitar parts, horn parts, you name it.

    Doing this kind of thing is really good for your improvising ability too.
    I've noticed that I can improvise in two distinct ways - one is sort of a pattern-oriented thing where I'm just kind of following shapes on the fingerboard: scales and chord shapes and habitual licks, and maybe mentally identifying things occasionally to orient myself ... "now we're in A minor 7", that kind of thing.

    The other way is thinking internally of what I want to play purely in terms of sound (not thinking note names or anything theoretical) and trying to keep up with that. This is much more challenging but also much more satisfying *to me*. After 22 years on bass I still think I suck at it.

    It also helps you write basslines. When I'm trying to come up with a part for a song, sometimes I just listen without playing and try to imagine what I want to hear the bass doing. Sometimes I hum a bit. Then I try to play that. I'm a lot more creative this way.

    Challenge: quick - grab your bass and play the melody from The Flintstones right now!

  9. I was commisioned to write and record the music for a low budget film. This was guitar and bass and maybe a drum machine in the mix. This is exactly how I came up with all of my stuff. The "director" if you will said "This is what I am looking for here" and I would write that down, take the clips home and watch the clip without any volume and mentaly picture what he wanted. Once I had that down I would start recording and build on it from there. It didn't always work out perfectly but there was one scene that I guess I nailed. The director said I must have been in his head. That was one of the coolest compliments I've ever received!
  10. Time Divider

    Time Divider Guest

    Apr 7, 2005
    I can't.

    Jaco could.

    Ah, the tortured genius that was Jaco.

    In reference to perfect pitch - extremely rare. It means being able to sing any pitch immediately with no prompt from anything remotely musical (even the hum of a fan or a squeaky door). Relative pitch is another story, where you get the starting point and you can figure out any other pitch from there. This is a skill that can be developed. But perfect pitch seems to be some kind of God-given ability that cannot be improved upon with practice.
  11. Wrong Robot

    Wrong Robot Guest

    Apr 8, 2002
    I would say I'm pretty competent in getting what I'm hearing in my head out onto a recording. But the problem I encounter is usually that I hear many different things, all equally applicable, but all different. So I might be working on a track and I hear the next part in my head, and I record it, but literally as I'm recording it, I hear another part that would work as well if not better. This leads to some interesting accidental recordings, but typically it's just kind of a nuisance.

    I don't have perfect pitch, but I do have a very strong relative pitch(well, it used to be very strong, I haven't been practicing it as much as I could) I don't think perfect pitch is requisite for being able to play what's in your head. All that takes is familiarity with your instrument and a competent awareness of sound.

    Richard bona often talks about how he's spent so much time playing, and so much time singing while he's playing and playing what he sings, that he's so familiar with his instrument, he doesn't need perfect pitch, he is just so in tune with his instrument, that anything he can hear he can play, simply because he's developed that connection over time. I think it's like that with a lot of cats who really spend a lot of time not necessarily singing triadic inversions and identifying chord progressions, but just from sitting with their instrument and really understanding and realizing what your instrument is and what it is doing.

    I guess, I mean, at the same time, I often find myself with a really interesting musical idea bouncing around in my head, but when it comes to playing it on the bass or piano, I stumble and can't exactly put it into words.
  12. Munjibunga

    Munjibunga Total Hyper-Elite Member Gold Supporting Member

    May 6, 2000
    San Diego (when not at Groom Lake)
    Independent Contractor to Bass San Diego
    If it's a song I've heard a lot, I can play it first or second time through. If it has complicated lines, I have to futz around with it a little bit (ala Josie). If I can sing it I can play it, as a general rule.
  13. Mojo-Man


    Feb 11, 2003
    My goal is to do it on call.
    A life long persute.
  14. Kelly Coyle

    Kelly Coyle

    Nov 16, 2004
    Mankato, MN
    In the book Patterns for Jazz, David Baker (et al) has an essay about the cultivation of what he calls "pre-hearing." The book is supposed to help with that. Basically, as mentioned above, play all the intervals, chords, arpeggios, patterns, in all keys, everywhere on your instrument, and eventually your "hearing" and playing coincide. I don't know if the book helped, much (it's hard to stay with), but about three years ago, after playing guitar and bass for 30 (!) years, suddenly I can do it. I don't know that anything special happened except, I guess, I finally had played enough and I crossed some threshold. Based on my experience, anyone who was halfway dedicated ought to be able to do it in much less time, since my dedication to my instruments has been better and worse (and better) at various times.

    Having said all of that, I'd like to add that a more important skill, IMHO, is pre-hearing interesting things in the first place. If you play in a cliched, generic way, I suspect it's easier to know what's going to come out of your instrument. In some way, you have to learn how to play things you couldn't have imagined.
  15. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    I think that last point is important and it relates particularly to Jazz!

    So the idea is to improvise and respond to what's going on - in the best Jazz you can hear the players being inspired by what the others are doing - so a trumpet player may pick up on an interesting riff that the Sax player got into his solo or a little fill that the piano player played.

    Any soloist may get some interesting rhythmic ideas from the drummer - the bass player can push people in different directions etc. etc.

    But the thing for us is to listen to all types of instruments and that can give you ideas for things you might not have played otherwise - so transcribe a Charlie Parker solo (like Jaco did) or a Monk piano melody and how it's displaced across the bar - trombone solos can be a great source of melodic ideas in the bass register...etc. etc.
  16. Brad Johnson

    Brad Johnson

    Mar 8, 2000
    Gaithersburg, Md
    DR Strings
    A fun way to work on that is to do a call-and-response with another player... instead of doing what comes out of your head, try to immediately do what comes out of theirs. People don't generally expect a bassist to echo or paraphrase a vocalist or instrument on the fly. Spontaneity is built on practice.

    Of course it helps if the person you're working with can do interesting things.
  17. Thor

    Thor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    That is well said, Brad.

    Another interesting variation on that is to play the line with them in harmony, never fails to fluster a guitar player or two when you first mimic them and then take their line and embellish it.
  18. Brad Johnson

    Brad Johnson

    Mar 8, 2000
    Gaithersburg, Md
    DR Strings

    I do that too. For some it messes with their head. Others love it and take off from there. Singing harmony against your bass is fun too and has drawn more than one confused look from people on several occassions;)

    One of the main things I love about performing is the interaction, especially with spontaneous players.

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