The Woodshed

Thinking” music. A practical technique?

1

No, I'm not talking about those radio tunes, jingles, children's songs or whatever that go 'round and 'round in your head, wanted or not. Rather, I'm talking about deliberately creating or improvising lines in your head over the chord changes to a song. Or perhaps creating a new lead break to a piece you've worked out previously. Thinking music, as opposed to thinking in words or pictures.

I've noticed that my mind tends to do this naturally after a practice session wherein I've been focused on a particular piece or a specific technique. Over time, I've developed this tendency into a significant part of my practice routine. I'll often go out for a walk, or lay down on the couch for a few minutes with my eyes closed and deliberately create some improvised lines that have to do with what I've just been working on.

Other times, when I do not have much time to practice, I'll think of a piece I know reasonably well, such as a Kenny Burrell or Wes tune, and "solo" over it in my mind. I find that this exercise can be very useful in solidifying certain musical concepts within my learning cycle. In fact, I often have more success improvising away from the instrument than I do when I'm trying to come up with new ideas when actually playing. If the line or improv is particularly stimulating, I'll return to the instrument and try to play at least part of what I just "thought" up, on my guitar. I believe this approach has helped me become a much better player. Especially where jazz pieces are concerned.

Anyway, I was just wondering if anyone else here uses this approach. And if so, in what fashion have you disciplined your own "thinking" to create original music?

2

Over the decades this has been an important part of my practice. It started as an exercise where one plays consecutive half notes through a tune with no rhythmic variation and with no accompaniment. This requires that the tune be internalized to the point where the form, chord progression and melody is solid, internally in the inner ear. The point of the exercise is to stop the thinking process and a allow the ear to guide the improvised half note line. After that go to quarter notes, then eighth notes and then start introducing rhythm and phrasing, but maintaining that state of non-thinking and avoid simply playing what one knows will work.

Now that I've moved into a more roots oriented approach to music, I find myself working with very simple elements compared to jazz; triads for example, but it is a different vocabulary; simple but not easy. I still work on some technical things, like fingerpicking patterns, but the majority of the time I just play a tune and try to connect with what I'm hearing. If I can't play what I'm hearing internally there are two reasons why: [1] I can hear the idea but mess it up technically, in which case I'll simply take the idea out of context, slow it down, play it in different keys etc. and practice it until I can play it freely and then put it back into the context of the tune. [2] I can hear a suggestion of the idea but all the notes or chords are not clear in my inner ear. In that case I'll try to give my ear a chance to clarify the pitches etc. This can be elusive because the initial idea is no longer manifesting in the context of the moment it first appeared in, but chances are that the idea will come up again at some point so why not work it out. The same two glitches happen as well with the half note exercise mentioned above.

Improvising by ear in this way (as opposed to playing by hand) brings one into a place of deeper meaning in the music. I guess the discussion could easily go off into a discourse on spirituality in music, but it doesn't have to. It can simply be about finding personal expression through music. Thanks for bringing up this topic GL.

3

Professor Harold Hill would agree.

4

I do as well. I can "hear" what I'd play along with a song. I play by ear---maybe that's a part of it. I can't explain how I play by ear, and I sure can't teach it. When my daughter was four or so, we were watching "Jeopardy". As the little jingle played while the contestants wrote their answers down, Katie started to sing along, improvising counterpoints and harmonies. She doesn't play an instrument, but picks up songs and lyrics instantly. I pick up the music.

I've heard people say that someone "can't play the same thing twice." Minds are always fluid, always changing, so the music in it should change as well.

5

I can't explain how I play by ear, and I sure can't teach it. - wabash slim<

This brings up another part of the equation in which I've been engaged for most of my life as a musician. That is, how to develop a general theory to both explain and advance the ear's natural tendency. Since I am essentially self taught, this has been a very slow and painstaking process. Initially, I believed that learning to read music was the key ingredient. Of course, this is simply akin to one's developing typing skill in order to write a novel. Still, as misleading as my initial concept might have been, and as painstaking as that process was (and it is forever in progress), it has been essential for me as a tool to help work through the many, many method and theory books I've gathered along the way. Sadly, most of these works have tended to provide only a very small part of the story. And only very late in my playing life have I come across a couple of volumes that have more or less tackled the connection between theory/ear in a reasonably practical and useful manner.

Now, I could probably make a pretty good argument that, like most here, I would have gotten to this same point in my music "thinking" without ever have picked up a guitar method book. Still, I don't think that I could quite believe my own attempt to do so. IOW, I believe that while having a reasonably natural ear to start out with is crucial, it can be greatly aided by the gradual development of a general theory that can therefore, be taught. Concepts that can be discussed and passed on. If you think about it wabash slim, I'm sure you could cite a few specific techniques that you do find yourself applying in your own efforts to "think" music more clearly. As to your little girl, she sounds like a bit of a protege to me. I only wish I had been born with such natural skill. Perhaps I could have avoided "thinking" altogether...

6

If I can't play what I'm hearing internally there are two reasons why: [1] I can hear the idea but mess it up technically, in which case I'll simply take the idea out of context, slow it down, play it in different keys etc. and practice it until I can play it freely and then put it back into the context of the tune. [2] I can hear a suggestion of the idea but all the notes or chords are not clear in my inner ear. In that case I'll try to give my ear a chance to clarify the pitches etc. This can be elusive because the initial idea is no longer manifesting in the context of the moment it first appeared in, but chances are that the idea will come up again at some point so why not work it out. - Journeyman<

Excellent. Excellent...

7

Your brain has to be able to internalize the music in order for your hands to play it. This internalizing requires a conscious effort to go through what you want to play silently in your mind, and free of any distractions, particularly actually playing. Sometimes for me, lying in bed just before going to sleep is an excellent time for this type of focused concentration....almost a form of meditation really.

I borrowed this technique to help improve - I'd already learned the long & hard way - my thumb work by "air picking" as I described in my dissertation awhile back on How To Achieve An Independent Thumb. It is irrefutable that when the brain is not asked to do multiple thing simultaneously and focus on just one thing, it will learn that one thing quicker. Therefore, if you sit quietly and listen to an appropriate song - I used Mr Sandman - and even close your eyes - you don't need sight for this exercise - your mind will bring incredible focus to listening to the music, the bassline in particular and your right hand thumb. Contrary to what many contend - practice, practice, practice using a guitar and a simple song, this will produce a shortcut to learning an independent thumb. You can't convince me that trying to play something you don't know how to do - pick an alternating bassline on a guitar while simultaneously fingering chords with or without listening to a recording of the song - is a better formula for learning an independent thumb. My method allows the brain to focus on only two tasks....listening quietly to the music which it will internalize it while also devoting focus to your right hand thumb.....your left hand is out of the picture for this exercise. This method is also very rewarding and not frustrating in the least as you aren't making mistakes on the guitar! And you aren't stuck playing one song to death, such as the suggested by some, Freight Train. Mr Sandman is an excellently suitable tune to begin with - just use the initial verses to begin with - but there are a whole host of similar songs you can use for this exercise.

So to return to the OP's original question, I think through music all the time and maintain with him that one way or another, you have to to play with any level of proficiency or entertainment value.

8

I turn off my mind, relax, and float downstream.

9

Yeah, sounds familiar. Only problem I have is remembering whatintheheck I was mentally improvising.

10

Well Jim, I don't think your problem is a unique one. While I can sometimes come up with some very cool improvised lines in my mind's ear, I do tend to lose most of them by the time I can get to the guitar. Sometimes a gist of the best ones remain and I apply those ideas as best I can. Still, more often as not, they remain exasperatingly out of reach. The important thing though, is that my mind can "think" them up in the first place. This tells me that a creative/connective process is indeed taking place. And while my actual hands-on improv might not seem as fleet or satisfactory as is often the case with my mental exercises, the later does give me a deeper sense of focus as to what actually takes place when I'm physically "practicing". IOW, one technique supports and informs the other. Probably about as much as I can hope for from this double edged approach...

11

BTW, gotta admit that many times when I'm doing my "mental" practice, I really can't "think" up a damned thing. Or I can become easily distracted by other matters..

12

WS, your daughter's behavior represents a kind of paradigm in music, a model or example to strive for. As musicians our task becomes one of marrying this freedom and playfulness with the ability to express it on an instrument. If I'm understanding things correctly, this is the purpose of what General Lee is talking about.

Improvisation is often misunderstood; it's not about playing something completely new every time we do it; we all have a vocabulary, but to develop and use our vocabulary in the context of the moment, just as we do with a language during conversation. Occasionally we do find something new, in the moment, something we've never played before, and if we can pull it off without messing the idea up, we feel a sense of...well, it could be different for each of us, but something akin to a sense of peace, satisfaction, accomplishment, reward........When we hear someone improvise with this sense of flow, without ego, when the phrasing is natural and right for the context of the moment, we as listeners experience something positive and uplifting as well. So this attempt to express something connected to this subjective, emotional place is also for the listener, and really about communication and unity.

Bill Evans talked about the importance that he gave to the reaction of the lay person in music as an indicator of how successful a performance was. The women on this forum who read this can tell me if this next statement is sexist or not; I don't think it is because it suggests that women have a more developed intuition than men. A very dear old friend with a New York sensibility and accent to go along with it said, "Man, if the chicks aren't diggin' it, the music is not happening."

13

"Harmonies unheard in sound lead us to the music that we hear, and show us the essence of another kind." -Plotinus

14

Improvisation is often misunderstood; it's not about playing something completely new every time we do it; we all have a vocabulary, but to develop and use our vocabulary in the context of the moment, just as we do with a language during conversation. - Journeyman<

Exactly so Journeyman. Part of that goal has to do with the - I believe critical - internalized development of that vocabulary. Hence the capacity/drive to think in musical phrases, harmonies, etc.. The other part has to do with the marriage of that same capacity to one's instrument. Spontaneous and correct (in the sense of avoiding ear/hand errors) application of musical thought to one's instrument as the moment unfolds. For me, gaining fluency in both/either of these abilities has been a long term struggle and a long term goal. I've never been naturally gifted in either area, as in WS' daughter above. However, I believe that the discipline of which we have been speaking, has been a key element in my later progress as a more well rounded musician and effective guitarist. Fascinating and gratifying to find that others have been discovering very similar pathways...

15

I know I'm late to this thread but it is an excellent topic and one that I've wanted to discuss here on the forum but hesitated to for not being sure quite how to express how I work out the matter at hand.

Let's just say that Journeyman and General Lee have nailed it for me in expressing exactly what happens in my thoughts and what I do to transfer that into a working material that I first play and later use.

I will say that there a great resource that gets my imagination rolling is listening to a lot of jump blues. Clips like the one below are a great example of how ideas, expressed in General's 1st post, lead to comprising different licks and alternative patterns that work and compliment the melody.

Here's the clip:

16

Thanks for dropping in NJ. Good post.

I'm always a little reticent to begin threads like this one, as they (topic wise) can often be more than a little difficult to verbalize. Then too, it seems as though wood-shedding threads, especially the more esoteric ones, do not always inspire that much interest in the general quarter. I certainly do not wish to bore. Still, I have found that it does help (me at least) to try and clarify, by attempting to put into words, certain "outside" techniques that I've been subconsciously exploring. If nothing else it helps to bring these "hidden" methods more clearly into focus, so that I can then refine and use them more effectively in my own work. Believe me when I say that responses such as yours, Journeyman's, wabash slim's, et al., go a long way in helping me to flesh out these ideas, and get a bit closer to achieving that goal. Such is the real value of forums like this, and members such as we have here. I salute you all...

17

Despite being a guitar player of sorts for about 57 years, I'm just not good enough for such a cerebral approach -- the combination of a lack of application and a lack of talent I suppose. And at 71, with a bit of arthritis and a dodgy left wrist after a road accident last year, I can't imagine I'll get any better.

But in my head I have some great solos. All I need is some sort of modelling gizmo that works for the human voice so that when I sing do-de-do etc (you know what I mean) out of the PA comes Lester Young or Miles Davis. Yeah, I know -- in my dreams.

18

I've written almost all my songs while driving my motorcycle. I pull over and sing it into my phone o voice memo or hum it if it's a melody. Then when I sit down at home with guitar ir piano, I figure it out and write it on sheet music blanks. I have limited short term memory. (Crs). I will never be a great musician, but I sure do have fun

19

I've written almost all my songs while driving my motorcycle. I pull over and sing it into my phone o voice memo or hum it if it's a melody. Then when I sit down at home with guitar ir piano, I figure it out and write it on sheet music blanks. I have limited short term memory. (Crs). I will never be a great musician, but I sure do have fun

20

Despite being a guitar player of sorts for about 57 years, I'm just not good enough for such a cerebral approach -- the combination of a lack of application and a lack of talent I suppose. And at 71, with a bit of arthritis and a dodgy left wrist after a road accident last year, I can't imagine I'll get any better.

But in my head I have some great solos. All I need is some sort of modelling gizmo that works for the human voice so that when I sing do-de-do etc (you know what I mean) out of the PA comes Lester Young or Miles Davis. Yeah, I know -- in my dreams.

– Dave_K

It is really a "non-cerebral" approach Dave because it attempts to leave the mind out of it and connect directly with the music inside us. That's going by the dictionary definition of cerebral anyway; "intellectual rather than emotional."

Drag about the wrist injury, but don't let yourself out of the picture; my favorite musicians don't necessarily have the most chops.

21

Cheers, Journeyman -- oh I'll keep plodding on. Just learning Makin' Whoopee and This Masquerade for a little trio show (guitar, bass, vocals) next week. Nowhere to hide with that line-up!

22

It is really a "non-cerebral" approach Dave because it attempts to leave the mind out of it and connect directly with the music inside us. - Winsordave<

"I don't think, therefore I feel?" Cool. BTW, I could make an extremely sexist remark here (in pure jest of course), but I think/feel that I'd better not...

23

It is really a "non-cerebral" approach Dave because it attempts to leave the mind out of it and connect directly with the music inside us. - Winsordave<

"I don't think, therefore I feel?" Cool. BTW, I could make an extremely sexist remark here (in pure jest of course), but I think/feel that I'd better not...

– General_Lee

Not my remark General.....the 'other' Dave, DaveK

24

Forgive me gentlemen. You are men of integrity. Both...

25

Eh? What have I said?


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