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What’s In Your Head? How to Play What You’re Hearing

The holy grail for most developing jazz musicians is being able to hear what you want to play in your head before you play it. This means you have a mind-body musical connection, where you aren’t held back by your technique and you’re able to move freely on your instrument—like you’re speaking a second language.

Learning how to do this is something that Chad LB gets asked about often during masterclasses and on YouTube.

If you’re hearing something in your head and can’t play it, the first thing to understand is that you’re probably not hearing specific notes—you’re hearing a melodic shape or contour. And if you tried to sing what you heard in your head, you probably wouldn’t be able to sing actual specific pitches.

This has nothing to do with your ability as a singer, but more to do with that you don’t fully understand what you’re hearing yet.

Today we’re going to go through a five-step process on how you can strengthen your musical mind-body connection and get you confidently playing what you hear in your head.

But before we get started, make sure to check out the PDF package 69 Modern Phrases: Melodic Cells so you can practice some of these concepts on a deeper level. You can also follow along with the video for this blog here.


Find content to play

Understand the composition of the phrase

Play it, sing it, play it again

Learn a phrase through all 12 keys

Improvising variations of the phrase

Find Content to Play

Our first step in playing what you hear in your head is connecting with your instrument. While this may sound obvious, it’s important to pick practice content that you can internalize.

This doesn’t mean just working on improvisation—it also means learning songs by other jazz artists so you can hear their language and incorporate it into your own. Much like learning a spoken language, you can learn building blocks like words and phrases and start building them into sentences. Then you start changing around the order of those sentences, asking questions, giving answers, and more.

To do this, you’ll want to get into deeply listening to music, and getting started with transcription. If you’re looking to learn more about transcription, check out this video where Chad did an analysis and breakdown of how to transcribe his favorite Charlie Parker solos.

Another step you can take, one that’s one of Chad LB’s favorites, is to use the concept of melodic cells. Melodic cells are like building blocks—usually four-note phrases that you join together into larger phrases, or melodic cell streams. An example of melodic cells that you’re probably familiar with is in John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” If you haven’t already, make sure to check out our blog on “Giant Steps” and how it works.

A lot of what we saw in “Giant Steps” was a really common shape that he was using to navigate those really difficult chord changes—that was a 1, 2, 3, 5 diatonic shape.

In fact, so many of the phrases you hear in jazz improvisation, especially in modern players, could be analyzed as being melodic cells, which they use as building blocks to string together.

You can use these melodic cells to build technique by practicing them through the range of your instrument in different ways. You can put together two cells and create compound cells. Then do it again and join those four cells. It’s a great way to take your technique to a new level—which is what we covered in this video on melodic cells.

Here we’re going to talk about how you can use melodic cells consecutively without a specific pattern, which can create some pretty cool lines. This concept is what we call melodic cell streams. Once you have internalized a bunch of melodic cells, you can get the hang of playing from one to another in a flexible way.

Think about a phrase made up of four melodic cells. We could play cells 1, 2, 3, and 4. Or we could play 2, 3, 4, 1. But why not 3, 1, 4, 2? Maybe 2, 3, 1, 4? 4, 3, 2, 1? You get the idea!

Once you have a handle on cells, you can rearrange them in any way you want.

We work with this concept more in the PDF package 69 Modern Phrases: Melodic Cells—so if you want to get better at this concept, make sure to check that out.

Understand the composition of the phrase

Our next step to playing what you hear in your head is understanding the composition of the phrase.

All this means is understanding what components make up a phrase, so that you know how lines work and can internalize them easier. And the more you understand how a line works, the more you can use it for your own application later.

This example is made up of four different melodic cells, which all fit in a C7 sound.

First melodic cell in C dominant jazz improvisation

Cell 1 is G, Bb, C, and Eb, or a 5, 7, 1, b3 from C minor, or a bluesy pentatonic sound. It also falls nicely into a C Dorian sound, too. All of these sounds are the same idea when played over a C7, because it gives that blues scale sound.

Second melodic cell in C dominant jazz improvisation

Cell 2 is really simple. It only has three unique notes, since the one note is repeated. It uses a 1, 2, 3, 2 shape.

Third melodic cell in C dominant jazz improvisation

Cell 3 is non-diatonic, so it has a more outside sound. It’s a more chromatic shape that people use all the time when they’re playing more modern, intervallic solos, because you can move the shape around for more points of tension and release.

Fourth melodic cell in C dominant jazz improvisation

This last cell is one we mentioned earlier—one that Trane used in “Giant Steps.” It’s a super common 1, 2, 3, 5 shape. This cell is great for practicing and building technique.

So now let’s check out how to use these four cells to construct a full line. We’ll generally use several cells in different places and different ways.

Explanation of four cell phrase for jazz music

To start, we’re going to play the first cell, but offset it so it begins on the “and” of one and then the downbeat of three when the cell finishes also becomes the start of cell 2.

But cell 2 is played from Eb, not from C, like we just checked out. This gives a sound that is still pretty inside, just giving a minor effect over dominant.

Then we’re going into cell three. We’re going to do it from F# and Eb, which will create some tension, then we’ll do the 1, 2, 3, 5 shape from cell 4, but we’re going to do that from E, which is going to definitely sound outside, because those notes clash against C7. The F#, G# and B are all tension notes on the C7, but we’ll play cell 3 again from Bb, which will sound more inside, then resolving to cell 1. Our last two notes are just the third and root to resolve in C7.

Now obviously you’re not going to be thinking about all of this stuff verbatim while you’re improvising!

The idea is that if you get better at creating lines like this and having discipline when you practice, you can use your improved skills to improvise fluently with this new language. Learning these phrases thoroughly will help you improvise naturally and comfortably.

While it’s important to know the changes for a tune really well to improvise, knowing melodic cell streams can give you another way to play without focusing on nailing the changes. It can add some great tension and release even if it’s not lining up exactly with the harmony.

Sing the phrases you’re learning

When it comes to connecting to your instrument, this one is pretty obvious, but it’s also sometimes neglected.

While you’re practicing, it's good to play something, sing it, then play it again.

As you do this, the content will be internalized and it will improve your ears a lot without having to do specific ear training exercises.

Make sure to take it slow at first, so that you really lock in on the pitch. This takes some discipline, as you’ll start by going one or two notes at a time, building up to make the full phrase.

And while some people say practice makes perfect, Chad likes to say that patient practicing makes perfect! The key is being patient and having the discipline to get it right.

Learn the phrase in all 12 keys

If you have a phrase that you like using but want to actually internalize it, a good way to do this is to learn it in all 12 keys.

What this helps do is free the phrase from your muscle memory, which helps you internalize it in a way that you can create variations on the phrase and use it in different ways.

Try this process with a few licks that you like and you’ll start understanding how helpful it really is. You may not feel it after just one phrase, but after you’ve done it with a few, you’ll notice how much of a difference it makes.

Improvising variations on the phrase

Once you’ve learned a phrase in all 12 keys, you’re ready to start improvising variations on that phrase.

This is kind of like learning a sentence in a new language—you have new words that you can combine into sentences. But then reordering the words in the sentence can change the meaning.

Let’s look at an example from our PDF package over C dominant.

What we’ll do is take these four phrases and create a single line using a bar from each phrase. We’ll take bar one of phrase one, bar two of phrase two, bar three of phrase three, and bar four of phrase four.

When we drop these lines together we get something that sounds really cool—again because we’ve used the concept of melodic cells. These building blocks are a great way to create memorable sounds that you can take with you from key to key and tune to tune.

Keep on practicing!

As musicians, we’re all used to the “P word”... practice. But it’s really important to get these concepts in your mind as well as your muscle memory in a way that lets you use it and connect back to what you’re hearing in your head.

Make sure to listen with intentionality, too, when you’re listening to some of the jazz greats. Hearing the language they use and absorbing that into your own playing is a helpful way to grow. After all, it’s not stealing if you make it your own!

Don’t forget to use patient practice to build your technique and tie it together by singing along. Try committing things to memory, so that you can call on them for your own solos. The more deliberate you are with your practice, the bigger the benefit.

If you want to work more on the melodic cell and melodic cell stream concepts, make sure to check out the PDF package 69 Modern Phrases: Melodic Cells, as well as the video for this blog here.

Hope you enjoy—until next time!

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