Thinking in Sound

What’s the glue that holds it all together? What are we really working on every time we practice or play music? Why is it that having great chops at home does not necessarily relate to the gig? How come things don’t feel right when I sight read? Why can’t I play high when I improvise? Or (and here’s a good one), how come my chops feel like shit when I play jazz?!?!

The answer my friends is in our ear.

The trumpet does not play itself. Press down the first valve and nearly anything can happen! Being aspiring lead trumpeter’s we need to be able to hear a mouse piss on cotton (to borrow a colloquialism I heard from a gentleman a few years back).

I believe this is also one of the reasons why capable improvisers who have spent plenty of time developing their fundamentals make such great freakin’ lead players. They’re not only swingin’ their buns off, they’re hearing every note clearly before it’s played.

From a strictly physical standpoint you stand to gain great levels of efficiency by improving your ear. Think about it, if you offer your body a clear objective it can go about creating that end result in the best way it knows how. If you are more or less guesstimating you will need to wait for feedback (often in the form of a fracked, pitchy, or completely missed note) before you can correct course. This tires chops.

Thought to sound; this eliminates the middle man. (Having to think about HOW to achieve a note)

Have you ever met players that claim to never practice but always seem to have enough chops to get through whatever it is they need to play? If not you will and I posit the idea that these are the guys with great ears be it perfect pitch, studied relative pitch or ideally, both.

Having great ears also has obvious implications for your sight-reading. If you can look at something and know what it sounds like than you my friend are in great shape to work like crazy!

The better your ears the further you can get inside and develop your sound, the faster you can learn new material, and the greater your capacity to appreciate what other musicians are doing. The list goes on and on.

So what we need to do is learn to think in sound. What I mean by this is to develop the capacity to simply “think” in music or sing along in our heads and let the body do what it does. When we can do this we remove the physical components of playing from the forefront of our minds and allow our subconscious to take over the processes.

So, how can we do this?

A very simple way to get started is to sing everything before you play it. Get to know how every note of your range will sound on your instrument, played by you.

If you know how the first note sounds you can then build each phrase using relative pitch. You can think intervallically or understand various melodic structures in the context of a key center. (Be sure to finger along as you sing)

In developing relative pitch it is important to understand spellings. In other words the actual note names in all keys. The leading tone of C# is not C, it’s B#; The interval from Cb to D is an augmented 2nd, not a minor third, etc. When we clearly know our spellings and their corresponding sounds the subconscious can quickly recognize familiar shapes and execute them without our getting in the way. This also makes it much easier to play in all 12 keys with fluency :).

There are many different approaches to developing your relative pitch. I am currently using David Lucas Burge’s system and it’s paying off huge dividends. Another great way is to transcribe jazz vocabulary from solos you like. Learn a fragment and then play through it in a number of keys. Be sure that you are making special note to spell it correctly in the keys which are less automatic for you.

Here’s a quick test for you to try. Find a point of focus on the wall and stare at it. Don’t take your eyes away from it. Now play a simple melody by ear while staring at the P.O.F. Simply sing along in your head and pay no attention to fingers or chops or anything. DON”T MOVE YOUR EYES! You will quickly realize that which you do not have aural control over and it might be far more extreme than you think. This is typical 🙂

You can also test your pitch in this way. Stare at the P.O.F. and play a chromatic scale over an octave or two in a comfortable register slowly. Are you actually hearing every single interval as a true half step or are you navigating your instrument kinesthetically? You may find that you are compressing the scale in some places and expanding it in others. Try this with whole-tone as well before branching into other intervals.

Every minute you spend refining your capacity to hear will pay off big time in the end. Always remember to take it easy and practice acceptance. Don’t get too critical of yourself. By noticing where you have been mishearing things you take the first step toward fixing it forever!

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7 thoughts on “Thinking in Sound

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  3. I’ve always felt the best lead players were people who “pre hear” everything. Not just the pitch but the WAY they want to play it. Even while reading, having those instincts and aural connection just makes a BIG difference.

    Great article.


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  5. Hi James, Thanks for all the great trumpet blogs. I’m big into the Kenny Werner Effortless Mastery approach so it’s really affirming to find another trumpeter who is using this mindset… or “The Skill Of Chill” as you call it ;0) I largely agree with what you wrote above however I’m not totally sure if I agree with the point about needing to think in the exact spellings. Otherwise how would you explain someone like Chet Baker? He didn’t know a great deal about chords and scales but had massive ears and could simply hear/think a line over a set of changes and play it. So I think it’s possible to get to the point where you can simply “sing through your horn” if your ears and instrument are connected enough…. Just my opinion! I agree with everything else though. Anyway thanks again for all the great blogs. Oh also in one of your videos you mention a book you read after getting into the album “Big Two”… what is that book? I’d like to read it. All best from Nottingham, England, David.

    • Hi David,

      It’s great to hear from a fellow Skill of Chill-er!

      And yes you’re totally right. You don’t need to think in exact spellings and Chet is a great example. When I was learning to recognize intervals by ear it was taught to me to learn to “spell” things correctly. I think it just puts things in a nice little box inside your mind which helps understanding, but in practice the hear/feel/play thing definitely takes the reigns.

      The book is called “A Jazz Life.” There’s a lot of great stuff in there. I’m currently working through Warne’s “ear training” studies using the Harmonic Minor scale. Here’s the Amazon link to the Kindle version: A Jazz Life

      Thanks for the comment and enjoy!

      Sent from a Starbucks in LA (typical),

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