Learning a New Language Through Improvisation

What does it mean to know a language? Language is the tool you use to communicate your thoughts to other people. You are probably so good at your language that it usually takes no time to come up with the right words to communicate your thoughts. You probably think in words and sentences. You can have a conversation with yourself inside your head, without saying anything out loud. When it takes no time (or very little) to formulate your thoughts into words, you are highly fluent in your language.

I once tried to learn French. I found myself living with two bilingual speakers of English and French, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to practice. As I was learning, I noticed that I was thinking about what to say, then I was thinking about the English sentence I would use to say it, then I would try to translate that sentence into French. This took some time. It took me a while to remember the correct French words and grammar, and often I couldn’t do it at all. Ultimately this time lag made it impractical for me to speak French around the house, so I never became fluent. If I had stuck with it, this time lag would have eventually decreased. If it got to zero, I would have been able to communicate my ideas in French instantaneously. I might even begin to think in French.

Music is a little different, but the general principle is the same. Great musicians, people who are highly fluent in the language of music, have musical ideas in their imagination, and they instantly know how to make those ideas into a reality using their instrument. This is true whether the musician is improvising, or whether they are playing a pre-written song. Think about a song as a story. When you read a story, you don’t memorize it word for word. You remember the plot and the characters and what moved you. When great musicians memorize a song, they don’t memorize where they put their fingers on the instrument. They memorize the “plot” of the song - how the song sounds - then they use their knowledge of the language of music to turn the “plot” into the musical notes and rhythms.

In this book, I’ll teach you the language of music through improvisation. Improvising forces you to learn the language of music, because there are no pre-written instructions on how to translate your original musical ideas into notes and rhythms on your instrument. You must do the translating yourself. I’ll introduce musical concepts that might be new to you, and invite you to use each concept in the context of improvisation. With practice, you will learn to recognize when a concept is relevant to the musical ideas in your imagination, and you’ll be able to use these concepts to translate your ideas into sounds on your instrument.

This process of translating musical ideas in your head into real sounds is something that singers do all the time because it is impossible to sing a note unless you envision what it is supposed to sound like first. If you’ve ever sung “Happy Birthday”, you know this. You know what “Happy Birthday” is supposed to sound like, and you use your voice to produce those sounds. Someone fluent in the language of music can do the same thing using an instrument. To do this, you have to analyze the melody of “Happy Birthday”, figure out which notes are used, and figure out how to play those notes on your instrument. At first, this process will take time, as it did when I was trying to learn French. But the more you practice, the less time it will take. When you become fluent in the language of music, you could play “Happy Birthday” without learning how to play it first. This is usually called “playing by ear”.

One question that arises from this view of music is “When improvising, where do the musical ideas come from?”. I may not be able to answer this question definitively, but I can tell you about my own experience. For me, most of the time, it takes effort to generate musical ideas. I sit down with an instrument, and I force myself to play something. I might choose to play something based on my knowledge of what usually sounds good. For example, I know that the major scale sounds good, so I might pick some random notes from the major scale. At this point, I’m not playing music that is any good. But if I keep going, and I listen closely to what I’m playing, sometimes I get a feeling that “this is what it should sound like next”. There are specific notes in my imagination that are begging to be played. I might not know what these notes are, but I know what they are supposed to sound like because I can hear them in my head, just like you can hear the melody to “Happy Birthday” in your head before you sing it. I then guess what those notes are, and play those guesses on my instrument. Since I’m fairly fluent in the language of music, these guesses are almost always right, and the notes that I play sound like the notes that I envisioned.

At first, when I was learning how to improvise, the feeling of “this is what it should sound like next” was rare. Most of the time, I was doing the equivalent of picking random notes from the major scale. I learned many scales and I played random notes from those scales. I learned “licks” - short musical phrases - that are commonly used in certain situations. When those situations came up, I could play those “licks”. However, when the feeling of “this is what it should sound like next” came up, and I tried to follow it, it felt like genuine self-expression, even if it was just for a few notes within a long improvisation.

Now, when I improvise I often have this feeling for a sustained period. For five minutes straight, I can hear or sense which notes should come next. I don’t know where this feeling comes from. It doesn’t feel like I’m choosing which notes to play. The notes just pop into my head, and I know which notes to play. When this happens, it can feel like the music is coming from an outside source. This is what leads many musicians to see music as a spiritual practice. You can choose to believe that this “outside source” is God, and that you, the musician, are listening to God and simply relaying the message to your listeners. Whether you believe in God or not, this feeling of hearing notes in your imagination, and being able to play them, is what we should strive for as musicians.