Listening with curiosity: a guide for musicians

As musicians, we like to listen to music.  We’ll put on music in the car, at home, and everywhere else we can. Besides being enjoyable, it can keep us going during those times when we aren’t near our instrument. This is great and I urge you to keep listening to as much music as you can. But let me ask you a question: What if you listened with curiosity?  What if you found something in music you were curious about, and listened specifically for that? Wouldn’t this give another layer of meaning to your listening?

Here’s what I mean:

Let’s say you play jazz piano.  Pick just one single element of jazz. It can be anything but I’m going to say “an improvised phrase.” Let’s go further: “The highest note in an improvised phrase.” We don’t usually think of this while we’re improvising but let’s be honest: aren’t we trying to be the best musicians we can be? Wouldn’t our playing ability skyrocket if we investigated phrasing a little bit? If we became curious about it?

With this in mind, pick a recording by your favorite soloist. It can be any jazz player who improvises solos, which is pretty much everyone. I’m going to go with Miles Davis. Pianists all over the world study his trumpet phrasing and apply what they learn to their own instrument.

Start by listening to a Miles Davis solo, such as his improvisation on “Bag’s Groove,” a classic from the 1950s.  The idea is to simply listen to his solo, and notice the highest note in each phrase as it happens. Sounds easy, but it really makes you pay attention! Become as curious as you can about this. Ask yourself questions and begin to notice things. Does the high point influence the shape of the phrase? Does he play the high note at the same point in each phrase? Does he ever start or end with the high note, or is it always in the middle of the phrase? Does the position of the high point evolve over the course of the solo?

Now it’s starting to get interesting! Let’s take this even further: Is the position of the high note dependent on the tempo? Is it different on ballads and uptempo tunes? You’ll also find that by focusing on the high note in each phrase, you’ll begin to notice things about the phrases as a whole. Does Miles play a lot of long phrases in a row, or does he tend to alternate between short and long?  And how about this one: Did Miles play the same kinds of phrases in the 1960s as he did during the 50s? How about the 40’s when he was with Charlie Parker’s group?

So you see, there’s actually quite a bit in that innocent question, “What is the high note in each phrase?”  You could listen to every Miles Davis recording in chronological order, with this in mind. Wow! What a fun listening project! Or, you could listen to each soloist on a Miles Davis recording and compare them from this aspect of their playing.

Whatever you choose, become as curious as possible and you’ll always find something to interest you.  Enjoy!!!

Here are some free jazz piano lessons to help get you over the “jazz learning curve”: Free Jazz Piano Lessons

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