We have often been told that “music is the universal language”. Another way to look at this is to consider music as a direct language of emotion. It is an instant access into the subconscious of the listener. It is powerful!
I’m not an expert on brain functions, but I’m fairly sure that the same center of the brain that allows to speak, converse, create and conceive is the same “language center” which allows us to improvise and compose music. If that is true, we can directly improve our ability to improvise by learning music the same as we learn other languages.
I have some exercises which will develop your music-language skills.
Exercise #1 – Groove
To start, let’s consider developing the nebulous subject of the “groove”. We all agree that groove is an essential element of jazz. The problem for the jazz student is . . . “how do you develop a specific, authentic groove?” I suggest, that you can develop a good groove through developing language . . . more specifically, a dialect of a language. Think of the way that Henry Higgins changed the dialect of Eliza in “My Fair Lady”.
For instance, if you look into the “dialects” of, for instance, blues, or bossa nova, or a viennese waltz, you can find similarities between the language and dialect of the country of the music and the phrasing and rhythm of the music itself. Analyze the language of the country and then apply it to the music. For instance, listen to the Portuguese language in relation to playing the bossa nova.
If there isn’t a specific dialect associated with with a style, then listen to the cadence, rhythm and phrasing of the music. For instance, if you want to play in the style of Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong, or Keith Jarrett . . . listen to the phrasing and placement of their rhythm.
The exercise that I use to develop groove is to make up a “scatting language” which approximates the feel of the music. One of the best ways to do this is to listen to specific musicians. Listen deeply to the phrasing and rhythm of their music. Think of it as if you were studying a dialect, as if you were trying to imitate a specific speech dialect. Then try to imitate it through scatting. It would also help to also try to determine the subdivision of the music. For instance: is it in duple meter or triple meter? Ultimately, this is all about “feel”.
So the exercise is to simply sing (scat) the feel of the groove with a metronome. Do it until it feels authentic. Once you feel that you have it down, then transfer your singing to the piano while playing a recurring groove pattern. Always, go back to the original audio source of the authentic players. Then, again apply the scatting. Eventually, you will “get it”.
Exercise #2 – Phrasing with stop-time.
Great jazz is about phrasing. I know that the notes and sequences are important, but without the great phrasing, the notes are mechanical and boring. It is especially important for pianists to develop good jazz phrasing. The problem for pianists is that the piano is a percussive instrument and the fingers don’t “sing”. Therefore, it is suggested that a pianist listen to the phrasing of vocalists, saxophone and trumpet players, etc. to get the feel of a phrasing instrument. There is a definite benefit to studying classical music to learn how to melodically phrase on the piano.
Here’s a good exercise. Again, I suggest that you can develop phrasing by singing (scatting). Play a groove (your choice). For example, I often suggest using a boogie woogie groove and a 12-bar blues structure. Play the groove a few choruses, just as an accompaniment. Then, suddenly stop on the first beat of the first measure . This is often called, “stop-time”.
Then, allow a couple of measures to pass, without the groove. Sing a rhythmic phrase from the middle of bar two to the first beat of measure three. You don’t need specific notes. However, make sure that the phrase ends on the first beat of measure three.
Now go back to measure one and repeat the 12-bar blues with the stop time. However this time, you have lots of space to decide which notes are going to be used with the prior rhythmic phrase that you have chosen. Play this two-bar stop time through the 12-bar blues using many different notes for the same rhythmic phrase. Pay special attention to melodies which move from one chord to another chord.
This exercise is effective (and difficult) because of the “stopped time”. At the stop point, you have time to think ahead of the music sequence and phrasing that you intend to play. All improvising musicians think ahead. They know precisely what they intend to play before they play it. This exercise helps you to develop phrasing and correct thinking.
Exercise #3 – Learning Theory
When you are practicing music theory exercises, talk to yourself out loud. Have a constant chat with yourself about what you are doing. Doing this will activate the “language center” of the brain. All competent musicians have learned to play music theory beyond thinking. This allows them to “speak” and “converse” with music. This is a guaranteed way to speed up your “improv-ability”. Practice all theory in all keys. Keys should (and will) become irrelevant. Music must be a joyful exercise of creative conceptualizing.