Developing Hand – Ear Coordination

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Craig’s article is featured in the April, 2016 edition.

Do you want your improvised solos to soar and delight your audiences?  The first and most important step to achieve this is to develop the link between your ears and your fingers. In fact, ultimately we need to be able to transfer any musical idea we imagine to our fingers. I call this “Hand-ear coordination”.

There are three important steps to develop this skill:

  1. Firstly you need to clearly image the phrase in your mind. If your ideas are precise, your execution will be smooth; muddy thinking leads to sloppy playing. (Of course, this does not mean to avoid experimentation. Far from it! Be encouraged to go for it! You’ll quickly learn to distinguish great ideas from the mediocre.)
  2. Use a system to identify and name the notes you are hearing.
  3. And finally, transfer the notes to your instrument.

Let’s focus on how step 2 happens.

A naming system

Having a clear system for naming the notes you hear will dramatically improve how you can store and recall melodies. It’s the same principle as having a well organised filing system in your office.

In music, we can use a system where we name each note of a major scale as follows:

The most important thing to notice here is where the half steps occur, which in every major scale is between Mi and Fa, and between Ti and Do.

Easy to remember, right? The notes with the “EE” sound (MI and TI) have half-step intervals. The rest have whole steps. That is the only thing you have to memorize in this entire study!

This holds true because every major scale is built using the same pattern of whole steps and half steps between the notes.

Tuning in your ear

The next step is to be able to identify each note in a major scale and to be able to locate it on your saxophone. If you can master this, you will be able to play any major – key song on your sax.

There are lots of ways to develop this but here are 3 exercises you can practice over a chord progress to get you started.

Exercise 1.

Firstly, try taking a chord progress of V7 to I and playing the notes Ti resolving to Do. As you can see below, the Ti (in this case F#) is actually the third note in the D7 chord (the V7). It resolves to the G which is the “Do” or first note of the G chord, the home key.

Try continuing the pattern by moving the progression up in half steps. Or in other words, the “Do” of the first key becomes the “Ti” in the new key. We can therefore name this progression “Do=>Ti”.

This type of key change can be found in the the jazz standard “Body and Soul” at bar 17 (going into the bridge).

When playing through this exercise, try to visualise the Ti as the 3rd note in the V7 chord. Also, listen closely to the progression of the chords from V7 to I, which is an integral part of western music.

Exercise 2.

Next try working on the movement “Re – Do”. In this exercise use the chord progression of V7 to I again, but this time move down a full step each with each repetition.

In doing so, the “Do” of the first key becomes the “Re” of the next key. So we can call this progression “Do=>Re”.

This time the “Re” is the fifth degree of the V7 chord, resolving to the Do or root of the I chord. Try to hear the “Re” in each chord progression as you work through this exercise.

You will find this progression in bar three of the jazz standard “How High the Moon” (also in “Ornithology”).

Exercise 3.

Lastly try combining putting it all together using the notes LA-TI-DO and MI-RE-DO.

This time the first modulation moves down a major third. This key change is encountered at bar 2 of “What’s New?”. It is notated “DO=>MI,” “the old DO becomes the new MI,” (or, if you prefer, “the old grey DO, she ain’t what she used to MI.”)

The second modulation is up a minor third. It’s notated as “DO=>LA” or “the old DO becomes the new LA.” This is the key change found at bar 17 of “When Lights Are Low” (the beginning of the bridge in Benny Carter’s original version, NOT the Miles Davis misquote).

It’s more difficult to pick out the notes in this exercise so really concentrate on hearing the “La” as the 5th degree of the the first chord (the ii7), moving to the “Ti” as the third degree of the V7 chord. This resolves to the Do as the root or first note of the home key.

Test yourself

Feeling confident so far? Here is a simple test to determine how highly developed your hand-ear coordination is at this moment:

One of the tunes most often called at jam sessions is Harry Warren’s classic melody “There Will Never Be Another You.” Can you play the first four bars in all 12 keys?

Think about the name for each pitch to first decipher the note pattern. Then try transferring that pattern to another key. With practice this system becomes quicker and easier.

And finally…

Now for the answer to last month’s “puzzler,” which concerned Duke Ellington’s immortal ballad “Prelude to a Kiss.” Here’s the question: You are on the bandstand, and the leader on the gig has just called for “Prelude.” You have 30 seconds to scan the chart, before the bass player grabs it. You check the key signature (concert C in New Real Book 3). Which two measures do you then examine?

Well, measure 3 will be much easier to play and remember, if you notice that it is identical to measure 1 – just moved down 3 half steps. (We’ll discuss the internal modulations in a later article.)

Also, bar 17 – the beginning of the bridge – modulates from C major to E major (LA=>FA). There is a ii-V progression in bar 16 which sets up this key change. I finish the second ending on LA, because it sounds better over the ii-V than the DO shown in The Real Book. The melody of this bridge remains a challenge, with its many large leaps. But at least you have a fighting chance, if you know what the key of the bridge is.

Now, if you have a few more seconds to peruse this chart before the bass player grabs it, you might also want to scan bar 24, the end of the bridge. While the melody in this bar is a simple ascending chromatic scale, improvising over the chords will be much more gnarly.

Fortunately, the form of “Prelude” consists of a standard 32-bar AABA structure, with three virtually identical A sections (save for bars 7 & 8, which deviate slightly). Also, in the bridge, bars 17 & 18 are repeated verbatim at bars 21 & 22, so you get two stabs at this leaping melody.

In next month’s article, we will begin to examine chord structures. Understanding chord construction is immensely helpful as you begin to improvise.

More information:

Get Craig’s book “New Ears Resolution” for a full range of exercises with backing tracks on the skills covered in this article:

About the author:

Craig Buhler is an active performer and educator based in Washington USA. He is a member of the acclaimed California based band “Honk” which has toured nationally alongside the Beach Boys, Chicago and Santana.

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