Another intervals vs numbers question, this time related to learning songs by ear

Hello everyone,

once again I hope to get some new insights into something I have been struggling with.

David @ImproviseForReal talks a lot about having both the numbers of the overall key of the music and the intervals/sounds related to the chord of the moment in your mind. So if im in the 6th environment, and I play the note 3, I think note 3 of the relative major scale and 5th of the chord. This works fine for me.

Where it becomes a bit confusing is when I try to learn songs. I don’t know what the goal is. If a chord comes up in the song and I don’t immediately recognize all of its note (lets say it has some upper extensions like a 11 or b9), should I seek to FIRST hear these notes related to the key or to the chord?

When learning songs by ear, I still almost exclusively rely on hearing the intervals, figuring out what chord they build and then in a next step I look at where these notes are on the tonal map. So intervals come first, tonal map comes second when strictly listening.

Would it be better to change that and try to always think tonal map first, and then figure out the intervals from there? I don’t think I can do both at the same time like I do when I improvise.

Example: In the key of C, I hear a F#

My current way: I hear a tritone, so I know its note #4 on the tonal map in the first harmonic environment

Possibly more IFR way: I closely associate this sound with #4 on the tonal map, and I have learned that this sound, in the first harmonic environment, creates a tritone interval.

I could see the second approach be more useful when trying to always have the tonal map in mind, because when I focus on intervals, I often hear multiple notes in succession and lose track of where I am on the tonal map.

Any reasons to switch?

Thank you so much for any advice and have a great day!

Hi @Polyrism,

I’m currently working on really learning my first jazz song, Take the A Train (I’m doing Jens Larsen’s Jazz Guitar Roadmap online course.) I’ve asked myself similar questions: should I be trying to hear the melody in terms of the tonal map? In relation to the current harmonic environment? I also finally got around to really spending time to learn the fretboard so I don’t always feel lost. So I’m also spending some time singing the names of the notes as I play them.

For me, I see value in studying all of these frames of reference. I’m still on the learning curve, but each one helps me feel oriented in the moment. I honestly felt lost and unready to study complete songs before I spent a few weeks focusing on nothing else but learning the fretboard so I can immediately find any note on any string (I still have trouble doing the opposite: pointing to a random fret and immediately naming the note.) But the majority of the time I am trying to feel the music oriented with the tonal map and at the same time also relative to the current harmonic environment.

Ultimately, I would love to get to the point where I don’t even need to think about these frames of reference, I hope the orientation will just be there subliminally. But for now, I’m embracing everything that helps me build that orientation.

I’ll be interested to hear what some of the more experienced musicians have to say.


Hey Darren,

I think you are on the right track. A Train was one of my first standards, too. It works great!

Yes, knowing all the references is probably necessary. But I feel like the mind should still have a priority somewhere, so you do not constantly have to jump around. This is one of the upsides of doing chord-scales (the antithesis to the IFR approach). You just need to know the current root note and the relevant intervals to it. No switching necessary.

Lets see what others have come up with :slight_smile:

Hi, I just assume the mind will stop jumping around the more experience you have doing it. That’s what always happens with me – the more I do something, the more intuitive it gets. But it does get frustrating sometimes on the way up the learning curve. Especially when it’s taking longer than you think it should.

Good luck with your practice.

Hi @Polyrism, @Darren and @hender99, thanks for sharing all of these great insights and perspectives. Let me just try to clarify where IFR sits in this debate. Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to in my own music practice, and what we teach in IFR. We believe that if you want to play directly from your musical imagination, then you must learn to see notes on the fretboard in the same way that these sounds are organized in your musical imagination. Your musical imagination doesn’t know the letter names of the notes. It doesn’t know the CAGED system. It doesn’t know about “drop 2 voicings” and “chord scale theory”.

That much I think is uncontroversial, so I feel pretty confident just putting it out there as fact. But the next part is much more open to debate. What is the best way to visually (or otherwise) represent what our ear experiences when we hear music? We know that our ear feels each melody note relative to the overall key of the music, and our ear also feels the pull of tension between each note and the chord in the background. But which of these feelings comes first? And as improvisers, which frame of reference should be primary?

Here, I think I can convince you that the IFR Tonal Map concept is the most useful system in the long run. But I also want to discuss the challenge that @Polyrism is experiencing with the use of this concept. I’ll start with my argument for the IFR Tonal Map model in general:

  1. Let’s first agree that BOTH the position of the note in the overall key of the music AND its relationship to the chord of the moment are equally important. This way we’re not discriminating against anyone else’s values or beliefs. If you happen to think that a note’s relationship to the chord of the moment is even more important than its tonal number, then let’s agree to respect that. Let’s agree that whatever mental model of harmony we adopt should be equally respectful of both things.

  2. But let’s also agree that mentally switching reference frames in the middle of a song breaks our melodic flow. It may be necessary sometimes (for example, when there is a genuine key change in the music), but let’s agree that we would like to minimize this switching of reference frames because it’s an annoying distraction.

I think we’re done. I think that if you accept both of the premises above, you’ll conclude that you need a mental model that (1) allows you to visualize both melody notes and chord notes on a single map of the octave, and (2) this map shouldn’t move when the chord changes.

This is exactly the vision of harmony that we teach in IFR. And I think we could all agree that in theory, it would be incredibly empowering if we could learn to see all musical sounds on this one single map, so that we could instantly and effortlessly express any sound we can imagine. But the issue that @Polyrism is raising is a very valid point. When you first hear a couple of notes in a song, and a chord in the background, that’s the only reference you have. So in that moment, maybe you don’t have enough information to decide where to picture all of these sounds on a tonal map of the overall key of the music. You just hear the relationship between a couple of notes and the chord in the background. So naturally, that becomes your entire reference frame. And it’s perfectly correct to picture your tonal map in this limited space of the chord. For example, all you hear is a minor chord so you naturally overlay your tonal map over this minor chord, and you start thinking of the scale degrees as 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, etc. Now, maybe later on you’ll hear other chords and suddenly you’ll notice where you are in the overall key of the music. And maybe at that point you’ll realize that it would have been better to place your tonal map a couple of centimeters to the left, because it’s more useful to picture those notes as 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 instead of the more generic 1, 2, b3, 4, 5 that you first thought. But neither analysis is right or wrong. It’s just a question of where you choose to fix your reference frame to give you the best vantage point for thinking about all of sounds.

One of the central concepts of Improvise for Real, though, is that in almost every real musical situation your subconscious musical mind makes this decision for you. So it’s not a conscious decision of where to place your tonal map, weighing the pros and cons of each choice. It happens automatically in your subconscious mind. Once your ear has heard enough sounds to recreate the entire tonality, your ear will be perfectly oriented in the key of the music from that point forward. And so as you hear each subsequent note of the song, you’ll know exactly where each note lies on your tonal map because it will simply SOUND like that note.

Let me give you a quick example. “Take the A Train” is made up almost entirely of the notes of the major scale which we study in IFR Jam Tracks Levels 1 & 2, Sing the Numbers 1 and our video course Ear Training for Musical Creativity. This includes note 5, obviously. I mention that because anyone who has taken those courses seriously will recognize instantly that note 5 is the first note of Take the A Train. This is what I mean when I say that you’ll recognize the tonal numbers simply by the way each note sounds to your ear. And from there, it’s not difficult to clarify the rest of the notes you’re hearing: 5…3, 5, 1, 3, #5. (Those notes are bouncing around between two octaves but if you’ve heard the melody it’s not hard to confirm that these are the notes.)

What this clarity then leads to is a greater appreciation for the chords in the background. Not only do we recognize that the first note of the song is note 5, but we even recognize that it’s the more precise sensation of note 5 in the 1 chord. Then we hear notes 1 and 3 in the octave above, which are more old friends in the 1 chord. And then comes a very surprising sound! It’s that note #5 over the 2D chord, which is the #11 of the chord! If that all sounds very complicated, don’t despair. This note is the only surprising sound in the entire composition, and it’s the whole point of the song. So if it takes you by surprise, give Billy Strayhorn a break! This is exactly what he wanted to show you, so just be humble and let him show you this beautiful sound he discovered.

The next measure starts with note 6. And again, if you’ve been practicing with the IFR Jam Tracks and now with Sing the Numbers 2 and 3, you should have no trouble recognizing this as the precise sound of note 6 in the 2- chord. And as you gain more musical experience, you won’t be surprised when you see the 2- chord leading to the 5D chord and taking us back to the 1 chord. My point isn’t to do a complete lesson on this song right now. The point is to show that every single note and chord in this song is not only perfectly visible on your tonal map, but in fact directly related to sounds that we study in IFR.

Even that #5 in the 2D chord is right there on your tonal map! The tonal map might not have suggested that you play #5 in the moment, but it gives you a container in which to visualize this beautiful sound. From this moment onward in your life, you can now create this sound whenever YOU want to, and you can do it in any key on your instrument. Whenever the chord goes to the 2D chord, you can always access that beautiful and mysterious sound of Billy Strayhorn’s composition, just by playing that little note #5 that’s sitting right there on your tonal map.

What we’re trying to create with IFR is a linear path that takes you from the simplest nursery rhymes all the way up to Take the A Train and beyond, with the entire journey being comprised of sincerely getting to know each sound along the way. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide which mental models serve you most in that pursuit. My only advice would be for you to wrestle with this issue for as long as you need to (years, even) and never lose sight of our real goal. We’re not just trying to cobble together a bunch of chord scales that sound reasonably correct over Take the A Train. What we’re trying to do is learn to see the beautiful world of sounds that our musical imagination already sees. What is that world? How is it organized? Where does each sound “live” and how do the sounds fit together? How can I learn to recognize these sounds in the music all around me? How can I learn to express these sounds in any key on my instrument? All of this is what we’re studying in IFR. If this personal journey sounds worthwhile and exciting, then I encourage you to always keep your eyes on this prize when you’re thinking about how to practice. And beware of mental models that might give you a shortcut to playing a specific song but they don’t advance you on the more important path of understanding your own musical experience. I think that as long as you always keep your most important goals and values in mind, you’ll be able to decide for yourself which mental model is most useful in each given moment.


Hi @ImproviseForReal,

Thanks for the thoughtful response.

I think I may not have communicated my thoughts very well.

My ear still has not to developed to a point where when I started studying Take the A Train I could immediately recognize the start of the melody as note 5, and I wasn’t able to figure out the opening melody independently. But I really wanted to learn this song and I went looking for more information about it. The first thing I did when I found the melody written out was to translate it into the tonal map (and then immediately slap my forehead because now the first note obviously sounds like note 5 on the tonal map).

I’m not experienced with the typical chord scale approach. It seems like a lot of people use this approach, and I see videos where educators talk about methods to build lines that are fluid and span chord changes. It seems difficult to me to keep track of what degree in the current environment becomes what degree in the upcoming environment, but it seems like a lot of people are successful with this approach. All of my ear training was done with the IFR approach, so my fundamental frame of reference for the 2 chord as 2-4-6-1 (which seems like it will make it much easier to develop melodies that flow naturally through chord changes). On top of that frame of reference I’m still holding onto an awareness that each of those notes are operating similar to 1-b3-5-b7 relative to the 2nd harmonic environment. Maybe I should try forgetting about this chord frame of reference for a while and see how things develop.

And finally, there are the frequent situations where I get lost in the form and look down at my fretboard and have the musical equivalent of vertigo. Being able to recover in these situations was the biggest motivator for me to learn where to find the notes on the fretboard (a close second is playing with my son who is learning bass, everything he is learning through school is based on reading sheet music.)

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Hi @Darren, that’s a great explanation. I probably didn’t explain myself perfectly either, as I was trying to respond in a single comment to multiple ideas shared by different people. I think that from a technical perspective, everything you’re doing is absolutely perfect. You’re studying the notes relative to the key of the music (e.g. 2, 4, 6, 1), you’re studying the notes relative to the chord root (e.g. 1, b3, 5, b7), and you’re learning the letter names of the notes (e.g. F, Ab, C, Eb). Plus you’re learning to visualize all of these concepts on the fretboard. I trust that you’re also listening deeply to each note you play, and discovering the melodic possibilities of each note. All of this is exactly where you need to be right now, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

But I think the most important thing is to keep coming back to your own values and goals. Your goal of playing with your son and being literate in the note names is a perfect example of this. I encourage you to get to the same clarity about your own personal goals. That’s going to save you a lot of confusion, frustration and spinning wheels. I can’t tell you what your values should be, but here’s an example of what I mean. At one point you said this: “It seems difficult to me to keep track of what degree in the current environment becomes what degree in the upcoming environment, but it seems like a lot of people are successful with this approach.

So that’s something to examine more deeply. What do you mean that “a lot of people are successful” with that approach? What exactly are they successful at? It’s an important question because there is a huge (and mostly unspoken) disparity in the goals and values of musicians. For almost every improvisation teacher out there, “success” means being able to skillfully cobble together a competent solo, navigating the chord and scale changes exactly as you say. The reward for this “success” is being told by other jazz students that you did a “good job”.

But another current of musicians would argue that this mindless mathematical game of playing scales over chords is precisely what ruined jazz music, and it’s why nobody comes to jazz concerts anymore. So again, what is success? Is it being told by your jazz teacher that you correctly navigated all the scales? Or is it looking out at a crowd of hundreds of people deeply loving your music? Or maybe it’s something more personal altogether. Maybe success is feeling connected with the sounds yourself, and feeling like you’re able to express your own love and sensitivity through music.

I’m not saying that any of these definitions of success is right or wrong. I’m just inviting you to be very bold and to decide for yourself what YOU think is important. Once you get clear about that, it’s much easier to see which exercises or mental models fit the way that you want to experience and practice music.

And if none of that speaks to you right now, then please refer to the first paragraph above. :slight_smile: Everything you’re doing is fantastic and you probably just need to keep going in all of these directions so that you can discover for yourself where they lead.


I’ve nothing to add to the conversation at present, but just wanted to let you all know how much I’m appreciating reading & digesting what you all have to say on the subject.


Thank you for your thoughtful comment, @DavidW. Your kindness adds something to every conversation. And it’s helpful to know who is reading because then I’ll try not to repeat the same ideas when we’re talking later on some other thread. So it’s nice to see you!

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There is quite a lot of valuable information in this thread. Thank you @Polyrism for starting it, David @ImproviseForReal for adding lots of meat to it, and @Darren for turning it into a conversation.

I play saxophone, so I’m not concerned as much with harmony in terms of creating it. But since I play quite a lot in public with my wife, who is the vocalist and guitar player in our duo, I rely on her harmony and rhythm to inform me of note choices. Since she sings the melody, my part is pure improvisation. Sometimes I riff on the melody, sometimes I play melody in unison with her, and sometimes I just play long notes following the harmony. I don’t think about any of it. I just play.

IFR made all this possible. It opened my ears. I only started playing by ear last July. It happened organically. What I learned is that our conscious mind wants to label things, and organize things, and judge things and control things. Music in the moment is stifled by conscious thought. The subconscious mind has far greater depth and breadth than the conscious mind. The subconscious feels the movement of the progression and informs the melody. The subconscious mind feels the groove and informs the rhythm.

It’s like learning to ride a bicycle, drive a car or learning to touch type. In the beginning, everything is controlled by the conscious mind. During that stage one wobbles on a bike, brakes hard and turns too sharp in a car, and one has to look at the keyboard when learning to type. At some point in each of these endeavors, in order to progress, the conscious mind has to be silenced, and one has to just ride, drive or type without thinking.

It’s the same with improvising. I had to develop the muscle memory for each key, I had to learn how to articulate on my horn, and all the other technical work. But that did not make musical. It wasn’t until I opened my ears—mostly through the “Sing the Numbers” tracks, that I was able to create music.

We tend to overthink things.

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Nice analogy @woodyhaiken

Yes, great analogies, @woodyhaiken. I love your description of the transition from one mental space to the other in the activities you mentioned. Indeed, one could picture the final stage of the learning process as a kind of handing off from the conscious mind to the unconscious mind. At some point the conscious mind turns to the unconscious mind and hands over the keys to the car. This is a great metaphor that resonates with many people, especially those who like the idea of our having different states of consciousness.

For other people who find this image too mystical, another way of describing this process is that you could also see it as merely a question of where you’re focusing your conscious attention. What prevents so many musicians from “getting” improvisation is that they are terrified of actually listening to the notes and making their own esthetic choices. When you ask them to react to something happening musically, they first have to convert the entire experience into symbols, then consult their rules and formulas about how to deal with those symbols, and then convert their chosen action back into the physical world of sounds.

Imagine doing this in any other activity! Imagine being on a tennis court with a ball flying at you, and instead of reacting in the moment you’re trying to remember a list of rules. “Okay, medium fast ball, heavy topspin, backhand side…what was I supposed to do with that again?” It’s easy to see that this can’t work. Words are only useful in the very first stage of learning. Words can help us focus our attention and notice things. But words aren’t the learning. They are only the roadmap that leads us to the place where the learning happens.

So a very simple way to think of our desired creative space is that it’s like the tennis court. Whenever we’re playing music, we need to be on that court with our eyes open. (Or in the case of music, with our ears open.) That’s not the moment to be remembering pages from your tennis manual. It’s a moment to awaken your senses to what’s going on around you, and trust that you have the personal resources inside you to respond adequately.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you like to imagine this moment as a silencing of the conscious mind, or as a focusing of the conscious mind on the physical phenomena before you. But this is where all of the magic happens. Whenever you’re playing with other musicians and you suddenly feel lost or insecure, try to remember the image of the tennis player. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to remember chord symbols and calculate mathematically which notes should sound good. Theory is for the practice room. When we’re actually making our music, our minds can’t be stuck in the manual. We need to awaken our senses, embrace the adventure and IMPROVISE!

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