Knowing scales/chords on the instrument, vs knowing them in your head

Hi all, I consider myself pretty decent at improvising, using my tenor and alto saxes. Like I can take a jazz standard, and after listening to it many times, and then transcribing the melody by ear, and then outlining the chords, can usually play over it fairly well. And occasionally, something really clicks and the solo I produce is very melodic and sounds great. But I’m not consistent. Sometimes my solos just sound stiff and restricted. So my question is this.

Is this a result of not being guided by the music in my head?

I learned music theory the traditional way. Learning the scales, chords, etc, purely on my instrument. That’s how I started. Later I picked up the IFR book, and the jam tracks. I played over the jam tracks a lot, and they certainly did help. But I think I was still being guided by the hands more than the mind.

Even now to a certain degree, if I sing a line, I can usually mimic it on the instrument, but only to a degree. Anything more than four notes, usually falls apart.

Also, I learned scales by using formulas, like 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 for natural minor for instance. I noticed IFR uses the modes approach usually. So, the natural minor would be starting on the sixth degree of the major scale. Not sure if those ways of thinking can coexist or not, they seem to be fairly different. I also built my chord knowledge on scale formulas as well. And I can play all the common chords easily, but not with my voice (yet.).

So, I was thinking about all of this, because I recently decided too finally do the sing the numbers exercise in the book. I wrongly thought, “I already know the scales, why should I have to sing them also?”. Boy was that short sighted! I guess traditional music theory can actually be quite damaging at times.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing my typical practice of playing with a Seven Worlds jam track, freely improvising, but now in addition, at the very start, doing the sing the numbers as well. First with the 1st environment, and then a mode of that environment I’m targeting for practice. I did that last night, and then went to a song based in that same mode. It was one of the best solos I had ever done on that song. I was really feeling the notes. Not quite hearing them in my head before playing, but super close to that. I literally could almost hear them.

With that in mind, the way I was improvising previously, really being guided by scale and chord knowledge, what I had listened to, and transcribing. Is that more and more going to translate in being led by the music in my head? Say as I do more sing the numbers, and really doing more and more with my voice for example. Sorry if that was long winded. I’m just really curious what happens next in my musical journey, now that I’m really taking sing the numbers seriously. When I should have done that much sooner.

Thanks for putting this forum together, I’ve already found lots of great info on it!

(Edit: One other thing I thought of. I noticed if I’m away from a song for long enough. I completely forget how to improvise over it. Like I forget the chords, and really can only remember the melody. Does that also change once I’m led by the mind?)

@HardBopJazzMan Having all the scales and chords under your fingers is a definite advantage. The more comfortable you are with the mechanics of each key signature, the more freely you will be able to play based on numbers. Now it’s a matter of getting accustomed to the sounds of the tonal numbers. The beauty of looking at only 7 notes, regardless of the key, is that in relative pitch, they all sound the same: a 4 will always sound like a 4 regardless of the key signature.

To help me get to the point where the key doesn’t matter, I also worked through ‘Sing the Numbers.’ But I did them with my instrument, not vocally. Over the course of 1-1/2 years, that was my daily meditation. I would not memorize what key each track was in. I’d randomize the tracks to help with that. I would do them on both alto and tenor, so I got to orient to two different fingerings. Doing it this way, I was able to train myself to find the key quickly, and to also orient myself to that key. By orient myself, I mean that I would find 1, and all the other tonal numbers. Now, I think in numbers when I play, not in letters.

Playing my instrument with the sing the numbers tracks has been the single most effective exercise I’ve done with IFR. I extend that to how I learn tunes. I chart them by the numbers–what David Reed calls tonal maps. This way, a phrase is not the notes, but the numbers: i.e. the opening phrase of Fly Me to the Moon is 1 7 6 5 4. Regardless of my instrument or the key, it will always be those numbers. So it becomes quite easy to transpose a tune, because the key signature becomes irrelevant once you have the key under your fingers.

HardBopJazzMan, I think in addition to the Singing the Numbers exercises you’d find the Melody Paths exercise really helpful. It’s described on page 186 of the Improvise for Real book by David Reed. It looks like a simple exercise, but it’s really deep. Go slow and really listen to all the sounds. (I think it’s even more fun to do than Singing the Numbers, and I had great fun with singing numbers)

Watch this playlist on Youtube to see it in action:

Hi Woody, wow that was perfectly explained. I was totally looking at it the wrong way. Like you said, having all the scales/chords already will makes things easier. I just have to get know each of the sounds, and later those sounds in the harmonic environments. Okay I already think in numbers when playing, not notes, so maybe I’m further along with this than I thought. That’s wild, I was just playing Fly Me the other day. I was able to figure out its melody and put it onto one of those tonal maps. So maybe it won’t take long to recongize all the sounds. Again, that cleared up so much for me. Thanks!

Hi hender99, I have the book so I’ll be sure to go check that section out again. I think I’m doing something similar to that, when I’m outlining chords for a song, but not tying them together in a path. So that shouldn’t be a big adjustment to make.

Again, for the melody path exercise, look at the YouTube videos in my previous reply. Also, do it daily, just for fun. It will seep into your subconscious after several weeks. And you’ll be better for it

Hey everyone, good news! Already seeing results from applying what was said here. I’m really starting to feel the notes, instead of just knowing them. I was able to follow the melody on three different songs, in three different genres, able to make a tonal map of the melody. And even figure what some of the harmony was. Felt pretty good! I’m excited to see where it goes from here. Really shows you how powerful perspective is, and how helpful sound advice can be. Thanks again everyone!


That’s great news! Congratulations! So glad to hear about your breakthrough!