When I play jazz/pop, I struggle to get the musical thoughts I "hear" in my head out onto my instrument. I can tell that what I've played isn't what I wanted to play, but I don't know how to correct it (other than by trial and error) to what I want it to be.

I've tried singing, and it helps: I've found that if I can sing it accurately usually I can get it out accurately. However, this has two problems: 1. my singing itself is not that accurate and sometimes I have to try several times before I get it right (I'm not a trained vocalist), 2. when I'm performing I can't stop to sing.

I've done ear training and can reliably identity single notes over a key center and do two-part dictation.

Are there ways to work around this? Is it just spending more time singing and learning how to translate my inner hearing into physical movement?

3 Answers 3


The number one issue I've had with this, and the number one issue I've seen in others, it that our internal ideas either move to fast, or we don't have the awareness/facility to execute them.

Getting to where you describe is a lifelong pursuit, so I can't tell you how to "get there", but here is an approach that has been helpful to me and others.

  • Practice slowing yourself down. This is not to say practice at a slow tempo. It means, practice slowing down your ideas so that you can slay with them on your instrument. This typically means setting limits on what you allow yourself to play. For example, maybe you're only "allowed" to play one note per measure. By giving yourself a framework, you can focus both on playing what you hear, but also on hearing what you (are about to) play.

There is a tendency to get into our heads when improvising and loosing the connection to what's happening around us. Maintaining that connection is key to developing and executing ideas.

There are a number of questions on this site that would also be worth your time to explore.


Can you play existing song melodies by ear? IMO, there's almost no difference in playing by ear, and playing out what you hear "internally". When you hear a melodic line (or harmonic, whatever) and try to repeat it, the line you heard echoes in your head and you try to repeat what you hear internally. When improvising, it is the same, except you don't first hear it externally, you hear it only internally. To practice playing what you hear internally, repeat phrases by ear.


    1. Listen to a line
    1. (Now it echoes in your head internally)
    1. Play what you hear internally


    1. Imagine a line
    1. (Now it echoes in your head internally)
    1. Play what you hear internally

Only step 1 is different. You can train steps 2-3 by repeating phrases by ear. When you're very good in that, then I claim that it will help you bring out improvised lines as well.

That's not the only way to improvise though. Improvisation can be based on intellectual things like visual note patterns on a keyboard or fretboard, or even abstract theoretical concepts. In which case you don't necessarily "hear" the things in advance, you see something or imagine some "calculations", and then you execute those plans. For example by playing every other scale note mechanically, following a complex rhythm pattern.

  • IMO this isn't the same, because after each bad attempt at playing an idea in my mind, the idea fades... Whereas that obviously doesn't happen with transcription. Feb 9, 2023 at 4:08
  • @LostCrotchet Are you saying that you're excellent at playing by ear and you can play any melody by ear instantly, just not the ones in your mind? My whole point is that you have actually developed that skill and are good at playing by ear. Developing takes lots of work. It's a skill, not a trick you "know". Feb 10, 2023 at 7:47

I think you are facing the existential struggle that comes from the simultaneous need both to control and to surrender control to your subconscious.

The solution, in my opinion, is to dig the tunnel from both sides of the mountain-- (1) use your consciousness not to play, but to train the subconscious-- lots of scale patterns, transposing pieces, and so on-- transposing being a great way of getting your brain to think in patterns instead of set notes. (2) learn how to get out of the way of your subconscious-- when you are playing, your conscious mind should not be involved in any of the mechanisms of playing at all. It should be busy experiencing the environment-- feeling the energy in the room, listening to how the room and instruments are interacting to affect timbre, and so on.

I know this all sounds woo, but woo is another word for "won't fit my pre-set world view." I don't see how an adult musician can live without faith, or superstition, or drugs, or some other way to force the ego to drop its heavy chains of habitual control-- unless they were already great as children.

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