I've been improvising jazz and other styles on piano for decades, and yet there is still a very significant amount of my improvisation which is based on physical patterns developed over the years, licks I've accumulated, etc.

Is someone on the level of a John Coltrane or Bill Evans or Wynton Marsalis always or even sometimes playing precisely and exactly what their inner ear is telling them to play? I know Bird had a fantastic ear and yet he still uses tons of stock licks... well, not stock licks. Licks he invented!

Thoughts? This is a mirage I've been chasing forever...

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    A good exercise (that I think I picked up from Adam Neely) to get away from playing patterns that are familiar to your hands, is to sing the notes while you're playing. It will slow you down, but it will force you to think about each note before you play it, and choose the notes deliberately, resulting in a more musically meaningful improvisation. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 1:24
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    Why would playing what your ear tells you to mean not using patterns and licks? Your ear can tell you to play an appropriate pattern or lick... Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 1:35
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    What all musicians strive to do is erase the barrier between your heart and the outside world. Surely as spontaneously as you speak, speaking through music feels the same way. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 2:31
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    @b3ko -- you need to check out some George Benson, then....
    – user39614
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 3:02
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    @DavidBowling - you beat me to it - I just woke up! Obviously living in the wrong part of the world.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 8:38

8 Answers 8


If by "inner ear" you mean the ability to improvise without actually hearing what you play, and still knowing pretty much exactly what it sounds like, then nothing even close to John Coltrane's skill level is needed. Even I can do that easily. If you can sing an improvised line and then repeat the same line correctly with your instrument, then you played what your inner ear told you. Right? But if by "inner ear" you mean some magical special quality of being able to draw from an inexplicable source of new kinds of things that were previousy not even in your vocabulary, then I don't think Coltrane did that. In his playing he utilized things that he had mastered through practicing.

I think the "inner ear" ideal is a myth and a misconception. As a human you are a psycho-physical system, and the things you play when improvising (or otherwise) are a result of many interdependent physical and psychological parts and layers, including fingers, arms, nerves, memory, hopes and fears and everything. You can even include the instrument, the environment, the acoustics and the audience in the system. Good musicians seek inspiration and feedback and feelings from many things you might consider external factors, but they do affect the result, it's just natural, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. Whatever the chain of events was that led to the music you produced, it's still your music. What makes you think you could know the chain of events behind Coltrane's music, and which of those events happened inside some mystical "inner ear" area, and which of them happened outside of it?

However, since you posted this question, there might be something you're seeking that could be improved, and that's expanding your perspective when playing. In terms of levels of abstraction, what is the "domain" you're operating in? What things do you think you're allowed to change - what is your musical device? Instead of just obeying plans coming from a higher level, you could start to take ownership of the higher-level things and start playing with them as your creative toys.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that there's this kind of a hierarchy of abstractions, from physical to logical and abstract. This is from a Western style "harmony and notes" way of thinking, and there are many more aspects to the final musical outcome like the whole world of rhythm, rhythmic tension and resolution and ambivalence etc., timbres, ... lyrics and words and all that. But each of those areas and musical dimensions has a similar structure of layers between concrete and abstract. I'm sure people have opinions on the validity of this structure, but the exact model is not relevant. You can imagine your own better model.

  • physical finger and arm movements
  • __< exact notes
  • ____< melodic+harmonic+rhythmic "implementation", chord voicings
  • ______< chord and voice movement
  • ________< harmonic turnarounds, "what is the key/mode and on which side are we leaning"

As you know, these layers are all inter-connected. If you change a physical finger movement, it may change the note, which may change the chords and turn the harmony around. Or it may just sound like a mistake. Each layer also adds details that can be very important to the whole, but that the higher layer doesn't say anything about. The chord progression doesn't say anything about exact picking/fingering patterns or even voicings, etc.

Now the important question is, in which of those layers are you able to operate fluently? What is your musical domain? Do you think that you're not allowed to change the chords? The turnarounds? You say that you play too much pre-learned patterns ... but on which layer of abstraction are those patterns? Maybe you could play almost the same patterns or licks, but with different chords and timing? Can you play a minor lick in a major key?

I think it's a good analogy to think of improvisation as live arranging and composing. Which layers do arrangers and composers operate on? Step up from the lower levels of hierarchy! :) Don't think like a worker or soldier blindly obeying plans and instructions coming from higher up, think like the planner. Maybe even like the board of directors! :) Start playing around with chord progressions, and start setting musical goals in terms of what happens on the more abstract level. Sometimes you might settle for the exact original written chords for various reasons, but it should be your own informed decision. You should have a sense of what is essential for the tune, and the particular feeling and interpretation you want to deliver. If your reason for using the exact written chords verbatim is that "I'm scared and I don't know what might happen if I changed them", then that's a weakness you should start improving. The same thing applies to all other aspects of musical expression, but for some reason I've noticed that harmony is often an area where players fall short.

This is a good place to mention scales and the "chord-scale system" thing that was talked about recently. Scales are lower-level musical objects! If you're a good jazz improviser, you have to think higher than that. Even if you knew how to apply the chord-scale system that gives you a list of possible scales, which one do you select? Why and using what information? Randomly? Think higher! :) So, to become a good jazz improviser, you have to become very fluent in the higher layers. Make your own voice leadings and chord progressions. Play the same melody 10 times with different chords every time. Can you do that? The primary role of jazz comping is not to provide "harmonic context", which locks down chord choices and limits the soloist's creativity. Comping provides rhythm, so the soloist can invent her own chords. And she can do that, because she has mastered the higher levels of musical elements.

Maybe I should emphasize that you don't toy around with chords just to show off that you can. That's what junior pop/jazz school students do, and it belongs to that phase of musical development. (Or at least I hope they play around with chords and don't just apply these chord-scale systems brainlessly with the sole purpose of avoiding blatantly wrong notes.) You develop the higher-level skills to know what is important and what isn't, and to know how to create tension and release, expectation and surprise. You're telling a story, or more like, paraphrasing a story. How do you know which notes to emphasize? If you can use only two notes, which ones do you pick, and what's your goal in selecting exactly those notes?

  • maybe they think even like a shareholder ... Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 7:38
  • Changing the chords/harmony to a piece is all well and good, and can be done so the melody still works over them. However, when that's done, it's going to produce improv that will be different from any that would fit the original chords. There aren't that many phrases which will fit over multiple different chords or their sequences.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 9:44
  • @Tim the idea is that you must be able to improvise your own chords (and rhythm), and play phrases that outline those new improvised chords. But anyway, I'm telling the OP to become a better improviser by diving into that world and starting to play around to learn how it works, and how the phrase notes and chords and everything are connected, and what happens on various levels when you change things. Lift up your perspective. Move to management and higher, if you feel you're stuck on the lowest levels of the organization. ;) Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 10:30
  • I'm fluent in all that, but bottomline I think my ear just isn't as strong as it should be. For example: I really should be able to sing whatever I play (within reason) before I play it, and I can't. It is probably as simple as that. BUT YES - there are many layers and subtleties to Spontaneous Composition. And you have to have a story to tell. AND it don't mean a thing if it aint got that swing! Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 22:51
  • @BruceKamolnick Interesting. I would have thought that being able to know what things will sound like before playing them would come automatically if you've practiced improvisation for years. However, I think it's a skill that can be developed. Find where your limit is and start pushing it with exercises. Surely you can sing or imagine at least some simple things accurately? And as you imagine more and more complicated things, it starts to become inaccurate? You can't really sing chords, but you can try imagining the feeling they would create and sing them arpeggiated at least. Commented Mar 21, 2019 at 6:43

You really need to ask the folk who play like this. And a lot of them probably won't be able to explain. The deeper one goes into this sort of playing, the more 'reality' is left behind. By this, I mean the conscious level of thinking. I don't mean players stop thinking, I do mean they think in a different way.

Yes, of course they'll use stock phrases. We all do, whether we're talking or playing. Some use more stock phrases: probably because they have more to pull out of the bag, some because they know what will fit better at particular points.

To further explain it - when you're speaking, you have a rough idea of what's going to come out, but the exact phrasing may vary. Other times, you compose the exact words, and that's what comes out. But mostly, you're not acutely aware of what's happening. And, it works!

A lot of players even have at least an idea of the whole journey of a verse, culminating in the final phrase, which has been their target all along, and the pre-amble was mostly pre-planned in some way - sometimes vague, sometimes exactly thought out. But that is always subject to change, as the best players are listening to the rest of the players, and will react to anything they may pick up on, on the way.

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    Yes, well said. I met a player from Sun Ra's Arkestra once (at their show) and he told me something like: You know you're in the right space when you have absolutely no idea what you're doing." That is The Zone...and it comes and goes at will, but it is a nice place to be. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 18:08

The question is:

What do you mean with the „inner ear”? Is it just a data processing system? Or is it an instrument of our soul? and if yes ... what is soul?

My inner ear is a cognitive instance selecting and assembling among a ressource of melodic and rhythmic patterns, of intervals, chords, melodic formulas and clauses and licks and tricks ( which are the sum of my musical training and experience).

As my inner ear is also a part of the cognitive instance that reassembles and reconstructs existing patterns to new combinations (subjectively) and never known or never heard “original” patterns then the inner ear is a part of the creative mind for new inventions.

While this ressource or with an other word our repertoire inhibits our possibilities of responding in a "creative" way - we are becoming just reproductive - it provides us bigger abilities to respond and improvise fluently and automatically.

(While the lack of knowledge and experience of me as a beginner or amateur gave me a bigger chance to respond „originally“. The less educated we are the more possibilities we have to be creative.)

So if we compare our intuition to play the right chord with a data processing system we understand that the inner ear is responsible to choose the right chord and to decide which lick will fit.

For inventing an originally new pattern in a solo the time is usually too short. In this case you play a lick (you can prepare this before of course at home).


I agree that "Inner Ear" is and ideal, but it also has to be said, that the more we practice improvisation the closer usually we get to that ideal. So it means something important we strive for but maybe it's not well defined.

To me this is more of a technical aspect of improvisation - how precise/successful is our brain-body apparatus in translating the rough abstracts and ideas that flow in our heads into musical statements.

But the art if improvisation is more about what actually IS in your head, how rich is your vocabulary and how personal, inventive and deep in the emotional sense and revealing in the intellectual sense your "content" is. That's what makes Coltrane and Davis different from your average professional jazz musician with well trained improvisation apparatus.

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    The most inventive performer out there will sound like crap if he doesn't fit in with the support chord progressions being played. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 14:59
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    Where do I suggest otherwise?
    – Jarek.D
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 15:26
  • I agree that reducing the space, if you will, between - let's say, your inner thoughts, your mysterious muse, and what you can actually express on your ax, that is the goal. And yes, there are plenty of brilliant musicians doing just that who are not engaging. No X factor. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 17:55
  • LET ME TRY AGAIN. I agree that reducing the space between your inner thoughts, your mysterious muse, and what you can actually express on your ax, is the goal. Hendrix is an example of someone who often seems to make that direct link. And yes, having the abilities is not the same thing as having something to say, or something that pulls people in. Well, let's agree on this: better to be "telling a great story" with your playing, even if some of it is physical and automatic, than to tell a boring, unimaginative story - using your perfected inner ear. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 18:03

This is something I've been working on for years too. My philosophy is that the instrument needs to be an extension of the body much like the mouth is. So if you whistle, hum, or sing you know what I mean.

Generally you can do these activities without thinking of scale patterns it's just inherent to us, that's what I think you mean by "inner ear". So if any song is playing we can whistle right along to it in the correct key instantaneously (assuming you're a good whistler). But what that means is you've pretty much internalized all the muscle memory necessary via your mouth for each note in your mind.

Similarly, if you're playing piano or guitar and you're still thinking of patterns such as scales then you're not quite there yet. They only serve as training wheels for the muscle memory. I'm not quite there yet either but I'm working on it every day. And the knowledge of scales and their associated diatonic chords and beyond is a prerequisite because it can takes years to internalize the sounds.

A few tips:
1. Never look at your instrument, it should only be about muscle memory like touch typing on a computer.
2. Play the same songs in all the different keys this will train your ear/fingers to be able to play any interval and chords.
3. Figure songs out by ear, anything that you hear. Also develop the ability to know what scale degree in both melody and harmony you're listening to.


My experience of playing what I'm "hearing in my head" isn't exactly a hearing experience until I pluck the particular note on my instrument. I'm familiar enough with my instrument that I instinctively know where to fret and how to pick to get the sound that I'm imagining in my head, and often I'm imagining that sound just a fraction of a second before I'm actually playing it. Usually what I'm imagining is directly affected by what the other players are doing and the type of music we're playing. Depending on all these factors, sometimes the experience is inspirational, or maybe not so much.


I agree with the answers above. When I improvise and I'm in the zone, my fingers just play what I hear in my head. I sing it in my mind and my guitar sings the song without any effort on my part.

There's another aspect to playing fluently your musical ideas and that's how much imagination you have. If your imagination meets your abilities and that's all you want then that's okay.

But if your imagination exceeds your abilities because you keep having more and better ideas or because you have reached your own physical limitations or the limitations of your instrument, then you may never get to the point where you can fluently play all of your ideas all of the time. And that's okay too.

There's a story I heard once about Scott LaFaro. Scott LaFaro was the pianist Bill Evans's favorite bass player ever, with phenomenal technique, huge imagination and great sensitivity. One day Scott LaFaro's roommate came home from a gig to find LaFaro sitting on the couch with his head in his hands.

"What's wrong, Scott?"

"I can't play everything I hear in my head, man."

Final thought. Once your abilities get to a certain point, you may find yourself fighting your instrument. Then it's time to get a better instrument.


I'm surprised that no comment nor answer so far has mentioned "Audiation" which, while I can't find the term in a dictionary, it is on Wikipedia under "Gordon music learning theory".

I interpreted this to effectively mean the imagination of musical sounds in one's mind before attempting to play the notes. Adam Neely also has a video on the topic.

In essence, I think it is necessary to formulate the sequence of notes in your imagination first -- hearing them first in your "inner ear" as you describe it -- and then play them in reality. It takes practice and repetition to play what you created in your mind.

As a relative novice, I'll come up with a melody or tune, and in the process of trying to realize it on an instrument, I seem to inevitably morph or modify the idea because I cannot (yet) pluck the notes precisely.

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