Ear Vs. Head – Which Should Come First? Answer: YES ;-)
June 16, 2021

Written by Doug Perkins

I know I keep addressing the inner intellectual and emotional aspects of being a musician in blogs, but that’s just because I find it to be so common an issue in both in my own teaching and talking to other musicians both on the gig, and just as friends.

I see people in jazz social media groups discussing (well, many times I would define it as “arguing”) about some icon musician they love and talking about how that person could play anything they heard in their heads or had perfect pitch, or practiced thousands of types of scale sequences, that they could invert and transpose by any interval instantly at lightening speed and precision.

Well – maybe they can, maybe they can’t, but MAYBE that might not be looking at the actual PURPOSE or value of music in the healthiest of ways – so, what IS the actual value of music?

That answer would depend on if you are looking at if from the musician creating its’ point of view or from the listeners’ point of view, and I’m going to take the position that either AND both are of equal value.

So what does that look like from our point of view as the actual players of the music? Well, it could mean that whether we just played exactly what we heard in our head, or exactly what we thought of in our minds, or had practiced before and we LIKED WHAT WE PLAYED; any one of those things might have either equal value. Or at least enough value to be considered “good”, making us successful at what we do at that moment.

The good part about embracing that concept is that it lowers the decibel level of the voice of the inner critic that every musician I have ever met knows that they have, whether they admit to it or not. The less time that the inner musician spends battling the inner critic, the more mental and creative processing time for successful music making.

OK, but what about all of those times that we play and either we are employed to play music we don’t particularly like, or felt that we didn’t play well, but the AUDIENCE loved it? What about that, does that actually have any value?

Well, I will put out the argument that if it didn’t, music wouldn’t have been created to be an experience that is shared by more than just the performer/creator, but instead with creator and listener having different reactions and experiencing different effects from it.

So equally true then:  all of those times when we KNOW the band is burning and there is little to know reaction from the audience, that’s just a different value the came from it. It’s great when everyone has a similar shared experience, but history has shown that more often than not, that doesn’t happen – but music still goes on as being something of value that people continue to do either asa creators or listeners over the ages.

OK, so what does that mean to us as we try to be the best that we can be on the creating side of music? Well, the main thing is that there are so many ways of music to have value that it’s really counterproductive to spend a whole lot of time both criticizing ourselves AND others about it.

Granted, you have to have a strong sense of what you think is good or not as an artist or YOU won’t like what you create, but it’s when you go to the point of always being stuck in “critical mode” both with yourself and others that you get stuck in the weeds, where things go counterproductive for everyone.

Case in point: there is a jazz musician that I won’t name who is very successful economically of whom it’s considered “cool” by many to say that they “hate”. But I can state with total confidence that whenever anyone hears this musician, they instantly recognize his sound and style of playing – and really, how many musicians can claim that? Beyond that, this person has some specialized technical abilities on their particular instrument that very few of it’s players can claim to. So – is it better to label them as “bad”, or just “different from what I might want to hear”? I think that with music, there are musicians to satisfy every ear, and an audience for every musician – music’s scope is THAT BIG.

I had a student recently ask me how much of what I play is coming directly from my ear – and it was obvious to me that he was asking it out of anxiety over his own ear. I told him that it was difficult to say exactly because I have played for so long that I “hear” what my mind visually conceives on the guitar pretty much right away, so it’s sort of a “chicken or egg” kind of question.

Granted, my ear away from the guitar is not as good as it is when it’s in my hand, but the point is that I guess I sort of look at “ear or head” as two different routes to get to a “good music” result. Yes, I can always get better at my ear AND at my mental and physical ability to put things on my instrument, but does that mean that the music from one source is better than the other? As I said, the two can be seen as being that different from each other but not necessarily better or worse, and so maybe the only real yardstick to hold up to either method of creation is the reaction of the player and listener – and since you can only get one or the other at a time, how do you judge?

Well, maybe that’s the whole point of what I am talking about here – spend less time judging, and more time creating, and most probably what you create will get better and better. The point is that the journey is more what it’s all about rather than the destination anyways, so ENJOY what you do and don’t stop doing it, and you will always get better at this crazy little thing called MUSIC.

And speaking of variety in musicians and what they play, check out these great JGS masterclasses:






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