I want to say something about the ‘Lady Madonna’ theory of jazz education. The approach which says that, to be a good improviser, you need to ‘listen to the music playing in your head’.
Sure, playing what you hear in your head is better than playing some formula from a theory textbook. And sure, for some people, finding that internal soundtrack may take a bit of effort.
But many people have the opposite problem. If anything, we have too much music playing in our heads. We (count me in) are plagued by ‘earworms’. Our inner mixtape plays almost incessantly, at times erupting into singing, whistling, beatboxing or foot-tapping. Our friends just love that, not.
The problem with the Lady Madonna theory is that it only addresses part of the process of improvisation. There is another blindingly obvious bit that is equally important.
Once you have ‘heard’ something in your musical imagination, you still need to express it with your voice or on your instrument. Top jazz players are very good at this, and perhaps they sometimes forget what a challenge it is for less expert musicians. Veterans like Chick Corea or Wayne Shorter are at a stage where what to play can seem a bigger question than how to play it.
For the rest of us, a huge part of the skill of improvising is being able to physically perform the sounds that we imagine.
Another thing: listening to the music playing in the room could be more important than listening to whatever music is playing in your head.
Why do people so often sing or play well-known melodies wrong? The fault could be with their singing or playing. But it is also possible that they heard the melody wrong.
How can that happen? Eyes are not cameras, and ears are not microphones. Our senses actively seek familiar patterns. They make predictions which sometimes go far beyond the evidence.
Rustle in the undergrowth? TIGER! Oh, maybe not, but you’d be wise to treat it as such. That’s how Homo sapiens survived its first million years. Playing safe. Not looking too hard for the truth.
Thus it is, that evolution has not really equipped us to hear music accurately. Our ears are happy to take a guess and go with it. That could be why your friend sings Lady Madonna wrong. They hear it wrong. Every time, they hear it wrong. They fail to notice – or refuse to accept – that the actual melody or rhythm is different from what they expected and therefore heard.
Transcribing is a useful exercise because it teaches us that what we hear is not necessarily what actually happened. It provides a reality check. It’s like walking carefully into the undergrowth, spear in hand, to find out what really made those leaves rustle. Fortunately nobody ever had their head bitten off by an A-flat seven sharp nine on beat three. So be brave, transcribe! It won’t hurt you.
But our ears don’t know that. Like nervous dogs, they need to be trained. Hence all those ear-training exercises where you copy an interval or a phrase, vocally or on your instrument. They are about learning to hear accurately, and not going with the first guess your ears offer.
Such exercises also develop the vocal and instrumental skills that will, eventually, enable you to reproduce almost any musical sound that you can imagine. Think how cool that would be. Meanwhile, don’t worry too much about ‘being creative’. Learn the skills, and the ideas will come.