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I have a bias

I have a newly noticed bias.

I realized, during a coaching session yesterday, that I was working with a personal bias. I do my best to enter into my client’s perspectives and aims in order to help facilitate them. This means setting my own musical visions to the side for the moment. When people ask for my personal opinions, I do usually offer them up. Though I do so with lot’s explanations about my own musical biases and how we need to read through them in order to get to something useful. For example, how I like to use rhythm is different from how you use rhythm. So if we are going to ask for Trey’s opinion about something rhythmic, then we need to temper it with Trey’s aims for how he uses rhythm.

But I came across a new personal bias yesterday. One that hadn’t even occurred to me. Or it had occurred to me, but I have been making the assumption that all musicians share it. This really isn't the case and doesn’t have to be.

My bias is this:

I believe that in each of our own aural imaginations is an infinite pool of musical wonder to explore. As explorers, our work is two-fold. One part is to develop a very clear and flexible “aural landscape” where we can let our imaginations roam freely to discover and play. The other is to train our bodies to articulate this inner landscape and bring it into the audible world, blending it with other players. From these two flow all the useful practices we would apply to our musical work.

How is this a bias?

The bias is that I don’t believe training the mind, in the study of how musical structures work, gets you to this inner world and helps you to bring it out. The study of musical theory usually puts down a blueprint that often obscures your own imagination. It tells you “this is how things are done.” Actually, it really only tells you “this how some things have already been done.” But new musicians (and often us older pros) usually hear this as “this is how music works.” And therefore, to learn the theory means you can play the music.

This bias definitely rubs up against any approach to “genre playing.” If you are going to learn a given style of music and play it well, then there are rules about what is appropriate and what isn’t. And so we have jazz schools, 18-century fugue writing classes and Irish ornamentation workshops. All of these rules are based on the analysis of past music. Meaning, very smart musicians have looked at great music and come up with the parameters that definite it. But this isn’t how any of this music came to be heard, composed and played.

The way to great music, according to my bias, is to train the inner ear to hear where your imagination is leading you. Training yourself in the skill-sets of musical scales, modes, chord structures, harmonic movement and rhythmic rudiments often serves the purpose of cutting you off from your own aural imagination. These types of skills sets are best used to develop flexibility in your playing and for further developing the ideas that your inner ear throws out to you.

Others disagree. One premise that is often tossed about is: Learn all the rules, then break them. That can work, I guess. I can say this is the approach that I took as a young player. But, man, it takes a lot of time! You, also, end up with more constraints than launching pads for exploration. And which rules do you do learn first? Jazz? Rock? Indian? Vietnamese? Irish? West African? Schenkerian? Bluegrass?

Screw all that, my bias tells me nowadays. Go into your inner ear and just listen. See what is there and then play it. Then and only then, look at what you’ve got and try to make some sense of it. That is where theoretical work comes in. Then you can ask yourself “what kinds of things make up this melody, rhythm or chords?” At that point then you might look towards other musical structures to see how they are formed and which things might help you develop your own inner voice’s way of speaking.

One very simple practice can prove this to you.

Sit quietly with your instrument for a minute. Listen in to your inner ear and hear a single pitch. Find that pitch on your instrument and play it. Then quietly listen again, internally, for a second pitch. Play that pitch on your instrument. Then a third and so forth until you have a string of pitches. Let’s say 8 or 12 of them.

Now look at what you’ve got there. More often than not, this little melody that you have just imagined goes into some very strange territory. It may have wandered through several key centers. It may have no key center. Yet you have just imagined it and articulated it.  I can guarantee you, without knowing anything about you or having heard it myself, this melody has a certain kind of satisfying logic to it. It, also, has the keys to your own unique musical voice embedded in it. If you had been given a dorian mode (a specific minor scale sequence) and were told to made something with it, you would never in a billion years come up with this melody that your inner ear just poured out to you. In fact, you probably wouldn’t really use your inner ear at all. Except as a form of editing assistant.

So my bias again. This inner ear has a wealth of music in it just waiting to be unlocked. All theoretical information should be applied only in order to serve this. Not the other way around.

Of course, this is only the beginning. Many more questions flow from this.

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Reader Comments (10)

I totally agree! The ear and ones imagination is the alfa AND the omega. Theory is good, but not the most important. Let the notes and the beats flow.

Four four and seven eights ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new genre, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all minds are creative. I call this genre "music".

April 8, 2012 | Unregistered

That's a good bias to have!! When I first starting playing I was being taught by a man who had little to no understanding of theory, then I got a few lessons from a guy who introduced me to modes. I learned more from him than I did from that other guy in a whole year! I soon stopped taking lessons and began teaching myself theory. I thought it would help me improve my playing, and indeed my playing did improve. I can play faster, I know what scales work with what chords, my technique has improved, etc. But I feel like my ability to think outside the box has become stifled. When I'm improvising I always fall back to familiar territory, and I see everything in terms of scales I know and love. I end up sounding like musicians I grew up admiring rather than my own person. It's hard to develop something original when it feels like everything has been done.

April 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJesse Walters

This resonates with me. I'm originally and primarily a drummer, in which I HAVE had some formal instruction early on. But the informal instruction of listening to prog back in the day had probably more to do with shaping my playing, and eventually my composing. When it came time to get somewhat serious about composing, I found I was without most of the usual grounding in the "vertical" aspect of music (notes and chords) despite being quite handy with the "horizontal" aspects (the placement of events across time.) While obviously this limited me, I like to say in a not-entirely-tongue-in-cheek way that it also "liberated" me from the pesky conventions of harmony and melody. Or forced me to invent new, less formal conventions. So this post resonated with all of that, for me, so thanks!

April 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterR.G.Daniel

April 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKavstik Kurva

Great post Trey. Thanks for the reminder and for inspiring my playing tonight. More here -


April 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Smith

Thanks for this post. While having a strong inner voice, I've been recently struggling with feeling like I have a lack of theory that holds me back. I think that's a function of a) wanting to grow in my knowledge and b) being around people that have gone through traditional university systems and have learned a lot more fundamental theory knowledge.

I think I'm going to keep learning theory as I go, but focus more on bringing out my inner voice (in ways such as the exercise you mentioned above, as well as more exercises on top of that).

April 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Balatero

Thanks for this great and inspiring post Trey. Hearing this from a great professional musician like you gives us younger generations hope and confidence to just go for that infinite realm of sound and did through it with heart and soul... I am not a technical player (though I'm working on to improve it) but I've experienced that when I just go for the sounds with my heart and inner ear... something inspiring and moving comes out of it...

Thanks again for the great music you created and brought to this world... Watching you playing live on "Eyes wide open" DVD along with KC members while high on psychedelics changed my life forever...

Peace and Love from Iran


May 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeiman

This is good; I need not agree nor disagree with it.
I'd like to propose another step:
We are motivated by what we love. We do not grow up in a vacuum, and all of the music that we like (and have liked) (and even some we did not like) influences what the inner ear hears.
I struggle with the issues presented by the academy, because I teach jazz guitar at the university level. But I have found that the genre can become a straitjacket at times. Any genre that cannot admit something different or new is a prison. (I'd like to think that jazz can absorb many new influences, but that's not always the case.)
But I think of my own experience: I did not need anyone to tell me to learn music that I loved. As an undergraduate music student, I hated learning standard tunes, saying that it was 'difficult' for me. Yet I knew how to play tunes that I really liked - the Beatles, Steely Dan, etc., and some of those were no easier than 'Stella By Starlight'. So I was lying, but I also had not yet learned about my self and my motivation.

If we heard no music, what would our inner ear lead us to?
We come to music because something in it speaks to us. The music we hear motivates us to understand it.
I spend a lot of time transcribing music (this includes King Crimson, Frank Zappa, and Weather Report, just to name a few off the top of my head), and the things that I learn are both conscious and unconscious. I know plenty of music theory; but I do not know what caused a composer to make the choices he/she made. When I fill my cup with things, they leak out again when I play or write. I know this to be true for me.

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Brunkhorst

Hi Trey, thanks for this post. A valuable reminder of what we're meant to be listening for. I love theory but have to remind myself its best used as a way of explaining some aspects of what was good/musical, rather than too much a system for creating something new that will be good. Whatever 'good' means!


May 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Moore

Well said, Trey. I turn 60 this year and I wish I'd figured this out 40 years ago.
Will you tolerate a small diversion?

Let’s get right to it: does magic really exist?
When you analyze the atoms we’re made of and get to the bottom of the bottom of things, here’s an inarguable fact: we are made of waves in mostly empty space. Waves have a curious property of having no substance and existing where there is no measurable medium. They are influenced by external forces, have characteristic wavelengths, form patterns and exhibit the creative-destruction of addition and subtraction when they combine, but on their own, they are not actually made of anything.
So, given that you and your surroundings are a summation of waves in space, can the rules of physics be ‘broken’? No, they can’t, but what are the real rules? We don’t know and neither do you—we are slaves in chains where the links are formed from the limits of our perceptive senses and our analytical, interpretive ability.
The honest among us will admit there is much we don’t know. Can waves repel or negate gravity? Can they travel through space instantaneously? From the wave point of view, do the concepts of space and time have a useful, tangible meaning? Can waves slip-slide from point to point in the fabric of time? What universal meaning is embedded in these concepts beyond the ones projected from our physical bodies—constrained by the limits of the computing machine between our ears? This computing machine is amazing and beautiful, but it is not perfectly omniscient—it is a sophisticated but flawed machine made of fat cells and saltwater.
If you’ll permit an analogy—you’ll find that music is a key element of this story—but what is music? If you look back through history, music started as rhythms tapped out on stretched skins and performed on clay pipes and gut-stringed instruments. There was no way to record the songs (mythical tales set to music and rhythm), so they were passed from generation to generation via memory.
Now think of all the physical expressions of music though the years—including wire recorders, Victrola shellac platters, cassette tapes, compact discs, flash drives and now magnetic or stored-charge bits hosted by cloud computers. It doesn’t take much gray matter between your ears to realize the physical expression is not the music. In fact, we can’t pinpoint what music really is, but we know it’s important because all cultures use some form of musical expression and we’ll wager there is a word for music in any language. The concept extends beyond the human sphere because even the birds and dolphins sing.
What is it? Is it the initial inspiration ‘heard’ in the artists’ mind? Is it the demo version captured in rough form beside the artist’s hotel bed? Is it a definitive version recorded in a studio? Is it the song played live for what could be thousands of times in different forms and versions? Clearly music is many things all at once and you can drive yourself batscat-crazy trying to precisely define something perfectly when the everyday experience is so common and obvious and easy.
We’ll repeat ourselves: the physical expression is not the music. In the same way, your physical expression is not you. You are held in your body for a discrete period, but you are not your body—you are something more.
Given that, can you transcend your body? Think about it: if Paul McCartney singing Maxwell’s Silver Hammer can survive the transition from a vinyl 33-RPM disk to charges stored in a cloud, then why can’t you transcend your physical body and why can’t the rules of physics be twisted and molded? If the rules can be changed and broken, then let’s conclude that magic can exist. And if it can exist, then it does exist. Why not?

May 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKen Coffman

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