About making music



Development of the inner hearing and 
musical improvisation

© By Michiel Koperdraat (2001)


Playing with your eyes closed

When it comes to playing music, many people say: "I cannot improvise" or "I cannot play, because I do not have my musical score with me". Such statements demonstrate a dependence on written music, as well as a lack of confidence. It happens to many (amateur) musicians, and can often be attributed to an important process: the development of hearing.

Of the traditional five senses (physiological methods of perception), hearing is the most important one for the perception of music. During musical education, however, often not enough attention is paid to the development of hearing. Moreover, the concept of inner hearing, the hearing of sounds that are not being produced, is even completely omitted most of the time. For many (amateur) musicians this may seriously hamper a real good musical development.

Many musicians, when playing together, can hardly listen to themselves, let alone to others. There is little reflection upon the personal performance, which may lead to surprises. For example, when listening to your own recordings, all of a sudden you hear things that you were not aware of when the recording was made. This may be very demoralizing, which is a good reason to start learning how to listen. Creating music starts with closing your eyes.
The human mind, by its nature, is not very well capable to focus its attention on several thing
s simultaneously. Human attention is 'single-pointed', like a laser beam. Even the most intelligent person will tend to stop doing one thing if something else requires his attention. Exercise may allow you to broaden your focus, so that attention can be paid to several things at the same time. However, this requires energy, which is counterproductive during a learning process. In particular, when several physiological senses are involved at the same time, the learning process may get dispersed. Therefore, there will be a tendency for one of the senses to be dominant. The western world, in general, has become a 'seeing' world. Seeing is the method of perception that is most stimulated in our environment. As a consequence, this has effects on the development of our other senses, such as hearing.

In the Netherlands, reading and writing musical scores is a fundamental aspect of musical education. Much attention is paid to reading music, which happens with the eye. However, despite the fact that musical notation has a great value (it allows us to receive and distribute music efficiently), it is only a tool, not the music itself. Therefore, during their musical and technical development with the aid of musical scores, pupils should arrive at a point where the paperwork is put aside (the way the solo players in orchestras do). Most of the time, however, musicians do not have the courage to depend on their ears only, and they will look at their musical scores every time they play. Consequently, their main focus is on seeing, and the interpretation of the music or the addition of improvisations becomes very difficult, because this would require hearing and feeling instead.


There are many methods to train your hearing skills. Besides the technical aspects (such as recognizing intervals, chords and rhythm), it is important to learn to play music by ear. Unless very complex, musical performance should not require musical scores. This will stimulate your musical memory, and will build confidence that the music will come up in your mind all by itself, every time you start to play. Every new bar generates the next one automatically. All you have to do is follow. That gives you confidence. Furthermore, learning to improvise is of the utmost importance. Improvisation allows you to express your inner being, your personality, to the outside world and to yourself by means of the sounds from your musical instrument. Improvisation starts with the concept of inner hearing. You want to play something, so you want to hear something, and so you listen to what 'comes up', what you hear inside. Then you will find that there is always something, no matter how small, that will be 'blown into your mind' (which is where the word inspiration actually comes from). Inspiration is not something beyond your reach. It will come, but you need to listen, with your inner hearing. And then all you need to do is follow. Play what you hear. And your own personal 'musical story' will start. A story which you may have thought you would never be able to tell. Hence, the process of inner hearing is crucial for improvisation. Without inner hearing an improvisation can only exist of elements that you learned to play before (technical riffs, 'licks and tricks'), played in an arbitrary sequence. Of course this does not mean that technique is unimportant, as it allows you to reproduce your inner hearing without too much loss, and determines the time it takes you to do it.

Head, Heart and Hands

The three mental instruments required to make music are Insight, Feeling and Motion. They work together, independently. Each of them has its own function, which, if all goes well, is executed appropriately during your musical performance. The quality of your performance will reduce immediately, when these three mental instruments are not exclusively used for their own tasks, and the musician tries to substitute one for another. Consequently, it is very important to understand well how they work. During musical education, particularly for children, much attention should be paid to the properties and functioning of these three mental instruments. Not with a theoretic approach, but by practice. The centres of insight, feeling and motion are present in everyone, and are most often quite intelligent by themselves. Usually, they work automatically, but need to be utilized specifically during study in order to build musical skills. When all three of them are in equilibrium, balanced music can be produced, with little loss. Only then maximum performance can be achieved.

A major obstacle which hampers many musicians are false ideas like: "I cannot play without musical scores", "improvisation is difficult", “what will the others think of me", or "I am not a good musician at all", but also: "Boy, am I good, I play another bit, or a little louder, so that everybody is aware of me!". These ideas, so called inner 'applause and hissing', make musicians smaller than they really are. A nice discovery for musicians, however, is that these thoughts disappear immediately as soon as you focus on hearing. When your attention is connected to the sense of hearing, to the sound of your music only, all these silly ideas stop.



  •   If a musician really wants to develop his skills and expression, he will have to start with the development of his inner hearing skills.

  •  Producing music in the strict sense is only possible when you are willing to 'close your eyes'.

  •  Listening to others during a performance can only start after you know how to listen to yourself during performance.

  •  A good improvisation is at least a new interpretation of a musical story that you played before, and in the best case a new story, performed with techniques that you learned before.

  •  Technique is essential to express your musical story.

  •  Talent is the power to absorb new things and to express them with an open and experimenting mind and spirit.

  •  Thoughts that hamper your performance (such as 'inner applause and hissing' ) will make you smaller than you are. These thoughts disappear as soon as you connect your attention completely to your senses. Focus on your hearing, and the thinking will stop, together with all those silly ideas.

  •  As a performer, you're not only serving the music; at the first place the music is serving your own expression.


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