30 percent of your brain’s cerebral cortex is dedicated to visual processing. A paultry three percent is dedicated to hearing. That says a lot. One, it explains why it’s harder to retain the content of an audio book than reading a physical book. It explains why people often say, “I’m a visual learner” (of course you are!).
I think it also hints at why the core skill of improvisation is so difficult. Hearing the harmony played by a rhythm section, imagining musical phrases that complement the harmony, then fluidly projecting those phrases through your instrument with technical skill and grace puts quite a load on that precious three percent.
Its been shown that for musicians, part of the brain called the auditory cortex grows larger. It appears to act much like a muscle that expands with regular use and exercise.
Perhaps we can expand the area of auditory neurons beyond the 3 percent? Is there an exercise that can develop or expand the auditory cortex in order to enable easier and more fluid improvisation? Something that can better connect brain and instrument? Maybe something to pump up those gray matter guns?!
I’ve created some exercises that will give your auditory cortex a workout. Here’s a simple one you can do right now. Sing a random note. Hold it out for a couple of seconds then play it on your instrument. How quickly did you find the note on your instrument?
Here’s another: play Happy Birthday starting on your most comfortable note. That’s a simple tune, right? Now play it with the same ease and flow starting on a low B. Is there a difference?
Playing on your instrument what you hear externally and internally is the type of exercise that rapidly builds connections within your brain. As those connections get reinforced through repetition, something magical happens with your instrument. The resistance of the instrument starts to fade and you begin to more easily find the notes living in your imagination. Improvisation becomes easier and more satisfying.
Here’s an audio track consisting of the harmony of Happy Birthday recorded for one chorus in each of the 12 keys. Just before the start of each new key, you’ll hear a quick synth tone. That tone is the pitch of the first note of the Happy Birthday melody. Hear the note, find it on your instrument, and play the eight-bar melody in the new key.
If that was too difficult, try just singing the first note and the melody. Next, play only the first note on your instrument and sing the melody. What you’re doing is easing your way up to playing each full melody on your instrument.
Singing is always a great place to start when you’re having difficulty finding notes on your instrument. Sing first, then play.
I created an ebook for this Happy Birthday exercise which you can download by clicking the cover image below. The book contains four audio files. One with the above track, the next with the rhythm section without the first synth note, and a third with me playing the melody throughout, which is a good intermediary exercise if you are having trouble finding the melody. The fourth file is a recording of me improvising over the entire rhythm track.
Improvising over the entire track, going from key to key is the final challenge of the ebook. If you can hear your way through playing strings of melodic ideas throughout each of the 12 keys, you’ve got a well-developed auditory cortex. Too bad you can’t show off THAT muscle on the beach!