The similarities between mastering music improvisation and language acquisition—a musician’s perspective


By spending my time learning the solos of great musicians and jamming as much as possible, I hyper-accelerated my musical development. The same applies to learning languages. 

For years, as a young musician, I diligently practiced scales and theoretical exercises, but failed to achieve improvisational fluency. I knew theory backwards and forwards, but my solos didn’t sound like the solos of the players I admired.  In the middle of a tune I would find myself lost, because I really didn’t understand the language. The notes I selected just didn’t make good musical sense. I thought maybe I just lacked the necessary talent to play like the pros, and gave up hope many times. 

 One day I had an epiphany – if I wanted to sound like a great musician when I improvised, why not just play the same notes he or she plays? Sounds simple enough, but you would be amazed how many aspiring musicians are completely unaware of this concept. So I stopped focusing on theory, scales, and technical exercises and started spending my time doing nothing but “transcription”, which is, in musical terms, figuring out an improvised solo off of a recording, note for note.  This has an added very important benefit -- it improved my “ear”, to the point that I can now listen to a recording and tell you what the chord progression is and even see the notes of the solo in my mind without touching my guitar. 

As a musician, you can find transcripts of solos already in print, but doing it yourself has many benefits. First of all, its actually way easier just to figure out the notes yourself in terms of learning the material. String bends, slides and vibratos all appear really difficult when seen on the wrtten page, but are easy to understand when you just listen to the recording. Secondly, by doing it yourself you get the subtlties of the solo and the overall feel and sound.

Analagizing this to language, listening to a native conversation and learning how the words sound together is a much better use of your time than learning grammar lessons from a text book. I'm not saying grammar study has no place, but only after you already have a feel for how the language goes will the rules make any sense. 

 After learning the solo, I would practice the “licks”, which are short one or two bar phrases, over and over, in all keys, until they were second nature.  I would always try to understand why the musician played what he did in terms of the relationship between the solo and the chords. Then I would try to improvise over a chord progression using the new lick. 

Learning a language is the same process. Of course we can learn many things from text books, but I am convinced, after achieving good fluency in Spanish and Mandarin, that studying recordings or videos is a better use of the beginner's time. Just like a musician, the language student needs to learn how the language "goes" by learning to hear it and understand everything in context. To this extent, I recommend that the newcomer to  spend his or her time studying videos with subtitles as much as possible. I recommend a website calledYabla. Make your own flashcards of the phrases the natives use. This is exactly what the mucisian does when he learns to improvise. The language makes way more sense when you hear the grammar, syntax and pronuciation  in real life as opposed to textbook lessons. 

To put into practice what you learn, spend a lot of time speaking. Don't wait to start speaking. It is the point of your studies and the only way you can make progress. This is true for the musician as well. Jamming with other musicians is the only way to improvisational fluency. Conversing with natives is the only way to language fluency. You need to practice all of those phrases over and over again until they are second nature. 

I hope this advice is helpful. Please feel free to add comments/disagree or whatever. Thanks

Dec 29, 2015 7:56 PM
Comments · 4

I think a musical background helps a lot with pronunciation too. Musicians are better at hearing different notes, intervals, rhythms, etc. and that helps a lot when distinguishing phonemes, stress patterns, etc. in language. There's even a whole technique of pronunciation teaching called "Jazz Chants" (developed by Carolyn Graham) used to teach pronunciation patterns in English!

December 30, 2015

But what if you cannot hear the subtleties of the music. I agree with this theory for speaking skills and sounding natural in one's speech.


With language acquisition,  how would this theory  help with listening comprehension?


December 31, 2015

Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective. I think you have a point there!

December 30, 2015

This is right up my alley Ross!

December 29, 2015