How To Expand Your Musical Vocabulary
Do you ever feel limited when improvising or songwriting? One of the most effective ways to break the barriers is to expand your musical vocabulary!
The best soloists and most original composers weren’t born with all of their ideas. They learned them!
Music is a language. In mastering any language, the more words you know and can use, the more effective you are in communicating. When we are fluent in a language, expression is completely effortless. Reading and writing are a breeze. We even work with subtext and metaphor, and can understand anything anyone else says in that language. Perhaps we take this for granted when speaking our native tongue. But when it comes to music, we may feel like we’re in grade school all over again.
A musical vocabulary is built with practice. Session by session. Just like a house is built brick by brick. By strategically selecting your favorite musical moments from your favorite songs and learning them note by note, they will begin to naturally come out of your fingers – or your voice – over time. Then, you will develop originality effortlessly. You will intuitively be able to mix and match your learned riffs and their elements to tell your own story. In this post, we’ll show you how.
In the music world, what earns you respect as a musician is not the ability to play anything and everything, but choosing to use your impressive riffs and tricks in the most tasteful way.
Growth in this way requires a curious ear. Listen to music, and listen well. When you hear a song, lick or riff that really grabs you or inspires you, make a note of it. Compile a list of riffs you’d like to be able to play someday soon.
How do you know what to listen for?
Keep your ear out for solos and compositions that have an arc to them, that play with tension/build and release. If it feels like a riff or a lick is impressive and tasteful, go ahead and add it to your list. Ask yourself, “Does this move me? Does this sound cool? Does this inspire a sense of awe and respect for that musician?”
Method #1: Pentatonic scales 101
Many of the riffs and licks you’ll hear both instrumentally and vocally are comprised of notes in the major or minor pentatonic scales.
These 5-note scales are so pleasing to the ear that they are found in most cultures.
Let’s start with minor.
Check out these scale degrees:
And here are your major scale degrees:
Next, choose a key for your minor scale that works for you on your instrument or in your voice. Then, you’ll determine which major scale you’ll be practicing by counting a minor 3rd up.
Note: On piano, you may want to work with A minor and C major if you consider yourself a beginner.
With your metronome clicking at a manageable tempo, run your scale two octaves up, and two octaves down.
Give each scale a good 12-15 reps.
Each time you approach this exercise, try speeding up the click! You’re looking for a tempo that’s not to easy and not too hard.
Pro-Tip: An understanding of modes will really help with this practice. Every major has its relative minor. You’ll notice that C major pentatonic and A minor pentatonic are comprised of the same exact notes! This is because A is C’s relative minor. So, in reality, you’re only learning 1 scale. The only difference is the starting note. This should ease any worry about having to learn so many new scales, especially for you piano players!
Check out this short, helpful video explaining modes!
Learning these scales in every key will really up your game. Take your time with each key, going in the circle of fifths as you learn! Be patient. There’s no use rushing through without developing a real understanding. Later on, you’ll only find yourself behind!
As you listen to musicians improvise, you’ll begin to hear licks and tricks that are comprised of notes in these scales. If you notice one, be quick to add it to your list!
Method #2: grace notes
This tool can help you sound like (and become) an extremely confident player.
A grace note is an ornament that is played directly before your intended note, from above or below. Depending on your key, it is usually a half or whole step from your intended note.
Here’s a helpful video demonstrating how to use grace notes in soloing on piano:
And on guitar/bass:
Practice: Add a grace note to a lick that uses the major pentatonic scale:
(flat 3) 3
Can you hear how this tool adds some soul to your playing?
Practice to a metronome and see how quickly you can play this lick!
Go through the circle of fifths, making sure you’re able to achieve it in every key.
Pro-tip: You should be aware of “The Lick.” This is a sequence of notes that has been so overused it has grown a humorous reputation. It’s important to be able to play “The Lick,” but to also be aware that any pro musician will notice if you pull it out during a solo! Take a look:
Method #3: mimic and perfect
Consult your list. You’ll have to use some intuition and tap into what excites you most. Choose what you’re jazzed to learn and sit down with it.
Let your selection’s length match your skill level. No need to take on an entire Miles Davis solo if you consider yourself intermediate or beginner! Choose one lick.
Use your ear-training progress to sound out each note one at a time. If you can remember them, great, and if not, write them down.
Pro-Tip: There are several programs and apps that can slow down songs for easier learning! If a choice moment just passes too quickly, this technology can present it to you at a speed you can absorb. These programs can also transpose! So if that choice moment isn’t in the right vocal range, go ahead and put it in a key that works for you.
Once you’ve gotten the correct notes and an idea of the rhythm in a broken-down, easy-to-understand place, you’re finished with the hard part!
Choose a tempo that is manageable for you, and set your metronome to it. Practice the lick for 20 reps.
Then speed it up slightly, practice another 20 reps.
The next time you practice, start at the tempo you left off the day before and incrementally increase each session.
Then, transpose! If this is impossible by ear as of now, use your trusty app/software to put the original recording in different keys.
Before you know it, that lick will be in your vocabulary. You’ll be able to call upon it while improvising and writing so naturally, you’ll forget you once couldn’t play it!
You can always practice more than one riff simultaneously. Give yourself as much as you can handle!
The best musicians all had to take these steps to become masters. There is no shortcut to amazing musicianship.
Expanding your musical vocabulary will ensure you’re musically fluent as soon as possible.
All it takes is sitting down today and getting to work for about an hour. Then, rinse and repeat. Isn’t your passion worth it? Once you get started, you may find that an hour passed in what felt like a minute.