language and music II: multitasking

Playing by ear on a musical instrument is something I think a lot of aspiring musicians find hard – I’d attribute this to an overemphasis placed on reading sheet music, certainly for classical students.  It’s important though, and a skill that needs training, so I figured I’d finally pull my finger out and work on ear training.

Now, I’m a poor, impoverished and overworked student who can’t scrape together the money to get some tracks of backing musicians to improvise over.  So, in the spirit of making do with the resources to hand, I figured a fun thing to do would be to play along to pop and rock songs I already knew, and then use that as a base for improvisation.  Started off with some Crowded House – I’d learned some of their songs on the guitar, and so had a good idea of the chord progressions – and after figuring out the appropriate transpositions in each case, I had a lot of fun just playing along.  Sting was another good candidate, since a lot of his songs already have jazz musicians in – a little harder to play along with, but still possible.

I then figured I could kill two birds with one stone by playing along to some Cantonese artists I liked. Cantonese exposure and saxophone practice at the same time?  Double win.  And thus it came to pass that Rubberband, Kay Tse and Eason Chan all were privy to an extra musician.  Lucky them eh?  Maybe I drowned out what they were singing with my own instrument, but uh… it felt like I was being productive :p

Whilst we’re on the subject, I’d like to reiterate something that has been said about a billion times before – listening to music is a great way towards learning a language.  What hasn’t been elaborated on so much is why.  As ever, there’s more than one reason.  Firstly, it’s fun.  Music is a social tool which most everyone can and does enjoy.  Secondly, it doesn’t get old.  There are songs that I’ve listened to literally hundreds of times, and I can still listen to them again.  Why do children succeed at language acquisition?  Because they just love to repeat the same shizzle over and over.  Listening to music you like gives you a shot at that repetition without getting bored out of your skull.

Anyway, I’d like to hear what other [actual] jazz musicians think of playing along and improvising over pop songs (I have a sneaking suspicion it’s frowned upon).  Language learners – what do you think of music as a learning tool?


9 thoughts on “language and music II: multitasking

  1. Hey Eldon, you’re funny man.

    Actually, any jazz musician who does frown on playing pop songs should see what Sonny Stitt did (for example the Mr. Bojangles album).

    One of my teachers kind of did frown upon it, but then he heard what Stitt did.

    It’s interesting to hear what approach a great jazz musician takes to the pop music.

    And for your lack of backup tracks… you can play along with any recording you have on a CD or online. You can even just play over the piano solo. Don’t worry, the recording won’t get angry like a musician might!


    • Hey Neal,

      Hadn’t heard of Sonny Stitt before – but man, was I missing out. Wonder why he’s so underexposed…? By the way, if your teacher frowned on pop, did/do you do the same kind of thing yourself?

      And good point about the recordings – keep forgetting Youtube and Spotify have an endless supply of music (and karaoke tracks in the latter case) to play over. But even if the recordings can’t get annoyed, the neighbours certainly can!

      Cheers very much! – Eldon

      • Hey Eldon,
        The reason that you may not have heard of Sonny Stitt was that he lived and played at the same time as Charlie Parker. They even knew each other and talked. The critics would say he sounded the same.

        Story I heard from a piano player – Stitt even called up Parker and said as a joke that he was the guy that Parker sounded like.

        After hearing that album by Sonny Stitt my teacher understood better why he did it, and saw that it was cool to see what Sonny Stitt would do with the changes for pop songs.

        Personally…. I like some popular songs, might tend to be a little bit of a musical snob if they’re crappy musicians or they synthesize horn solos, but there’s definitely some good music that is also popular.

  2. I’m a guitar player who’s teaching himself French the AJATT way. I’ve considered trying to combine the two hobbies as well, like jamming along with some BB Brunes and such. In theory, a good idea. I suppose the worst case scenario is you don’t learn any language while practicing, which is exactly what would’ve happened anyway.

    …I just convinced myself to start doing this. Nice blog btw 🙂

    • How’s the French working out? I’ve been wondering how fast European languages can be learnt if you did them AJATT style (given the huge vocabulary discount available to English speakers).

      And with the music, like you say, what’s the worst that can happen? I think it falls within AJATT’s “fun” stipulation, so it’s all bona fide. What kind of guitar are you into? (Just checked out BB Brunes on Youtube, just goes to show that every country has decent music!)

      Thanks for the kind words! 🙂

  3. There is a line of language learning guides called Earworms ( – warning: really annoying Flash site) that I tried with Mandarin. The local library had it so I gave it a try. Their whole premise is that the music will help cement word association in your brain effortlessly. It was quite cheesy but amusing, with cheeky commentary throughout. It also uses cognates: I will never forget “beer” in Mandarin – just picture Joe peeing after drinking a beer and you get “pee Joe,” which is close enough to píjiǔ.

    • Flash, shmash – NoScript blocks all! So it’s kind of a musical mnemonic method? How did it work out overall – was it as effortless as it was billed? Might have a look at that at some point, cheers.

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