Forget guitar for a moment - the human
mind is itself an amazingly powerful instrument. It can
objects before your eyes, authentically recall tastes, smells, sounds
and how something feels, all on command.
a musician the mind can also be utilised for its "inner ear",
giving us the ability to internalise and create music.
This inner ear plays a significant role in improvisation
and songwriting in general. It's about "hearing" something in your head
and being able to translate it on to the fretboard.
Seasoned musicians will often hear ideas play out in their head before
even touching their instrument. That's the inner ear at work.
It's about being able to anticipate the next note or chord, or sequence
of notes and chords, based on intuition
rather than calculation.
Unlocking this intuition will enable you to create original music that
truly represents and celebrates you as an individual.
We just need to train and exercise the part of the brain responsible
for the inner ear, as it has perhaps not been used much before,
especially in the way we're about to explore.
Basic Inner Ear Training Using Intervals
Intervals are simply the distance between two pitches/notes. They are
the building blocks of both harmony and melody.
Each interval has a unique sound. String or stack them together in
different combinations and we can convey specific emotions and musical
So it makes sense to begin our inner ear training using intervals.
Start with a movement between two notes anywhere on the fretboard. Keep
it really simple. For example a whole step
Play it several
times. Now try to hear it in
your head without playing.
I'm confident you'll be able to do this with relative ease.
you will need to be in a relatively quiet place,
with no background music, to avoid distraction. I'm sure you're aware
how difficult it is to recall music in your head when music is already
playing around you.
Wait a few moments... wait some more... distract yourself for a
moment... now refocus the mind and try hearing the movement in your
head again. Is it still there?
This is known as internalisation.
The sound of the movement between the
two notes has made a kind of auditory imprint on your mind, which you
recall in the same way you can recall images or patterns.
You can practice this simple exercise with any two notes. I'd strongly
recommend going through my interval
lessons to ensure you can internalise different note
You can even internalise how you phrase the two notes, for example, a
bend or hammer-on, as this affects how they sound.
first, to test the mental imprint of these intervals, it might help to
physically play a reference note on the guitar and then use the inner
ear to find the second note of the chosen interval.
Let's push this exercise to the next level...
Play the same interval movement in several random positions/pitches.
Really get to know how the interval sounds at different pitches. After
a few minutes of repetition, pick one of the positions and repeat it a
few times to internalise it.
Now we're going to do exactly the same "pitch shifting" exercise, but
this time try moving the interval up or down in pitch in your head,
although they don't have to be the same pitches as you played before.
may find humming or whistling the notes helps at first, but don't touch
the fretboard - keep the source of the pitch changes from your mind.
This requires that you can take the relationship between the two notes,
keep it intact, moving it to a new pitch in your head.
Rest at a pitch of your choosing and repeat the sequence several times,
in your head,
at that new pitch. The repetition will create an auditory
Now try to locate that new pitch relationship on your guitar.
Don't expect to hit the correct position right away, or even
after several tries, but see if you can adjust until you get it. It's
this adjusting that trains your fingers to co-ordinate with your inner
It's a challenging exercise at first, but keep at it. It's not so much
about hitting the right notes all the time, but more about activating
the part of
the mind associated with auditory reference.
Already, just by doing this simple exercise, you're activating
the part of your brain responsible for the inner ear. It's just like
exercising any other part of your body - the more you do it, the more
active it becomes, the more efficient it gets.
Now, you can probably guess what the next step will be...
That's right, try to internalise a sequence of three notes instead of
Then four notes, five, six etc.
Eventually, we can get to the stage where entire
scales can be
internalised. Obviously you'll need to work on learning the individual
scales before you can fully internalise them. But as you learn them,
don't just focus on where you're putting your fingers - listen
attentively to each movement you make.
Try hearing the scale in sequence, from low to high and vice versa, in
your head. Again, play a reference/root note at first to give your mind
a starting point. For example, play the note D and see if you can use
your mind to continue through the D minor pentatonic scale. It sounds
difficult, but if you know the scale well, the auditory imprint should
lead you through it quite naturally.
Then, just like before, try shifting them up or down in pitch, first in
your head and then finding this position on the neck.
You'll be surprised at how quickly your inner ear develops from these
simple "pitch shifting" exercises.
Using Your Mind's Ear to Create Music
As mentioned earlier, opening your inner ear will make improvising and
writing music easier and more intuitive.
But how do we go from merely internalising and repeating music we hear
with our inner ear to creating new music from scratch?
This is similar to asking how the fragmented human brain can produce a
unitary consciousness we call "I" (sorry to get so deep!).
In other words, the ability to create new music from the mind is an
of the earlier internalisation exercises coming
But there are further exercises we can use to help develop the creative
aspect of the inner ear.
One powerful exercise is to create (or find on Youtube) a simple
backing track that you can play a single scale along to.
Jam as normal, exploring the scale for ten minutes or so in as many
different ways as you can.
Now re-play the jam track, this time playing out ideas only using your
inner ear. Watch the fretboard as you do this and see if you can
co-ordinate your ideas with the pattern. It doesn't matter if you lose
the flow, just keep it simple at first - repeating two or three note
After a few minutes, start to find and play your ideas on the fretboard.
The more you do this, the smaller the gap between forming an idea in
your mind and translating on to the neck will become.
Given enough time (and we're talking weeks, months of persistent
training here - you need to be patient!) you will be able to play ideas
as they form in your head, or at least near enough.
Then it's a case of repeating this process using different scales and
Further Exercises for Your Mind's Ear
Whether you're in the car, sat on the bus, walking or laid in bed, you
can access your mind's ear at any moment and try to come up with
melodies or chord progressions. Sometimes you'll bring up songs you
already know - that's fine, but see if you can venture off into
When you can "hear" it working, it's an amazing feeling and it makes
you realise just how powerful the creative mind is.
If you're listening to the radio, see if you can both memorise parts of
the song and think a melody around the existing song.
You can do a similar thing with TV commercials and make them a far more
productive use of your time!
It's possible that you can get down an idea you've created in your head
as soon as you pick up the guitar, build on it and, hey presto, you
have a song in the making.
Now, I'm aware this is all easier said than done. But just as walking
might seem impossible to a pre-toddler at first, all they have to do is
keep exercising those leg muscles, keep trying, keep doing it, no
matter what the initial results.
The more you access and motivate the inner ear part of your brain, the
more sophisticated, responsive and creative it becomes.
Keep at it, and the mind's ear will sink into the backdrop of your
creative process. It will become just another powerful, yet subtle part
of the mind you take for granted!