Today we have the pleasure of talking with Adam Neely, whose YouTube channel is followed by over 600,000 people – and is described as “video essays, lessons and vlogs on new horizons in music and music theory.” More informally, we’d say that Adam makes some of the most solid and also thoroughly entertaining videos on music theory out there – and not the “this is a crotchet”-type music theory videos, he tackles the really odd and interesting questions, like “Why pop music sounds bad to you”, “What is the slowest music humanly possible”, “Why not to use E♭11 chords” and “Which key is the saddest?”
We’ve long been fans and so it was a delight to get to sit down with Adam and learn more about his own musical background, and how he thinks about practicing, audiating, modern composing, and more.
In this conversation we talk about:
- How distinguishing between “prescriptive” and “descriptive” can totally flip how interesting learning music theory is for you
- The perspective on keeping practice interesting that for us personally would have been a massive liberation if we could travel back in time and give it to our teenage selves
- And a cool extension of audiation that goes beyond simply imagining a particular piece in your mind and lets you stretch your ear in interesting, creative ways
Adam also reveals the particular vowel sound you should use when singing for ear training – and a whole lot more. Don’t miss the shownotes for this episode at musicalitypodcast.com which will be packed with links to all the videos we mention, so you can go and do a deep dive of Adam’s extensive and fascinating back catalog right after this interview.
Listen to the episode:
Links and Resources
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Adam: Hey everybody, my name is Adam Neely. I am a YouTuber. I have a channel called Adam Neely. I’m also a bass player and composer and you are listening to The Musicality Podcast.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Adam. Thank you for joining us today.
Adam: Well, thank you so much for having me. This is exciting.
Christopher: I have been really looking forward to this one because I’ve been watching your videos ever since discovering incredible VaporWave explanatory video which is not a topic you expect to find a good music theory based tutorial on YouTube but ever since then, I’ve been watching your videos and loving them because they blend humor with really solid music theory teaching in a down-to-earth way and I can’t do it just in words but just to say I’m an avid watcher so I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to chat with you.
I would love to know a bit about where Adam Neely came from and this phenomenal YouTuber who is followed by so many people. What’s your own musical backstory?
Adam: Well yeah. I grew up in a fairly musical family. My mom is a musician and she’s a voice teacher in fact and her brothers are all musicians too. My uncle is a church musician, my other uncle is a producer in Nashville. My dad isn’t a musician but he’s an avid listener and lover of music and I grew up basically with music in the house, not just any kind of music though, some fairly strange music.
My mother in the 1980s was a classical soprano singer who sang a lot of contemporary classical music which is very strange music, it’s very avant-garde. So I grew up listening to what my dad liked which were The Beatles and Bob Dylan and things like that but also, I was very familiar with the works of contemporary classical musicians like Lori Lehman and John Cage.
The story that I loved telling is that my mom had a busy box for me as an infant. A busy box is basically something that you … infant, I can play with, like I press this button and it makes a bell sound. Look at me. I’m a stupid little kid. So that was me. I loved this thing and my mom got a chance to perform with John Cage and John Cage really wanted to her to play my busy box on stage, like just playing with all these weird bells and she’s singing these crazy, weird intervals and sounds and music and that was what was in the air when I was a kid literally going back to when I was just a freshly baked infant.
Yeah. So I started playing piano when I was about eight years old and I took classical piano lessons and I hated it. I really didn’t like it at all. I just wanted to play Diablo II or I want to play videogames. And it wasn’t until-
Christopher: We need to do a whole another podcast episode about Diablo II some time.
Adam: Yeah man. Diablo II. So many hours wasted, or wasted? No, they were well-spent. They were spent very well. But it was when I was about 13 or 14 years old where I got bit by the bug of bass guitar. There was a band that was starting at, I think I was middle school. There’s a band that was starting. It’s a tale as old as time. They had a guitarist already, they had a drummer already and they needed a bass player so I was like, all right. I’ll pay bass.
And for whatever reason, I got sucked in. I really, really got sucked in and I started really, really obsessing over this instrument because I thought it was so cool that you could play such low affecting notes like the notes really resonated in your chest in a way that nothing else could. It was really exciting for me. Yeah. So I then became really obsessed with playing bass and I guess it was like in high school, there was the jazz band and I started playing bass in the jazz band and that’s when I started getting into jazz music because that’s what I’m known for in a lot of ways, just being a jazz musician or talking about jazz, modern jazz music.
And it really started in high school because I was in a band at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Maryland. [Jon Racki 00:04:44] was the name of my teacher and she was the one that really kicked my ass in gear to be able to play … read sheet music, to be able to improvise, to be able to play an ensemble and I learned all these skills in high school and yeah, it was around that time where I knew that I wanted to become a musician.
All these things coalesced my love of pop music and older, classic rock that I got from my dad, the weird avant-garde stuff that I got from my mom and then jazz music that I got in high school. That is the beginnings of Adam Neely right there.
Christopher: Very cool. You clearly had an instinctive passion for the bass and I was reminded of a comment in I think a course you did on ear training about the bass, you were making reference to feeling the sound physically and you talked about playing your bass through a hefty amplifier and physically feeling it in your body and it made me feel really stupid for my current setup where I’m playing bass on this tiny little practice amp. I was like, yeah. I’m definitely missing something.
So you got bit by that bass bug and that powerful feeling of playing a low-end. Was that enough to power you through I think early learning of an instrument can be really frustrating and challenging? Was there an easy experience for you or was there a balance of passion and hard work that got you through high school and to a proficient level with the bass?
Adam: Well, this is the thing. When you’re in high school, you have a lot of time to kill that you don’t have when you’re older. So I had a lot of time to kill, to just mess around on the instrument which was a Godsend. Earlier though, I was … I studied piano for about five years and I hated every second of it because I didn’t connect with the instrument in any sort of way. Since then, I understand the instrument on a much deeper level and I appreciate it on a more intellectual level and I enjoy playing piano but I don’t connect with it like the way that I did with bass.
And because I connected with bass the way that I did, I became obsessed and it helps to become obsessed with something because even if it’s not the most deficient way of playing or practicing, you’re going to dedicate a lot of time to it. I definitely would say that my love of the instrument helped in terms of the most efficient way of getting better through high school. It’s just that I came home and I noodled on bass a lot, just hour after hour after hour and I attribute a lot of my continued desire to practice to the fact that I got better over that period.
There’s nothing quite like seeing … you’re seeing yourself get better because you do something a lot. That’s a very motivating thing. It’s like you know where you came from and then you did something a lot and then you got better. For a 17 year old making that realization, that was very formative. Yeah.
Christopher: Very cool. I was watching some of your earliest videos and I imagine you at music school already at this point but you were talking about practicing exercises in a really interesting and self-aware way that would both make a practice more interesting and I’m sure, deliver better results. At what point did you take that kind of intellectual curiosity to your practice and start thinking about how do I spend all these hours most wisely?
Adam: All the time. One of the things that I think about and I definitely was thinking about back then when I went to music school, I went to Berklee College of Music, I was always excited about new ways to practice. I wasn’t really excited all the time about practicing something. I just wanted to know different ways of doing it. So for example, you could take a major scale and you could play a major scale in one octave.
I got bored with that very quickly. I was like, “Well, what if I played a major scale in one octave but just on one string?” Okay. I’m going to play that, or how many different ways could I play this thing on one string? Okay, I can do that. It becomes a game. So maybe I can play a major scale on two strings. How many different ways could I do that? Could I just do it using my fourth finger? That’s strange. What about my fourth and my third finger? That’s also strange. And it becomes this whole what-if game of just cycling through every iteration you can possibly think of of just playing a major scale in one octave.
Eventually, it just becomes this whole thing where you could … No idea is too stupid to try if you just keep yourself open to that and you’re not doing it with any goal which is kind of the other liberating thing that I found. You’re doing it just to see if you can. And that sort of thing took me through a lot, definitely in high school and also through my music career at Berklee. So I didn’t really have much of a goal besides … for myself besides just seeing how many different ways I could do these little exercises.
For example, how many different ways can you play four notes in terms of if you were to play the notes C, D, E and G? How many different orders can you do? It turns out you can use math to find that out. That’s four factorial. That’s 24 ways but I didn’t know that at the time. I just started writing them all out and just tried playing them. Little things like that can take you a long way, just always asking the question, what if. What if I did this thing?
The answer is probably not a whole lot but then you’re forced to … or at least I was intellectually curious enough to just try and figure it out. I think that that was really the core of how I developed a lot of the stuff that I developed for myself on my instrument and also for myself as a teacher and for all the other extra musical things that I’ve started learning since then.
Christopher: That is super fascinating and I have to ask you a follow-up question because I am someone who always struggled with the repetitive practice instrument technique.
Christopher: I get bored very quickly. I like things where I can find out the answer and then move on so in what you just described, that to me is infinitely more appealing than let’s play the major scale for 10 minutes straight. I imagine there has to be some balance. Presumably, you weren’t just trying each thing once and then moving on. Was it a matter of actually challenging yourself to be able to do each thing, not just see that it’s possible. How did you manage to actually improve rather than just dawdling and scattering your efforts?
Adam: Well here’s the thing, each time that I do that, that’s an iteration of an idea. So every time that I’m practicing the major scale and coming up with a different fingering or whatever, that’s iterations of finger on your instrument and I can definitely attribute a lot of this to my high school bass teacher, [Pepe Gonzales 00:11:39]. What he would do is he would play a scale or plays a lick on his … this was upright bass but we were studying … it applies to everything else.
He would play something and then just have me play it back, a fingering. He’s like, “You could play it this way”, and I play it, “Or you could play it this way”, and I play it, “Or you could play it this way”, and that was basically our lesson is we would just go through each way of doing it and through the, just constant repetition of just going through every different angle, like just playing it once, you start to see the inner logic in it and your fingers are actually moving in different ways.
Now, yeah, it is important sometimes sometimes to do repetitive motion and repetitive rote practice but for the most part, I never really did it that way. I just played a lot of different things, a lot of different ways but all kind of variations on a theme. So I have this video and it’s really stupid. It’s one of the stupidest videos that I have but I streamed myself practicing for five hours straight. It’s basically, I play everything once. Technically, I play every exercise that I do for five hours only once but I just do a bunch of different iterations of the same idea.
So I play the C major scale. Okay, great. I play the G major scale. It looks a little bit different. So intellectually, I have to understand my instrument from a slightly different angle. Then I play the D major scale. Okay, it looks a little bit different. I have to reorient myself a little bit. My mind is active while I’m doing this. I play the A major scale. Okay again, I go through all 12 scales. Okay. Now, I play them in thirds so it’s a particular way of playing a scale where you start on the root and then you skip a note so in the case of C major, we go C, D, E so you play C and E.
Then you go to the next pair, so instead of C to E, it’s going to be D to F, D, E, F so you play C, E, D, F and after that, you would play E to G and then after that F to A, G to B, A to C, B to D and then finally C. So that’s playing the major scale in thirds. So that’s a workout for your brain while you’re playing and it takes a while. You play it and it’s kind of mentally exhausting but at the same time, you get the sensation of aha, this is exciting because I can do something now just because I thought of it and then I practiced and I focused.
Then I play the C major scale like that and then I then went and play the G major scale like that and then the D major and then the A major so all throughout this process, yeah, I’m playing everything only once but they’re all iterations of an idea every time I’m active in this. I’m not a passive … I’m not a passenger to my own body playing my instrument, I’m an active participant in playing the music the same way that I’m an active participant in playing a song or playing a piece of music or improvising.
I’m never playing anything by rote. I’m never mindless in my practice and that’s my general philosophy for all of it.
Christopher: That is so interesting. So a theme that’s come up a few times on the show is how do we make practice more interesting? How do we stretch our brain while we stretch our fingers? But I wish I could send you back in time to my teenage self just to give him permission to make it interesting because honestly, I would have felt guilty spending 30 minutes trying lots of different versions because I would have felt like I wasn’t spending enough time on any one of them to get better and I guess I didn’t have the gumption to try it for a few weeks and see how I got on.
Adam: Well, it was really, like I said, I can attribute it to my teacher because that’s how he had me … We still did some rote stuff but that is definitely how we learned … how I learned how to play scales and walking bass lines and improvise little licks. He would just play something and I would play it back and then we’d move on to the next thing. It was never, okay, now we have to practice this thing to get it perfect. It’s just a different way of approaching the instrument than just repeating it over and over and over again.
Christopher: Yeah, and I think we’re getting a sense of what led you towards jazz and your particular expertise in music theory but you are bringing this intellectual curiosity to your music-making and it was very much about what could be done rather than just, can I master the physicality of playing the right notes at the right time as the sheet music tells me to do? So how did your journey continue? You mentioned Berklee there. Was that immediately after high school?
Adam: Yeah. Berklee was immediately after high school. I spent, I guess it was three years there. I was able to do some fancy things with the credits to graduate early. I studied jazz composition at Berklee and it was fantastic. It was a really exciting environment because a lot of people were really into … a lot of jazz musicians there were also into metal at the time because we’re trying to come up with these jazz metal hybrid things where … electric guitars and distortion. It was an exciting time for me, very formative in the sense of like a lot of my passions from high school and earlier on, just developed.
There’s one band in particular. The band was called [Jersey Band 00:16:51]. I don’t think they exist anymore but this band was like my idol. They’re just this ridiculous band with a bunch of horn, saxes and trumpets and guitars and playing polyrhythmic jazz metal and I thought polyrhythmic jazz metal was the coolest thing. And at school, that was like my goal, is to be able to play in this style or be able to explore this style and nobody told me that I couldn’t because other people were there, they were also excited about it.
And yeah, that’s I guess your … Following on the theme of … Excuse me. I guess following on the theme of intellectual curiosity, I always was following everything that I wanted to do at the moment I wanted to do it which was exciting and I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity.
Christopher: And how were you approaching music theory through all of this? Was it something you thought of as [inaudible 00:17:55] in a textbook that you studied separately like it is for a lot of musicians or were you someone who somehow surpassed that and connected with it on a more practical level? Imagine jazz composition at Berklee is pretty hardcore when it comes to the theory side of things.
Adam: Yeah, it was pretty hardcore. It was always for a purpose though. That’s the thing that I think is … was exciting for me is that anytime that I learn some crazy music theory concept like for example, multi-tonic system. A multi-tonic system is when you have three or more keys that are equidistant from one another on the circle of fifths and they combine together in this crazy cycle of keys and this weird color, it was always for a purpose.
The purpose was achieving a certain musical effect. The color of a multi-tonic system is very specific and I connected with the sound and the feeling of that color rather than the intellectual exercise. The intellectual exercise was fun but at the same time, it was more for the purpose of getting that feeling that I could only get really by delving into the more technical nature of some of the musical concepts I was doing and exploring at Berklee.
Twelve-tone serialism is another crazy thing that was being applied to the music that I was making where you take every note, all 12 notes and you jumble them up together and make music using all 12 notes at the same time. That’s a vast oversimplification of 12-tone music but that was kind of what I was thinking. It was like, all right, that’s a cool sound. I think it also speaks to the … speaks to my musical upbringing.
I had some of these weirder sounds in the back of my mind because I grew up with them and because I had been exposed to them and had this current of musical color already in my being. I was more amenable to it and I was also more amenable to going down this rabbit hole because I was chasing these musical colors and textures and things that felt good and felt right to me. It was not this textbook thing. I would never say it that way. It was something that I was just chasing a sound that I could only really get through studying the theory of it.
Christopher: I see. You explain this better than I think anyone I’ve come across in your video of why you should learn music theory.
Adam: Yeah, yeah.
Christopher: I feel I have tried to say this to people who’ve [inaudible 00:20:36] music theory with me and try and change their outlook on it but you do such a masterful job in that video and we’ll definitely link in the show notes to the full video, but maybe you could just give us the nutshell of the point you make in that video about what music theory is should be for.
Adam: So yeah, there’s this thing in linguistics called prescriptivism and prescriptivism basically is the whole philosophy behind like telling people what they should be able to use in language, like what they should say. You should not use a preposition at the end of a sentence, something like that. Descriptivism basically is this whole philosophy where it’s describing how people use language so maybe sometimes, people use prepositions at the end of a sentence and they make no value judgment one way or another. Maybe that’s good in certain circumstances or maybe not even good. Maybe that’s just how people use language.
And I think music theory is like that. Music theory is really a descriptivist discipline where it’s used to describe how people make music and you can use different music theoretical concepts to describe different kinds of music. So maybe for contemporary classical music or something, a minor ninth interval. It’s a very strange and dissonant interval but it’s good. That’s what people use, this weird strange dissonant interval but if you’re trying to compose music in the classical style, you probably wouldn’t want to use that interval all over the place. That’s bad. Don’t do that.
Music theory really is just describing how people use certain musical elements to achieve certain effects in different styles. That’s something that I always intuited and always knew. I wasn’t listening to rock music which uses a lot of parallel fifths because of power chords. I wasn’t listening to rock music and saying, “They’re using music theory wrong.” That’s not what it is at all. Parallel fifths are bad in certain styles of music but good in others. And I say bad and good, I really just mean these are terms used to describe how people use things.
So I really think that music theory is this, it’s descriptivist, it’s just you’re using this … these musical elements to achieve a certain effect. And a lot of times when people go in and learn music theory, they’re thinking of it as kind of this prescriptive thing where it describes or it’s telling people what they should and what they shouldn’t do. That’s not what it is at all, it’s just these are the tools, use them as you will. That’s really what music theory is and that’s how I’ve used theory for myself.
Christopher: I love that and I think it’s such a valuable mindset shift for people to make because suddenly, music theory isn’t an intimidating set of rules that might limit your creativity and you must get right or you’re failing as a musician.
Adam: Yeah, yeah.
Christopher: It’s actually just a really useful tool. And I love how you apply that in one of your other videos. You took music theory of matchups. You talked a little bit about that and how music theory can even have nothing to do with something as whacky as a matchup.
Adam: Yeah. It’s a skillset. These are tools and this is like your drill. This is your hammer and you can build a piece of music and you can build a sort of concept for yourself if you have the right tools and mashups are one of those. One of the reasons why mashups work is because a lot of times, songs … you might need to know what key two different songs are in and so if you know the keys and know the key centers, you know how they might work with one another. If they’re in the same key, they probably work.
A lot of songs have diatonic melodies and have the same sort of melodic structure and understanding that melodic structure and how those songs work together in this sort of counterpoint can help if you have the basic music theory tools. A lot of the time though, it’s not just the theory, in fact, it’s mostly not just the theory, it’s using your ear and the theory in your ear go hand in hand. Honestly for me these days, even though I have this kind of wide musical theory pallet, a lot of the time, I’m just relying on my ear because I’ve used the music theory to develop my ear.
And now, at this point in my life, I’m just trying to listen to things and trying to accept things in ways that both satisfy that kind of intellectual curiosity and also, things that just I think sound cool.
Christopher: I love that you mentioned the ear now because I think it’s easy. Once you get past that intimidation factor and you realize how much fun you can have exploring music theory, it’s actually easy to go down a less helpful route there and get very textbook about it and get very intellectual and forget that music is about hearing and creating sound.
Christopher: And you have not made that mistake clearly. It comes across in your videos as much as there are a plethora about fascinating subjects in music theory. You also talk about things like active listening and audiation and the ear training and I’d love to get your perspective on some of those topics. Maybe we could start with active listening. You recently put out a performance of John Cage’s famous 4’33”. I don’t know how people refer to it, 4’33”? Four minutes, 33 seconds? People say it out loud.
Adam: Yes to all of them.
Christopher: Have you ever read it?
Adam: I call it 4’33” or four minutes, 33 seconds, yeah.
Christopher: Cool. Well maybe for anyone who isn’t familiar with the piece, you can explain what it is and why it was relevant for active listening.
Adam: So it’s this piece of music, although that’s kind of debated by a lot of people. Basically what is is a performer gets on stage and just sits there with an audience and doesn’t play any note on their instrument. And of course, you would … most people would be very quick to dismiss this like, “This is some modern art nonsense. Forget this. This is like some … people are high off their own supply. This is not music.” But the exciting thing about this, when you actually see it performed live, and I’ve seen it performed live, is because you’re waiting for something to happen, your ears immediately get attuned to what’s happening around you and you start hearing like every little shuffle, every little piece of ambient sound in a different light.
You start hearing maybe that shuffle of somebody makes like three rows over, maybe somebody coughs a little bit. All of a sudden, you start to be a lot more aware. And this is something that is super … was super affecting to me when I first saw it performed live because I started to realize, wait, everything around me is actually happening. I’m so used to tuning it out but if I basically open up my ears a little bit, I can actually hear the world in a lot more of maybe an aesthetic way.
I’m hearing different little rhythms, different little melodies, almost chirps I can identify, maybe the chairs squeaking is a perfect fit. And there’s this really affecting quote that I heard. There’s this jazz educator Charles Banacos and he unfortunately passed but he wrote this email to somebody where he was describing how he was … as he was lying in his bed in the hospital, he started hearing all the beeps and sounds of the hospital as a B7 chord and then he started hearing everybody’s voices as different melodies against the B7 chord.
And that was super affecting to me because I realized that if you have an open ear enough and you can train your ear to that point, anything and everything is music. Anything and everything can be music so long as you just make the active choice to listen to things as music and that’s such an exciting thing to make that realization and also to have trained your ear to that point where you can actually identify these intervals and start hearing things in a much deeper way.
All of a sudden, music is not just the thing that somebody tells you is music. “Here, this is music. Have a listen to this music. I’m going to put on some music right now.” No. Everything around you can be that as long as you make that choice to listen. Music is an active process.
Christopher: I haven’t seen the piece performed but I guess I had a similar experience a few years back. I was getting into meditation for the first time and I had been reading this audio, I guess like film sound blog talking a lot about audio recording and there was this model of sound where there were like five spheres you could be thinking about in terms like closest to the farthest away and as an audio engineer, you can think about what you are putting in your soundscape at each of these levels.
And anyway, with that percolating my mind, sitting there, meditating in what I thought was silence, you do have the opportunity to start exploring and tuning your ear into what’s happening in this room versus out in the street versus far away. And I think once that little light bulb goes on in your head, the world can be that fascinating from an overall perspective. You don’t really lose that then and when you bring it back to music, that can be a really interesting journey to take.
Adam: Yeah, and it’s almost overwhelming too because if you just start sitting there, I don’t really meditate all that much but I guess just sitting there is a form in listening and trying to center yourself. It’s overwhelming because of how much there is. There is so much, just sound everywhere. It penetrates through walls. It’s just a big part of our lives. And if you make the effort to try and at least understand where it’s coming from and try and make a musical categorization on it, things start to become a lot more musical.
I am very influenced by this composer by the name of W.A. Mathieu and he’s written a lot of these books. And one of these books that he’s written is called The Musical Life. And this is one of the things that he talks about. He’s a very, very inspiring person, just read all of his books if you can but that … yeah, I like listening to the world around me.
Christopher: And maybe we could talk particularly in the context of music. How should people be thinking about active listening versus just passively hearing music? What’s the advantage apart from the kind of curiosity aspect we just talked through where it’s an interesting new thing to explore?
Adam: Well referencing earlier, you’re a part of it now. It’s not this sort of passive thing. Your body is not a passenger in your practice and also, hopefully your body isn’t a passenger in your musical listening too. You’re part of it, you’re active in it and you’re a participant in the music in a way even if you’re just listening to a piece of music and then trying to analyze the chord progression. You’re participating in this whole endeavor. There is now a little bit more of a … you’re taking something more directly rather than just letting it wash over you.
That’s really the thing that I think about when I’m listening to music. I don’t like having music as wallpaper in the background of my life. I like to have music as the foreground of me as I’m going through life if that makes any sense. There’s this term that I’ve talked about, I borrowed it but I think it’s applicable for a particular thing. There’s this term audiation. Audiation is when you visualize something in your mind’s ear, if that makes any sense.
So the same way that you can visualize your childhood home, you can audiate a piece of music that you know very well. So for example, you can audiate … we could audiate right now Happy Birthday To You, like a happy birthday song. If you just think about it, chances are, you can just imagine what that sounds like. That’s audiation. You can imagine what maybe your favorite songs are. That’s audiation because it’s very much tied to your memory and you’ve been an active participant in this song for a lot … a while.
A big part of my ear training process, and I like to think about this way, is being able to audiate things that you know from your past and because audiation is very much tied to memory, the same way that visualization is and also being able to audiate it so clearly that you can change the music as it’s happening. So for example, the happy birthday, maybe you could do happy birthday but like in 7/4, what would that sound like? Maybe try to do that.
That’s a little bit more advanced to try and do that sort of thing but audiation is very much a big part of what I do when I’m playing music and also, listening to music, trying to pre-hear it in my head.
Christopher: Was that just something you started doing naturally instinctively or were there resources or teachers that set you on that particular path in terms of how you approach your training or think about your musical mind?
Adam: Well, I got the idea originally from Hal Galper who … I have a video from Hal Galper who … it’s a great video. I forget where I found it but he talks about when you’re improvising, you should be able to scream your solo in your mind’s ear. So basically, just be … try and make every musical idea you have so vivid beforehand before you actually play it so that when you play it, you play with intention and confidence and really, yeah, intention is basically the whole thing. Intention and confidence.
I’m not sure if I got that from any other particular thing. It was something that I was doing beforehand and I watched that Hal Galper video and then did some more research and this is something that I had been doing a lot beforehand, it’s just now I have a name for it, audiation. Edwin Gordon is the name of the guy who actually developed the course of audiation.
It’s this whole music education program but I’m just using it to describe this whole idea of musical visualization.
Christopher: Got you. I am guilty of the same bastardization and I got gently rebuked fairly recently. We did an episode of podcast about the official audiation of music learning theory because I, like you, accused it for that very convenient purpose.
Christopher: [crosstalk 00:36:47] across to people. There’s real value in just visualizing music in your mind and having that kind of mental playground for exploring these.
Adam: Mental playground, that’s a great term. Yeah. The problem is that yeah, it’s a whole system but there is no other term for it so people are going to start using the language that way. Maybe this is going to be a descriptive versus prescriptive argument because if there’s a term that is perfect for something and there was no other term beforehand, it’s just going to get used. So yeah, he coined it but we’re now using it this way.
Christopher: Yeah. And I spoke with them, Cynthia Crump Taggart who’s the president-elect of the serious GIML organization.
Adam: Yeah, yeah.
Christopher: She was very down to earth and cool about it and basically said, “It’s not wrong to use it that way. It’s just there’s a lot more to it that people should probably be aware of and that’s fair enough.”
Adam: Yeah, yeah. Well, yeah.
Christopher: I was keen to talk to you too about training which is obviously connected to this idea of audiation that you mentioned, developing your musical ear, but it’s something that often like music theory is seen as kind of a dry academic and tediously repetitive thing and so you are clearly not someone who puts up with dry, academic, all repetitive in your own musical development. Tell us how you approach this idea of ear training and developing your musical ear.
Adam: Well, there was a degree of dry academic or repetitive stuff to it. I definitely did ear training exercises in college and we did solfege exercises and those sorts of things. I hated every second of it but I did them anyway. And honestly, just like eating cod liver oil or spinach or something, like terrible that you really dislike, it will improve. It will improve your ear. It will give you abilities that you didn’t have beforehand.
And for anybody who goes through that sort of thing, that is an intensely motivating factor to be able to do something that you couldn’t before because you went through and focused and did something that you maybe didn’t like to do at the time. That’s a tale as old as time. Maybe you hate exercising but you exercise and all of a sudden, you feel better. It’s very simple in that regard. So with ear training, that is definitely what happened.
I also love listening to music and picking out elements in music. That’s something I just love doing. If the pop radio is going on, I’m like, okay, well, what is this chord progression? Okay, it’s like 1 flat 6 flat 3, I’m picking out whatever chords are there. That’s something that I started doing in high school because I was curious about chord progressions, I was curious about what the chord progressions were and the jazz band, there were these fancy chords like, this is an a flat major 7, sharp 11, what is that? Well, I don’t know.
All I know is that basically, I’m playing a flat. That’s cool but I’m a little bit too intellectually curious to just accept the fact that I’m playing an a flat here. So I started listening for these things that I have a name for and through my bass education, through my private teacher in high school, I started being able to pick out these little elements because I just was curious. I wanted to become a little bit more invested in the thing that I wanted, I was listening to. I didn’t want to just be there sitting in the backseat.
So that’s the genesis of a lot of it and then I started … it was a very harmonic ear training. I think that’s where it came from because I just was picking up chords that I heard everywhere. Every song you hear for the most part has some kind of progression. I’m going to say 98% of everything has some kind of chord progression and so that’s a place to start, is being able to pick out chords.
Once you’re able to do that, then being able to pick out the individual rhythms of the different instruments as they’re playing them, you can tap them out on your chest which is great, like a monkey see, monkey do but then being able to transcribe them is another level, like understanding the rhythm’s relationship to the pulse. That’s something that takes a while to actually be able to do and it’s related to the harmonic ear training but it’s also not related at all.
From there then, melodic ear training became a big part of it, just being able to play back and provide solos that I was hearing. So that was a lot of just listening to the same four seconds of a piece of music over and over and over and over again playing it, moving on to the next four seconds over and over and over and over again. It all really was just coming from the desire to not only listen to the music more actively but also being able to play it.
So I listen to it and then I try to play it. At the end of the day, it ends up being that simple.
Christopher: Well, it’s really interesting to hear that because I think the best approach is often that combination of the dedicated exercises and the more interesting application in your musical life and finding the balance between those two.
Christopher: When I saw you done in the ear training course over at Scott’s Bass Lessons, I knew it was going to be unusual in a good way. It was not going to be your traditional just do this drill for 18 hours straight kind of training course and there were two things that really stood out to me in it, even glossing over the main thing which was your approach to everything in terms of the harmonic series and build things up in a very elegant and fascinating way but the two other things were talking about bass.
Specifically, you are a bass player and you have a particular perspective on your training by way of that. And also, the fact that you incorporated the voice so much. So I’d love to unpack those two a little bit. How should a bassist consider ear training or what position are they in compared to other instrument lists when it comes to that?
Adam: Yeah, bass guitar is actually quite difficult for ear training because the fundamentals of the notes that you play are well below the fundamentals of notes that humans can sing. So for example, the fundamental of the low E string which is a note that a lot of bass players play all the time is 40 hertz. It’s super, super low in terms of the harmonic spectrum. The lowest note that a male can sing comfortably usually is in or around 80 hertz. It’s like the low of a baritone vocal register.
So the bass guitar is just really, really far low. It’s super low and it’s just difficult to wrap your ear around what’s happening because we have evolved to be able to hear the frequency spectrum of the human voice clearly, not so much the frequency spectrum of a bass guitar clearly. So my advice for all bass players is to play everything that you are playing and practicing with your ear training up an octave or like up in the upper register of the instrument, places where you wouldn’t normally be playing your parts.
And also, try and sing along and match the pitch of those upper octave notes. And in that way, you’re connecting what you’re singing and what you’re feeling and what you’re hearing with what you’re doing on the instrument in a way that your ear is evolutionarily designed to be able to understand. That is the trick in the challenge of practicing ear training with bass guitar specifically is getting that sort of understanding and applying it to your instrument in a way that makes sense from a physical and also biological standpoint.
That’s really my philosophy with bass guitar ear training is sing everything and this applies to everything honestly, it’s not just the bass guitar. Sing everything and play it in a register that your ear can connect with.
Christopher: Got you. I found it deeply reassuring to hear you say that because I suspected that were true but I started bass lessons … for the first time, I played bass on and off but started taking proper lessons a few years ago and I considered myself someone with a pretty good ear but my teacher was demonstrating things low down on the fretboard and expecting me to play them back by ear and I felt really stupid because I couldn’t and I was like, I’m sure if we just jumped at the neck, I would be okay but my ear is not working down there the way I would expect it to.
And that was a real eye-opener for me. I didn’t realize I would be that ill-equipped in the low register.
Adam: Yeah, and here’s the thing. When you’re more experienced, one of the things that helps with hearing things in lower registers isn’t necessarily your experience with your ear, it’s your experience with your fingers because you can hear things down in the lower register that you know physically how to play. For example, I can hear like a box shape down in the lower register like that because I played a box shape so many times and I really understand how that pentatonic box shape works on a bass guitar.
I played it, I feel it, I understand it. There is this kind of like relationship between your fingers into your hands to your ears in a very deep way that I feel like not a lot of people have really explored all that much but I know this personally for me is if I hear certain shapes on bass guitar, I know what it is. If a synthesizer or a keyboard player would be playing down in that register, I wouldn’t be able to intuit it as quickly as if I hear a bass player play it because there are certain shapes and certain patterns that are unique to the instrument and so I understand pretty quickly what they are.
When you’re first learning though, that sort of thing isn’t probably always going to be there so it can be tricky and it can be challenging. Seeing it also can help, like there is this whole feedback loop between what you’re feeling, what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing and I think that’s important for anybody who is learning is to kind of go back and forth between the three of them, just like cycle, no one method is going to be your magic bullet for learning something. No one method is going to be your magic bullet for hearing anything either.
Christopher: That’s really interesting. I want to talk a little bit more about the singing aspect of it. You mentioned a feedback loop that [crosstalk 00:47:42] and I think that’s something you talked about too in the course in terms of your singing voice and your ears. You said something in the course and you had these great exercises with a friend where you are harmonizing with each other out loud to demonstrate different intervals and tune your ears into them.
And you talked about the particular vowel you should sing on which I heard someone talk about before in the context of ear training.
Adam: Yeah. Well, the vowel is A and if you look at the frequency spectrum of A, la. If you look at the frequency spectrum, it’s the most even out of any vowel. E is a very hollow vowel so there’s like a lot of the midrange content is gone. O is a very low register vowel so a lot of like the upper register stuff is gone. So A works very, very nicely for ear training especially when you’re harmonizing with a friend because the harmonic spectrum is very, very even across all registers.
And I don’t know a whole lot about Indian solfege, [pronatic 00:48:48] Indian solfege but they have a different name for each one of the notes of the scale like do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do, the basic solfege syllables in the west. I think it’s sa, ve, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, sa. Most of them are A vowels and the ones that aren’t A vowels are specifically designed to have a particular harmonic content associated with that scale degree.
So ni has a very … is the seventh scale degree, it’s a very kind of like open sound or like it’s … like almost a dissonant sort of sound and because it’s ni, E is like a midrange scooped vowel, you have that ni on the seventh scale degree. So it’s a really interesting sort of understanding of the relationship of vowel sound to musical content and it’s something that exploring a lot for myself personally but the different vowel sounds have different … Do is like our normal hum like for scale degree and that’s not super great for harmonizing.
It’s hard to get in tune but sa is an open scale or it’s an open vowel and it’s a lot easier to harmonize with somebody if you’re on the same vowel like that.
Christopher: That’s a great point. We’ve come up against this in Musical U when we’ve hired professional singers to record solfa syllables for us and what we wanted is kind of every syllable on every note which is an incredibly, yes, exercise for them in the recording studio but less than the … they went ahead and did it. But we found when they were in the top of that range, the vowels were coming out very differently because it’s very difficult to sing those notes on say, an open A or an O because as a singer, you would naturally adjust your vowels with the lyrics and the piece to match what you are capable of with your voice.
And until we butted up against that, I haven’t really appreciated how actually the solfa syllables can be a bit awkward in certain situations.
Adam: Yeah. Well, it’s also the English language have something called a diphthong which is when you have two vowels together, and this is something that singers have to deal with all the time. I’m not really a singer but I deal with this sort of thing musically. When you have A, E, A, E, A, E, it’s the two specific musical notes in the word I. And that’s fascinating. You can even see in the harmonic spectrum when you say I, the notes change. The melody changes along the course of saying the word.
And it’s something that you again, don’t really have to deal with unless you’re a singer but once you start ear training, this sort of thing actually matters. The musical note changes as you say certain vowels and so you have to just in the beginning, I think it’s very useful to pick a single neutral vowel to sing everything on and A is a fantastic neutral vowel.
I forget if I said this in the Scott’s Bass Lessons video, the SBL video, but one of the reasons, and I’m just hypothesizing, why Buddhist monks chant uhm is because if you say A and then you close your mouth while you’re saying it, ahm, what’s happening is you’re still singing that vowel with all that rich harmonic content but then you feel the buzzing in your lips in a very visceral way. You can feel the note in a different part of your body. So when you’re chanting uhm, what you’re doing is you’re feeling the note that you’re singing and it feels nice and you can balance yourself on that note.
So yeah, so everybody should chant uhm all the time because it’s harmonically rich and it’s useful for your training.
Christopher: That is the major takeaway from this interview.
Christopher: Well, that touches on actually one of the other interesting points from that course which was you talking about embodied cognition and the value of feeling in your body what you’re doing. And I alluded to this earlier talking about the beefy bass amplifier that, like you, enjoy playing bass in a different way. And I think it’s a really valuable point and another reason why singing should not be considered a separate activity or an optional activity. It should be kind of a front and center in how you develop your ability to understand and express musical ideas.
Adam: Yeah. And a lot of people just are scared about singing and I’m still scared about singing because I’m not a singer. My mom was a singer and so because my parents did something, I want absolutely nothing to do with that thing. But I still do it all the time just for myself and as means of just connecting to the music because there is no more direct way to music than through your own body and your own voice is a way of making it … the music resonate in your body in a way that you have to turn the bass amplifier up really, really loud to feel the music in your body the same way that you could just hum a little tune softly to yourself.
It’s much more direct and it’s much more … everybody has it too. So I think singing is very important. Even if it’s just for yourself, it’s for no other person. You’re not performing but you’re doing it for you and I think that is an important thing.
Christopher: You said something a few minutes ago about visually processing information and making a connection between the sound and the sight of the music on the page for example.
Christopher: You have a slightly controversial or provocative video, subject of tab. Can you tell us about why you shouldn’t use tab and for anyone listening who isn’t a guitar and bass player, we might just need to explain briefly what tab is.
Adam: Yeah. So tablature is … actually, it’s a fairly old style of music … fairly old style of musical notation. It goes back I think to this 15th century. It basically was a way for [Lutness 00:54:45] originally to read music. Basically, it’s … the long and short of it is it tells you which fret to play on what string. So there will be a line that represents the G string and then you’ll have like a 3 or something so that means that you play the third fret on the G string. You don’t need to know the name of the note, you just need to know that you place your finger on the third fret.
And this video, I’ve since revised my thesis on why shouldn’t use tablature. I think tablature is absolutely fine. The main crux of the video is that the way that we process, way that our brains process sheet music in terms of written notation is very different, at least I think it’s different than the way our brains process tablature.
There’s this thing called saccade. A saccade is whenever your eyes dart very quickly back and forth like when you’re reading something on a page. If you film yourself, if you could do a close-up of your eyes with your phone, you can just film yourself looking at your eyes as you’re reading and then look back at the phone footage of your eyes. You notice that your eyes just dart back really, really quickly back and forth.
It’s super, super, super fast. And there’s some interesting research on how the brain processes these really, really quick snapshots that your eyes deliver information to your brain. There is research done on how eyes do the same thing when you’re reading sheet music in terms of reading sheet music and processing information very quickly. What happens is you process a huge chunk of information as one unit, like you don’t process every letter as … when you’re reading, you don’t look at the letter A and the letter E and the letter I or whatever.
You process whole words, whole sentences, maybe even whole paragraphs at the same time. It’s the same thing with sheet music. And I doubt, I’m just going to say it this way. I doubt that you can do the same thing with tab because there are so much information in a piece of tablature that is just delivered visually and it’s very difficult to be able to chunk large pieces of that information in the same way that a professional musician would be able to chunk large pieces of information with staff paper.
I don’t have any research to support that. Maybe somebody could chunk that quickly but I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen pianists chunk absolutely ridiculously huge amounts of information in sight, read the most complicated pieces of music like that because they are able to just process it like that. I’ve never seen a guitarist or a bass player just do the same thing with tablature just because I haven’t seen it, I don’t know. Maybe it could happen at some point but I think that the way that our brains will process sheet music ultimately is a lot more efficient. Even in the beginning, if it’s like really painful to read, I understand that.
I think tablature is a great learning tool. I think it’s a fantastic learning tool. I think everybody should use tablature if that’s the way that you want to learn the music. I think that’s absolutely great but I think in the long term, sheet music is better because it gives you a quicker approach to playing music. Yeah.
Christopher: Yeah. I really liked how you sound up at the end of the video by saying tab is great for telling you how to play something and so it has that role in teaching and learning but actually, sheet music is much more elegant for telling you what to play. So once you get to the point of just needing to [inaudible 00:58:09] what to play and you can figure out the how yourself, you’re better off with the sheet music.
Adam: Yeah, exactly. The tablature is the instructions, sheet music is literally what the music is. And for somebody who knows how to do something, you don’t need to be told how to do it and that’s the advantage of sheet music.
Christopher: Cool. So I know that even if our listeners weren’t already familiar with your channel, they now have a rich idea of just how interesting a perspective you bring to topics like music theory and audiation and the ear training. I mentioned earlier that there’s a potentially limiting path when it comes to music theory of just getting into the textbooks and thinking a very dry music theory way. And often, people end up just analyzing music and forgetting that they could be a musician themselves.
They write fascinating articles about music but don’t really play it. You have not fallen into that trap and you do still perform regularly. You have your own band called Sungazer. Tell us a little bit about your creative process in that context and your identity as a performer given that you have such an interesting perspective.
Adam: Yeah. So I’ve spent the past, in addition to having a YouTube channel, I spent the past eight or nine years in New York City as a professional musician, whatever that means. I played a bunch of musical theatre gigs, I played a bunch of weddings, I played a bunch of pop gigs, jazz gigs, I really enjoy playing music. That’s one of the things that I feel like just is a big part of my identity. I never want to stop playing music and if I stopped teaching, if I started … stopped making YouTube videos, I would just go and play music and figure out ways of doing it.
Sungazer is a band that is kind of a collaboration between me and a drummer, bass players love drummers and drummers I think love bass players especially if they’re good. And Shawn Crowder is the drummer and he’s absolutely amazing and we wanted to create a project that explored a lot of the same like interesting rhythmic and harmonic concepts that we had been thinking about but in the context of electronic music because I feel very strongly that electronic music is the next wave for musical development.
There’s so many cool things that you can do with electronic textures and sounds that you couldn’t normally do otherwise. And we wanted to do that but we wanted to do it in a way that we were still playing the music. We were still playing all these ideas but we’re interacting with technology, we’re interacting with the sampling, we’re interacting with drum triggering, we’re interacting in all these different ways but using the vocabulary that we had developed as musicians over the past decade or so.
So that’s like what Sungazer is, is like we’re just playing the music that we want to make, just pushing ourselves to explore new textures, new sounds, new feelings in the music that wouldn’t have been afforded to us if we were starting this music, the whole project 30 years earlier. That’s the exciting thing for me, is to explore new things, explore new things that I wouldn’t have had in a different time period.
Christopher: I see. And I really enjoyed, you shared a few videos on your channel about Sungazer projects and how you’ve approached particular composing or arranging in that environment and yeah, I definitely will link up to some of those in the show because I think you give a great insight into what the modern creative process can look like in some of the ways you’re approaching music in that group. Fantastic.
Well Adam, it’s been absolutely a pleasure. I knew it would be an interesting conversation. We didn’t disappoint. Let’s leave people with a very clear direction of where they can go to learn more about Adam Neely.
Adam: So you can find my YouTube channel by Googling Adam Neely YouTube. My channel’s name is just my name, Adam Neely. And you can find my band, Sungazer on sungazermusic.com and we have an EP coming out on January 7th, full of explorations of rhythmic and harmonic concepts. And I hope you guys enjoy it and I hope you guys enjoy my videos too.
Christopher: Tremendous. Thank you. Well, I feel like this wouldn’t be an official Adam Neely appearance if we didn’t end with your trademark bass. Can you send us away with a good low bass?
Adam: All right. Thanks for watching and until next time, bass.