How to expand your musical vocabulary


Music is a form of language. In this article, I will show you how to use the LickStack as a source of useful words and phrases to use in your solos.

Any solo can be broken down into small fragments of music, called licks, and any lick can be further dissected into fundamental musical themes. These are the raw materials from which solos are built.

This is the core principle of the LickStack, as explained previously. Licks and their underlying themes are building blocks of your solos – nothing more and nothing less.

Keeping this in mind, I would like to introduce a different analogy that will help you understand how the ecosystem of licks here on the LickStack is structured, and how you can make the most of our collection of licks on your journey to becoming a great soloist.

To do this, we will have to think in broader terms and think about what music is.

Music is a form of language

Science has taught us that music and language are in fact processed by the same brain systems.

Yes, this means that any melodies (or licks) you learn are stored in the same directory in your brain as all the words you know!

In this sense, learning to play music is very similar to learning a foreign language.

One could even argue that music is a form of language.

Let's explore this analogy a bit further.

There are roughly 6500 distinct languages in the world.

If we think about music, I wonder how many different styles and genres, think "musical languages", there are?

Statistics about this are harder to find, but I would venture a guess that they also number in the thousands.

French differs from Italian and from Mandarin Chinese because each language uses different syllables, words and grammar.

In the same way, jazz differs from blues and from baroque music because each style uses different rhythmical patterns, scales and forms.

Our analogy can do better still.

French is very similar to Italian, and both are very different from Mandarin Chinese.

In the same way, jazz is very similar to blues, and both are very different from baroque music.

Why is that?

It turns out French and Italian are closely related in the family tree of languages, and jazz and blues are close cousins in the family tree of music.

Languages and music are not static constructs, but they evolve over time – like living beings – from ancestral states into the most elegant shapes and forms!

As a consequence of this, there are countless words and phrases that are found not just in one but in several different languages.

I find this especially exciting.

By analogy, this means that there should also be melodic phrases and patterns that can easily be exchanged between different styles of music, with minor modification.

If different languages borrow words and phrases from each other all the time, why not do the same in music?

Can we somehow use the diversity of musical languages to our advantage?

What is your favorite language?

If you decide to upload a snippet of music onto the LickStack, you will have a chance to label it with keywords to give us a hint about the languages it might be used in.

If you find that your lick would fit into a blues standard, then label it #blues. If you think it would go well with jazz too, then give it a #jazz label as well. If you think it sounds like rock to you, then label it #rock. You get the idea.

Multiple tags are also allowed!

The keyword feature is meant to help us find the kind of licks we are looking for in our LickFinder tool.

If I intend to construct a blues solo, I can search for licks that carry a #blues label. If you are a country musician, you can search for #country. Or why not search for both keywords? Chances are that there is some overlap between the two anyway.

Here are some examples of different musical languages that I have contributed to the LickStack so far. Pay attention to the #keywords.





As you can see/hear, I myself feel comfortable somewhere in the jazz-blues-latin triangle.

Which is your favorite language?

You may find that modern styles of music (the likes of jazz and blues) are somewhat popular on the LickStack.

But by all means, if you find a neat phrase in a Bach fugue then label it #baroque. If you borrow a melody from a Beethoven sonata, you may label it #classical. They are licks just like anything else, albeit in a more archaic language.

Long story short, the music does not care what label you slap on it. This is totally up to you, and you are welcome to contribute your licks to our collection, no matter which musical language you speak.

Any musical style or genre is welcome on the LickStack. The more diversity, the better.

Upload any snippets of music you like, and label your snippets whatever way you see fit.

On the flip side, help yourself to any of the licks on the LickStack. You are absolutely allowed and encouraged to mix, match and borrow from any languages however you like.

This is how music evolves and new stuff is created!

How to get fluent in your musical language

Enough theory. Time to get practical.

The promise of the LickStack is to help you get better at soloing and improvisation.

It took me a while to realize this, but the way I approach learning soloing and improvisation is the exactly the same approach I use to learn languages.

Let me explain.

Have you ever committed yourself to learning a foreign language?

I would say you are unlikely to start by reading poetry or advanced technical manuals. You will most likely start with simple words and maybe some phrases that you pick up from TV shows, or from a dictionary, or from other people who are already fluent.

Knowing this, a sure way to gradually get better at conversation in a foreign language is to write down and memorize as many words and common phrases as you can. Keep track of any words and phrases you have available to you and build a personal vocabulary for yourself. Word by word.

This is a conscious effort at first, but once you get more comfortable with the words and phrases in your personal collection, they will become second nature to you and you will be able to recall and use them effortlessly in conversation.

Ultimately, once you have built up a solid repertoire of words and phrases, you will be able to hold any imaginable conversation using nothing but the words and phrases drawn from your personal vocabulary.

Let's think about music now.

What if I told you that you can use the very same strategy if you want to become fluent in the language of jazz, or in the language of blues, or in any other musical language?

Once again, you will not start your music education with that 700 bpm hair on fire guitar solo, but with simple words and phrases that you pick up here and there from jam sessions, concerts, Youtube etc. Maybe you will even come up with your own words and phrases?

Knowing this, a sure way to gradually get better at soloing is to write down and memorize as many musical words (rhythmic and melodic themes) and short figures of speech (licks) as you can. Keep track of any musical patterns and phrases you have available to you and build a personal collection of licks for yourself, a musical vocabulary.

Again, this will be a conscious effort at first. But once you get more comfortable with the vocabulary of your musical language, it will become second nature to you and you will be able to recall and use words and phrases effortlessly in your solos.

Ultimately, once you have built up a solid repertoire of licks, and once you are comfortable with each lick and the underlying musical words, you will be able to construct entire solos using nothing but the material drawn from your personal musical vocabulary.

Just like you can learn a language one word at a time, you can develop your skills as a soloist one lick at a time.

Getting better at soloing is now a simple matter of collecting and practicing licks, one by one, and learning how to use the musical vocabulary within.

Wouldn’t you agree that the challenge feels a lot less intimidating this way?

How to start your own collection of licks

Building a personal vocabulary from words and phrases is relatively straightforward. Just write them down dictionary-style in a little booklet. There are also numerous excellent apps to help with this.

It is a little bit more difficult to keep track of licks, and to my knowledge there aren't any tools out there that make this process quick and painless.

The LickStack is designed to offer an easy way for you to create a personal collection of musical vocabulary to use in your solos.

Whenever you encounter a neat lick out in the wild, or better yet, if you come up with one, simply pull out your phone and record yourself playing it on your instrument.

To preserve any lick thus captured, upload it to the LickStack using our lick upload form. Your personal lick collection will then live on the MyLicks page, where you can access a list of your own licks as well as your marked favorites anytime.

Do you have any musical phrases that you hear yourself playing repeatedly? Do you have any favorite patterns or themes?

Make it a habit to record and upload your licks whenever they come to you and capture them before they have a chance to dive below the surface again.

If you do this systematically, I will award you the title “lickster”.

You may wear the title with pride, because great things will happen from here on.

The power of sharing licks

Once you start collecting your licks, you are on a path to permanently improve your musical vocabulary.

Even with a modest collection of licks, you will be able to solo over large sections of almost any lead sheet with ready-made music that is true and tested.

But it only starts there.

The real magic happens once we team up with other licksters.

Imagine we all combine our individual lick collections into a single coherent network to which we all contribute and to which we all have access.

Now we can use each other’s musical themes, patterns and phrases as often as our own, we can borrow licks and learn from one another, and we will be able to combine musical ideas in infinite ways that we never even dreamed of.

Our collective musical vocabulary will grow through the roof!

The LickStack is a community project, by everyone, for everyone. The more people join in and contribute their licks, the better it will get.

In practice, this means that the larger our collection of licks grows, the more search results will show up in our LickFinder tool (try it out if you haven’t already!).

You will find more licks that can be played over your chord changes, and you will have more possibilities to choose from if you want to build a solo from the musical ideas within these licks.

Sign up now if you would like to give this approach a shot and learn music like a language.

Become a part of our community of licksters and take your musical vocabulary to the next level!




If you found this article helpful and/or interesting, please consider sharing it with fellow musicians!

If you wish to stay up to date about the newest articles and licks, consider joining the LickStack community and start your very own collection of licks!

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