8 Simple Steps to Learn Jazz as a Classical Musician [or beginner]

How does a long time classical pianist learn jazz?

A study published by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences showed that Jazz and Classical pianists’ brain activity differs greatly even when performing the same piece of music. 

As a long time classical pianist who made the switch four years ago, this conclusion is not surprising. I realized very quickly that jazz requires a different mindset. In classical, all of the notes are preselected and it is up to the musician to interpret them in the best way. In jazz, one can deviate from the existing framework in many ways (harmonically, rhythmically, dynamically, etc). Jazz requires flexibility of both mind and body. 

Popular artists like Tom Misch, Norah Jones, John Mayer, John Legend, and Jacob Collier are trained in jazz theory and you can hear it in their music! Even if you have no interest in playing straight ahead jazz, learning the basic concepts can help take your playing and writing to the next level, regardless of genre.

Tom misch, a jazz guitarist who plays pop music
Tom Misch, an excellent jazz guitarist and singer. Click to see his Tiny Desk Concert.

So where do we start? If you are classically trained, you are already armed with many vital skills necessary for jazz piano. Yay!

Here are a few steps that can help a long time classical pianist make the switch. 

  1. Bach to the Basics – Scales, Chords, and Rhythm

Excuse the pun, but before you start learning complex jazz concepts, it is essential to have a firm grasp on the main scales: major and minor. Understanding the different scales that go with different key signatures is the first big step in improvisation. Once you know which notes are available in Eb major, for example, you are armed with the tools to improvise in that key. 

Next, learn the basic chords that fit within the framework of each major key. The chord types are the same in all twelve keys! Using the key of C as an example, check out the graphic below! 

Next, gain a strong sense of rhythm and syncopation. Maintaining the tempo and groove makes a performance ‘feel’ good. Once you have a solid time feel, then you can start to push and pull the tempo.

A common saying in jazz groups is playing “in the pocket”, or grooving with all members of the band. If you are playing solo, it could mean “locking in” both of your hands. Metronome practice is essential to achieve this feel. 

  1. Learn 7th Chords and Extensions

An integral part of jazz harmony is chord extensions. Chord extensions are the additional notes you play on top of the basic triad. It gives the chord a richer and more interesting sound and will immediately give you a “jazzier” sound. The 7th is the most common extension in jazz and is actually integral to most chords. To figure out the 7th of a chord, simply go up a diatonic third from the 5th in any given triad. In the key of C, the 7th would be B, which is a third away from G. Confused? Here is a graphic displaying all of the 7th chords in the key of C. 

All of the notes are “diatonic”, or within the key of C. The next extension is the 9th, which is simply a third away from the 7th. In C, this would be D. The next two are the 11th and the 13th, and you can find these using the same pattern as before, going up by a diatonic third. These notes are also commonly referred to as “color tones” and the main notes of the chord are the “chord tones”. The chord tones provide the identity and the color tones are the icing on the cake. 

Exercise: Chord Scales

A simple exercise to learn all of the 7th chords would be to play the above graphic in all twelve keys, transposing the chords as you go, going up and down with both hands. Understanding all of the major scales will be essential in this exercise, as every note in every chord fits within the given major scale.

After mastering this exercise, you’ll start to notice just how common 7th chords are in both the classical repertoire and in pop music today. Things will start to click!

  1. Learn the 2-5-1 Progression

The 2-5-1 is the most common progression in jazz, and can be found in almost every jazz standard. In the key of C, this progression would be D minor 7(2), G dominant 7(5), and C major 7(1). 

  1. Chord Voicings

Inversions in classical music are an example of chord voicings. Voicing simply means the way you arrange notes in a chord. There are a countless amount of chord voicings for every chord. After learning the basic chords we talked about above, you can learn rootless voicings (leaving out the 1 of the chord), three, four, and five note voicings. This element of jazz leaves a lot of room for creativity. When you see the chord symbol Bb7, there are a million different ways to arrange it, and you can choose whatever sounds best to you! I would recommend choosing one voicing type and mastering it, then adding more types to your arsenal later on. As a rule of thumb, you should always try to include the 3rd and 7th in your voicing starting out, as these two notes identify the chord. 

  1. Learn Jazz Standards

Learning jazz standards, like Autumn Leaves or Fly Me to the Moon will help contextualize all of the theory we previously discussed. In both of these tunes, there are several 2-5-1s and the melodies are very straightforward. Start by simply playing the chord in the left hand and melody in the right. Slowly, you can start to apply some more advanced solo piano concepts, but start simple and slow!

  1. Listen and Transcribe

Transcription is probably my favorite way to practice. When I hear a cool solo or way to play a melody, I love to imitate it and use it in my own adaptation of a standard. A helpful tip is to transcribe a solo from whatever standard you are currently learning. This will tie a lot of different concepts together and arm you with a lot more ‘vocabulary’. 

Not all of your transcriptions need to be from jazz recordings! I have done a lot of work learning solos from pop songs. It is a lot of fun and very applicable! Check out this transcription I did from Tom Misch’s “South of the River”. 

Tom Misch Solo Transcription
  1. Always Expand Your Vocabulary

Learning jazz theory is like learning a whole new language. Your vocabulary is all of the voicings, chords, rhythms, and licks you have at your disposal. After transcribing a solo, it is essential to pull your favorite elements and apply them to other tunes or contexts. In jazz, the more ideas you have to choose from in a given moment, the more interesting your performance can be. 

Similar to how great speakers have several words, phrases, metaphors, and stories in their vocabulary, great musicians have many scales, chords, licks, melodies, and progressions.

  1. Apply the things you learn! 

Theory without application is useless. When you learn a new way to play a chord, try using it in every song you know. This will reinforce that concept or skill even more. 

If you are in the same position that I was four years ago, hoping to learn how to improvise and play several different genres, reach out for a lesson! I can help you with all of the concepts outlined in this blog, and much more. 

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