How Learning Jazz Can Give You Musical Superpowers

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Louie Armstrong

As a music student, learning jazz may not be at the top of your list, especially if the only time you hear jazz is when you pop into Starbucks (on a good day).

But if you want to get really good on your instrument– be it piano, drums, or guitar–consider this: learning jazz theory can take you to another level, advancing your overall understanding of music theory, and giving you the ability to play multiple genres.

Or, in the words of our multi-instrument teacher Lucas Gillan, jazz can give you musical superpowers.

What is jazz piano?

To put it simply, jazz involves playing melodies over an existing set of chord changes. In jazz piano solo improvisation, the musician creates new melodies within the harmonic frameworks of jazz songs.

What will jazz teach me about music theory?

Did your eyes just glaze over?

Music theory has a bad rep, maybe because it’s associated with complex language and old music that young people don’t connect with, the crotchety grandfather we’re forced to visit during music lessons.

But simply put, music theory is a way to talk about the sound of music. (JazzAdvice.com – click for more) Think of it as the science behind music; it explains how music is structured, and why we hear it the way we do. (Jazzstandards.com – click for more).

Jazz theory does all this, and prepares you for improvisation — composing in the moment. By adding improvisation to theory, jazz creates room for openness, malleability, and your own personal expression.

How will jazz make me a master of my instrument?

Here comes that word again: improvisation!

When you sit down to play from sheet music, everything is printed there for you: the note combinations, scales, articulations, inflections, etc. Sheet music is a map though a song.

When you improvise, you have no map– except for your own skills, tastes, and choices.

Hence, learning to improvise requires you to become more physically and mentally engaged with your instrument. Naturally, your understanding of elements like theory, rhythm, and idiomatic inflection deepens.

“If all you ever do is read notes on a page, you’ll never quite know what your instrument is capable of,” Lucas said.

And improvisation proves that your instrument–and you– are capable of a lot. Creativity, originality, composition: improvisation fosters all of these.

If it sounds intimidating, remember that improvisation, like anything, is a skill. That develops. Over time. And as it does, you’ll find yourself growing into a more powerful musician.

“With jazz improvisation, instead of playing Beethoven, you are Beethoven,” said jazz musician and educator Dave Frank. “The fantastic thing about playing jazz is that once you learn how–and anyone can learn this– you can create new music spontaneously for the rest of your life.”

How will learning jazz improvisation improve my competence in other genres?

Jazz is a mother genre. From its fruitful, American soil springs blues, pop, rock, hip-hop, and probably more. (Read more about its history here.)

“Jazz is a more elevated, advanced version of pop and rock theory,” said Piano Power founder and director Abraham Levitan. “It seemed almost like cheating to play pop and rock after I learned jazz theory, because pop and rock is a simpler version of jazz.”

In other words, learning jazz teaches you other genres by default. If you’re more interested in learning pop and rock styles of playing (as a young Abraham certainly was), then jazz theory–which translates easily to pop and rock–may be a more helpful guide than classical music theory.

Do I have to listen to jazz before I learn jazz?

( I can see all the jazz-heads rolling their eyes). Their advice would be yes, of course! Listening is the only way to learn, they might say. (To start, here’s a Village Voice article that recommends ten essential jazz albums.)

But it is worthy to consider this question: Which comes first, the learning or the love? Couldn’t it go either way?

“If a student digs deep into it and gives it a chance, I think they’ll find that they actually will fall in love with the music,” Lucas said.

It doesn’t matter if you come to learning jazz simply as a means to end. You just might achieve your original goal, develop a whole new set of related skills, and maybe, just maybe, develop a lifelong passion along the way.

Want to hear Lucas’s jazz superpowers in action? Watch this video of his band Many Blessings playing live at Constellation in Chicago last year.

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