Homework Music Jazz Hero

In todays lesson we’re going to focus on 4 tips that will help you make the transition from playing classical music to playing jazz.

I recently received a question from a new reader asking me how to make this switch more easily.

I think this is a great question because most instrumentalists initially start with some sort of classical based training.  They don’t know how to take their already existing knowledge and apply it to a new style of music.

There are definitely some differences in the way you approach learning them. So, lets get started discussing some of the differences now!

1. Jazz Is An Oral Tradition Based Music

A lot of the stylistic elements of jazz can’t be accurately written out. Whereas in classical music almost everything is written out for us.

This one fact can make a lot of classical musicians nervous. Don’t worry though we can still learn jazz but we just need to learn in a slightly different way.

To learn jazz properly you can use written lead sheet/chord chart as a starting point but ultimately we learn the style by doing a lot of listening to great jazz and figuring out what we’re hearing. We then apply these “discoveries” to the way we play.

Deep listening is so important!  If we can truly hear than we can truly play.

(related lesson: How to learn from recording yourself)

How Do You Learn To Hear?

Transcribing music is one of the best ways to train your musical ear. You don’t have to notate everything but you should be able to at least play along with the recording.

Try transcribing some of the concepts you hear on recordings. Start simply and just figure out 4 bars of something that appeals to you.

In a perfect world it will be on a jazz tune or a chord progression you are already familiar with.

Figuring out and matching the pitches and rhythms of what you hear will do wonders for your musicianship.

First Jazz Transcription

A great first solo to transcribe would be Miles Davis’ solo on the tune “So What”.  If you need some tips transcribing your first solo you can read this first jazz transcription article.

Just as reminder you’re not just listening for pitches.  We’ve all heard the famous statement, “It don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.” Pitches are only a small part of the story. 🙂

Jazz is a rhythmic based music played with grooves. So, actual rhythms, rhythmic placement within a beat, and articulation of the notes take on an increased role.

Rhythm and articulation are HUGE components in jazz music. Never forget that. It’s not just the pitches it’s how you play them.

If you need more help with rhythm you can check out this lesson where I teach you how to make your jazz tunes swing more.

2. Jazz Theory Concepts

Most of the time when we play jazz we will be improvising on a tune and essentially building our own arrangements.  To do that well we need to have a deep understanding of how harmony works as a whole.  For that reason knowledge of jazz theory is vital.

Spend time familiarizing yourself with some jazz theory concepts. Study some common jazz chord progressions. Familiarize yourself with the chord voicings that jazz piano players would play over those chords.

There are lots of lessons already on this site featuring this material. For example, you can check out lesson on spread voicings, rootless chords,shell voicings, Bill Evans chords and lots more.

Knowing some theory and chords could help you play classical music as well but nowhere near as much as in jazz. In jazz we are responsible for choosing many of the notes we’d play in a piece whereas in classical all the notes are chosen for us already by the composer.

If you’d like to really sharpen your jazz theory fundamentals I created a program that takes you step by step through everything you need to know.

Essentially, it’s how to go from zero to playing chords and songs you love in 30-60 days. You can check out that program right right here Zero To Jazz Piano Hero.

3. Acquire The Jazz Vocabulary

When you learn jazz it’s similar to learning any new language. In order to speak the “language”, i.e…. playing authentically on jazz tunes…you need to know what “words and sentences” to say.

Studying jazz licks and common jazz patterns are the equivalent of studying words and sentences in our new language.

The most popular chord progression in jazz is the II-V-I (2-5-1). I would recommend you learn and really study as many II-V-I licks as you can.

They are the life source for jazz vocabulary and the licks can be applied almost everywhere.

It would be even better if you analyzed how the licks are built so you could come up with your own variations on the licks. This is a great way to begin developing your own language within the context of the jazz tradition.

To get you started learning licks you can check out this Bill Evans lick lesson, this Charlie Parker lick lesson or this turnaround lick lesson

If you prefer to learn jazz improv in more of a course format there is also my Jazz Masters Method DVD.

4. It’s All About The Jazz Song

Doing musical exercises obviously serve their purpose.  We must never forget though that exercises are really only a means to an end.

The real point of doing any exercise is to improve our playing of real music i.e….. jazz tunes, jazz standards, jazz songs, and jazz repertoire!

You can know all the jazz chords in the world, all the coolest voicings, and all the coolest licks etc. but if you haven’t spent time applying them to jazz repertoire you’re missing the point of the music.

It would be similar to you learning all kinds of interesting vocabulary words in a new language but never being able to throw them together in the context of a real conversation.

The vehicles for our conversation in jazz is the standard jazz repertoire. So, everything we talked about above needs to be applied to jazz tunes!

What Jazz Tunes Should You Learn?

There are hundreds if not thousands of tunes in the standards in the jazz repertoire. (Many of which I teach you inside the Premium Jazz Membership Program.)

Fortunately, though you can just start with learning a few tunes and use those as a springboard to learning other tunes.

You see alot of the same chord changes and harmonic motion happening in many of the famous jazz standards.

You can start learning great tunes like All The Things You Are, Misty, Autumn Leaves, Satin Doll, Girl From Ipanema, Fly Me To The Moon, Summertime, Cherokee etc.  Every time you really learn a jazz song the next one you learn will be easier.  

Need some help finding the right jazz songs to play?  Definitely check out this article on finding the right jazz fake books and sheet music.

I would also recommend reading this article for beginning jazz tune suggestions.


Do you have any additional tips for ways to transition from classical to jazz?  Please leave a comment below.  We would love to hear them!

If you are new here be sure to also subscribe to the free jazz lessons in your inbox email list.  You can sign up on the right side of the site.

If you like these albums and want more study music, check out The Ultimate Study Music Playlist – my collection of over 120 awesome songs that help me get things done.

Music and studying is, for many people, a distracting combination. However, there are a lot of people that find it to be a productivity booster (especially in our generation). When I talk to people that like to study with music, I usually find that they hold one caveat when choosing their study music; the music can’t have vocals. This is most often a requirement for me as well. So does that mean my fellow music-studiers and I relegate ourselves to Mozart and Yanni? Heck no! Here is the first part of my list of great instrumental (mostly) albums, in all types of genres and no particular order, that make for awesome study music. Some are soothing, some are chaotic, and some will likely challenge your definition of “music”. I recommend approaching them with an open mind – you may find a new genre you never knew you loved.

Before we begin, I’d like to address the claims by certain people that only certain types of music can help you study; that is, I find no base in them. This doesn’t mean these people are wrong; maybe certain types of music are more conducive to concentration than other. I just don’t see it. My ability to study with certain types of music is really only affected by my mood. Some days I feel like listening to something heavy and chaotic, while on others I’ll be in the mood for something soothing or ethereal. With that, let’s start the list! Entries are in Artist – Album order.

Miles Davis – “Kind of Blue”

Widely regarded as the greatest jazz album of all time, Miles Davis’ masterpiece was the first album that came to mind when I was thinking of study music. With mellow, meandering basslines and a great juxtaposition of piano and trumpet, “Kind of Blue” is an album that is both relaxing and inspiring. The 51 years that have passed since it’s release haven’t tarnished at all; it’s my favorite jazz album and a staple in my instrumental album collection. Unlike some of Davis’ other works, or the works of other jazz greats, “Kind of Blue” is an album that features very simple playing. While not noted for the virtuosity of its performances, the playing on the album features amazing tones.  A while back I decided to splurge on a nice pair of headphones (I now have two: the Audio-Technica AD700’s and the Audio-Technica ATH-M50’s. The 700’s are open, while the M50’s are closed. Both are amazing and are probably the best headphones $100 can buy) and this was one of the albums I used to judge them. It’s an absolute classic.

Miles Davis at Last.fm

Choice Cut: “So What”

Yoko Kanno & The Seatbelts – “Cowboy Bebop”

Cowboy Bebop is a 1998 anime series that takes inspiration from American jazz, blues, and rock & roll. Likewise, its soundtrack is based in these musical stylings. Kanno’s soundtrack was voted as the greatest anime soundtrack of all time by IGN in 2006, and it’s easy to see why when listening to it. The soundtrack features some fantastic jazz and blues tracks. Tracks like opener “Tank!”, “Clutch”, and “Rush” evoke the high-energy bebop and swing spirit of the 20’s and 30’s, while other tracks like “Piano Black” mix jazz and electronic elements. There are a lot of different genres represented in this soundtrack; therefore, I believe there’s something for everyone in it. Some of the songs feature vocals; I usually skip these when studying and stick to the jazz tracks. Also, I should note that “Cowboy Bebop” is one of four albums that comprise the soundtrack to the original anime. Some of the tracks I mentioned are on other albums. I would recommend all of them, as well as the breadth of Kanno’s work.

Yoko Kanno at Last.fm

Choice Cut: “Tank”

Escala – “Escala”

Escala is an electronic string quartet from Great Britain known for doing classical crossover covers of famous songs. Known for being finalists on the 2008 TV show “Britain’s Got Talent”, their mix of upbeat electronic elements and classical strings makes for excellent music to study to. My favorite track is their cover of Robert Miles’ trance classic, “Children”. Other great tracks on the album include “Requiem for a Tower”, a cover in homage to the movie Requiem for a Dream, and “Palladio”. The pop and electronic elements combined with strings make these covers sometimes even more enjoyable than the originals. I’m eagerly awaiting a second album!

Escala at Last.fm

Choice Cut: “Children”

Blotted Science – “The Machinations of Dementia”

Hold on to your hats. Remember when I said some of the entries on this list are chaotic? This one probably fits that description best. An instrumental supergroup comprised of bassist Alex Webster, guitarist Ron Jarzombek, and drummer Charlie Zeleny, Blotted Science play complex, heavy music that would make any Guitar Hero player’s hands fall off. While a lot of virtuosic instrumental albums stray into blues and jazz territory, this one is firmly rooted in hard rock and metal, making use of heavy tones and complex time signatures. It’s definitely a different beast than the last three entries in the list; “The Machinations of Dementia” is study music for the metal-head.

Blotted Science at Last.fm

Choice Cut: “Adenosine Buildup”

Celldweller – “Soundtrack For The Voices In My Head, Vol. 1”

Klayton, the man behind Celldweller, describes his music as a “fusion of the electronics of drum & bass and techno, with rock and orchestral elements, meshing the synthetic and the organic, darkness with beauty, into a cohesive blend entirely its own.” With that mouthfull as a primer, enter the most diverse offering on the list. Celldweller is part techno, part alt. rock, part orchestral, and part whatever else Klayton feels like throwing into the mix at the time. “Soundtrack For The Voices In My Head, Vol. 1” is a mostly instrumental collection of songs the artist released for the purpose of movie and video game licensing. The tracks on this disc are diverse, fast-paced, and layered with a lot of effects and sound elements. It’s one of my current favorites. Do note that this album has been described by the artist as a collection of songs that aren’t fit for “real” Celldweller albums; Klayton has saved his perceived best for the albums “Celldweller”, and the still-incomplete “Wish Upon A Blackstar”. Check those out if you like this.

Celldweller on Last.fm

Choice Cut: “Scardonia”

Jeremy Robson – “Final Fantasy Philharmonic Suite”

After the last two entries on the list, this one marks a considerable step down in tempo. “Final Fantasy Philharmonic Suite” is a fantastic orchestral re-imagining of some of the best music of Final Fantasy VII, a 1997 Playstation RPG. Composed by Jeremy Robson, an active remixer on OCRemix.org, this album is an incredibly epic and beautiful composition. From soft piano passages to swirling crescendos, this 7-track album doesn’t disappoint. Fans of the game will especially enjoy this. It’s an album that needs to be experienced in full, which is why I must make my choice cut be the first track. Did I mention that this isn’t done by an orchestra?

Jeremy Robson on Last.fm

Choice Cut: “Opening”

Do Make Say Think – “Other Truths”

Ending this half of the list on a soothing, meandering note is Do Make Say Think’s “Other Truths”. This Canadian post-rock band know how to make a great album to study to. The music is soft, wistful, and contemplative. Tracks like the fantastically cozy, western-tinged “Think” are perfect for helping you focus on whatever is open in front of you. It’s the cream of the crop in post-rock, outdone by only one other album in my book (that one to come next week).

Do Make Say Think at Last.fm

Choice Cut: “Think”

Hopefully you’ve found some great music to study to come next fall when the homework comes piling in! Next week I’ll reveal my last eight albums; until then, name your top study albums in the comments!


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