Jazz is both a complex and nuanced genre. There are debates about its true origins and even the boundaries of the music it encompasses. It presents new challenges for a pianist, but also new ways to be creative and express yourself.
It isn’t as straightforward as classical piano and can be one of the more difficult genres to play, but it can be a rich and rewarding experience to take the time to understand jazz as a pianist. In this article we will provide a brief introduction to jazz, its history, basic jazz music theory and techniques, and compare it with classical piano in terms of difficulty.
Brief History of Jazz Piano
Jazz piano is a type of music that developed in the early 20th century. Put very simply, it is a style of music that involves syncopated rhythms, dissonant harmonies, and substantial improvisation. It often has a ‘swinging’ feeling, where the first note in a pair of notes is emphasized and the second one is shorter. It was first introduced in the late 1800s and has been evolving ever since.
Ragtime is the where jazz began. It is said that New Orleans is where Jazz was born among communities of African-American musicians. The earliest jazz pianists were actually ragtime players. Ragtime evolved in the 1890s by primarily African-American pianists and is characterized by a syncopated melody with a regularly accented accompaniment. They would play on pianos with strings, which were called “jangle harps”. These instruments were often played by African-Americans living in the Southern United States. “The Entertainer” is one of the most well-known examples of ragtime by African-American composer Scott Joplin. This style eventually developed into the jazz sound of the early 20th century. During this time, jazz pianists started to play on upright pianos and the instrument became more popular among white middle-class people as well as African-Americans.
Jazz gained popularity through the beginning of the 1900s. The 1920s marked a turning point for the genre because it became associated with dance music and swing music, which marked the current musical trends. Jazz reflected the societal attitudes of the time, which were rejecting the traditional, classical ideas of the past in favor of that which was more avant-garde and modern. Jazz was that and more, with its uneven rhythm, jarring melodies, and dissonant, unconventional harmonies.
Jazz continued to develop through the mid-1900s. Jazz pianists like “Jelly Roll” Morton, Earl Hines, Art Tatum set the course for jazz piano with their virtuosic playing and brought innovativeness to the genre. Later, bebop and ‘cool jazz’ developed from the big band sound of the 20s and as time went on, jazz become more experimental and explorative in nature. Jazz fusion emerged in the 1960s, combining elements of jazz, funk, and rock.
Essential Rhythms, Chords and Improvisation Techniques for Jazz Pianists
Many people assume that because jazz is so heavily based on complicated chords and rhythms that it is inaccessible for beginners. However, there are several basic rhythms and chords that novice pianists can learn to quickly begin producing jazz-style music on the piano.
Momentum is hugely important in jazz rhythm, and it often feels like the rhythm is ‘pushing’ the music forward. The quintessential jazz rhythm is the ‘swinging’ eight note. To do this, simply hold the first eighth note and make the second note shorter and lighter, as if to ‘push’ the music along.
The first measure shows ‘straight’ eighth notes, played steadily. The second shows how a jazz musician might play regular eighth notes. They are not always written this way, as it is understood that this ‘swing’ be applied to all eighth notes and proportionally similar rhythms.
Basic Chords and Scales
7th chords are a staple of jazz music. These are four-note chords that are made up of 3 sets of thirds instead of two sets in the case of triads. They usually consist of a triad with either the 6th or 7th note of a scale added, depending on the chord. There are 5 main 7th chords, shown here in root position in C.
Major 7th. The first is a major 7th chord, and it simply adds the 7th scale degree of the major scale to the major triad.
Dominant 7th. The second is referred to simply as a 7 chord or dominant 7th, made by adding the flat 7th scale degree to the major triad.
Minor 7th. The minor 7th chord is made by adding the 7th minor scale degree to the minor triad. This chord is very prominent in jazz and immediately evokes a typical ‘smooth jazz’ sound.
Half-diminished 7th. The half-diminished seventh chord is made of a diminished triad with a major third added, making it half-dimished since the top third is major. The half diminished chord is indicated with the small circle with a line through it.
Fully diminished 7th. The fully diminished 7th is made of three minor thirds stacked on top of each other, a minor triad with a minor third added. This stacking of only minor thirds makes the chord fully diminished. The fully diminished chord is indicated with a small circle without a line.
When it comes to basic jazz scales, it is important to be familiar with modes. The basic modes are Ionian (major scale), Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian (minor), Aeolian, and Locrian. All modes are based on a different major scale degree. For now we will focus on three of them: Ionian, Aeolian, and Mixolydian. These mode scales will sound good over chords that have matching scale tones.
The Ioninan mode uses the same scale formula as the major scale, so none of the scale degrees are modified with sharp or flats (1 2 3 4 5 6 7). Here is a C Ionian scale.
This scale sounds best played over a major 7 chord since they share the same scale degrees (C, E, G, B).
The Aeolian mode contains a flat 3rd, 6th, and 7th scale degree. In C Aeolian these are E flat, A flat, and B flat. This is also the same scale formula as the natural minor scale (1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7).
Here is a C Aeolian Scale.
This scale sounds best played over a minor 7 chord since they share the same scale degrees (C, E flat, G, B flat).
The Mixolydian mode contains a flat 7th scale degree. In C Mixolydian this is B flat (1 2 3 4 5 6♭7).
Here is the C Myxolydian Scale.
This scale sounds best played over a Dominant 7 chord since they share the same scale degrees (C, E, G, B flat).
These are just some examples to get you started. Several scales may sound good over certain chords, as long as they share the same notes.
As you begin improvising in a jazz style, it will be much easier if you already listen to jazz and it is a part of your mental audio library. Listening to jazz will make it much easier for you to improvise melodies and pick out interesting but cohesive harmonies. Since there is an emphasis on listening and playing by ear, spending times immersed in the music will help you find your ‘groove’ and express yourself while playing. Some key techniques to practice this are:
- Playing scales with the ‘swing’ eighth note rhythm over held whole note 7th chords in the left hand
- Playing steady quarter notes in the left hand while improvising with eighth notes in the scale modes
- Pick a pattern to play in the right hand (such as 1 2 4, played at various intervals, such as CDF and then E F A) and play it over various inversions of a chord in the left hand
- If you want to try a more advanced rhythm, you could try playing quarter note chord inversions in the left hand and triplets in the right hand, trying just a scale at first and then slowly progressing to improvising.
Is Jazz Piano Hard to Learn?
Some people find jazz easier to pick up because it is heavily based on intuition and relies on improvisation. If you are someone who prefers to play by ear and quickly picks up on the ‘feel’ of music, you may not have much difficulty learning jazz.
If you find it difficult to play by ear and feel lost when every detail of the music isn’t written on the page, you may find jazz challenging. However, if this is the case for you, learning to play in this style may be a great way for you to challenge yourself and grow as a pianist.
Jazz or Classical Piano: Which One is Harder?
This is certainly an area of controversy among pianists and musicians in general. Which style you find more difficult may depend on several factors, such as your strengths as a pianist, what you grew up listening to, and the complexity of the music you are trying to play. Some may argue that classical is more difficult because of the rigorous detail required to play classical music with the right technique and accurately according to the written music.
Classical musicians will practice hours to perfect passages to sound exactly as they should. There is much more room for interpretation in jazz. However, some say that jazz is more difficult because it requires an expert command of the piano to improvise on the spot. There is an enormous amount of freedom within jazz to express yourself, but to do so well is a skill that requires time and practice.
Anyone can learn the basics of jazz. Even if you find it difficult to improvise, it is an excellent skill that will make you a more well-rounded musician. Find some jazz standards that you like and add them to your listening routine so that your ears become accustomed to the swinging rhythms and dissonances found in jazz so you can add them to your playing. The more you practice, the easier it will be to express yourself using the smooth sounds of jazz.