An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

July 25, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 7 Comments

Learning to improvise - jazz theory



As I mentioned in the introduction to this "Learning to Improvise" series, jazz theory is typically the most heavily emphasized part of any jazz education method. In your average jazz improvisation book, for instance, you might find a couple of chapters on rhythm, phrasing, or other topics, but you'll ALWAYS find several chapters devoted to jazz theory. Similarly, classrooms typically spend more time on jazz theory than on any other aspect of jazz improvisation.

Because jazz theory is the primary focus of mainstream jazz education, most students end up believing it's the most important skill to master. Consequently, they'll spend the bulk of their time studying, memorizing, and practicing theory-related material. It's great that they're studying jazz theory, however such a narrow focus can lead students (and educators) to forget about other topics like rhythm, phrasing, and ear training. Ironically, it's these overlooked topics that will likely have the greatest impact on your playing. For instance, without solid rhythm and phrasing, nothing you play will sound good, regardless of how theoretically "correct" it might be.

With all of the emphasis placed on jazz theory, you'd think it's a must-have skill where total mastery is needed to succeed as a jazz improviser. But, this just isn't true. There are several legendary players who never learned how to read music (examples: Erroll Garner, Wes Montgomery), and there are several who were pro-level players before they learned how to read music (example: Dave Brubeck), and many others who knew little or no theory (example: Percy Heath), and even more who knew less theory than the average jazz studies major. If these great players didn't rely upon theory, then how did they know what to play? They used their ears! And that leads us to a true must-have skill: the ability to play by ear. Without the ability to play by ear, you'll never be able to accurately play the ideas in your head and you'll never be able to fully express yourself on your instrument.

If theory ISN'T essential, but being able to play by ear IS essential (see my ear training guide for more info), then why do so many jazz educators and aspiring musicians devote most of their time to theory? And more importantly, why isn't the ability to play by ear emphasized as a must-have skill for jazz musicians. Well, I've got a "theory" about this.


Most people fixate on theory because it's relatively straightforward to learn and teach. This stems from its similarity to the subject of mathematics. Like math, theory forces us to learn a bunch of rules and formulas. The notation even looks mathematical, with its use of numbers, roman numerals, various symbols, and plus and minus signs. So, on this level, it's familiar territory and somewhat palatable to those of us who did well in math class. You read it, memorize it, and move on to the next chapter.

I'm not saying jazz theory is easy to master. I'm just saying that for most people, it's easier and faster to learn than ear training skills. In a few months you could learn everything you need to know about theory (at least the basics), yet it might take several years/decades to similarly develop your ears.

Adding to its unpopularity is the fact that ear training is unpredictable. While you'll certainly improve with practice, that rate of progress will differ greatly from one person to the next. You'll have good days and bad days. And, you'll probably experience a lot of frustration along the way. Hey, that sounds a lot like playing the trumpet!

And this brings us to the second part of my theory:


Most people neglect ear training because it's such a gradual and often frustrating process to develop these skills. I think there's also a belief that you're simply born with great ears and if you aren't, there's nothing you can do about it. This is nonsense. Through ear training, you can definitely strengthen your ears and your ability to play by ear. You may not reach a level where you can play everything perfectly and effortlessly by ear, but you can at least reach a level where you can play some of your ideas by ear. Trust me, some is a lot better than none.

The two parts of my theory combine to explain the dominant state of jazz education today: Educators and students focus the bulk of their time and energy on jazz theory, not because it's absolutely essential to jazz improvisation, but rather because it's easier to teach and learn than other must-have skills like the ability to play by ear.

Right about now, you either agree with me or you think I've got it wrong. If you're in the latter category, you might even think I've come to these conclusions because I was too lazy to learn jazz theory myself. Or maybe you think I wasn't good at it, so now I just want to bad-mouth it.


When I entered college, I had no ear training skills and very little knowledge of music theory. My lack of ear training skills coupled with the fact that I don't naturally have a good ear led me to severely struggle in my freshman ear training classes. On the other hand, I did extremely well in my music theory classes (classical theory) during that same year. To me, theory was just memorization and math -- two things that have always come easily to me.

During my sophomore year of college I had to take my first jazz theory class. This class had a reputation for being very challenging and most of the jazz students dreaded its arrival. I breezed right through it. Once again, just memorization and math. I was so good in that class, that after I dropped out of music school (I transferred to the business school) the teacher used to bring up my name from time to time to pressure the students into learning the material. He said stuff like: "If Rick, the insurance salesman, knows all of this stuff you guys better know it too. You wouldn't want to be upstaged by an insurance salesman at a jam session would you?" I'm paraphrasing based upon what another student told me, but you get the idea. And no, I couldn't tell you why he thought I was going to become an insurance salesman. If I were choosing my imaginary job, I'd choose something a little more exciting, like professional arm wrestler!

As you can see, I was very good at theory and I did manage to learn and retain quite a bit. But, while I continued to build upon my knowledge of theory, that knowledge wasn't really helping me to become a better jazz musician. Rather, I was simply using theory to minimize the potential of playing a "wrong" note. Meandering through my solos, I'd randomly choose one "good" note after another. I couldn't play the ideas in my head, and I didn't even know exactly what my solo would sound like until I played it. I wasn't even close to being a true musician.

Of course, I now know that the problem wasn't theory. The problem was my inability to play by ear. The bigger problem that plagued me, and which continues to plague many aspiring musicians, is the fact that few people are really drilling this message home -- the message of ear training. You absolutely MUST be able to play by ear if you want to be a good jazz improviser. If you can't play well by ear, you'll have to rely upon a bunch of pre-learned licks and you'll never truly be able to play the ideas in your head. It might sound like jazz, but it isn't true to the improvisational spirit of jazz music.


If you're serious about learning jazz improvisation, then I strongly suggest that you learn at least some jazz theory. In the case of jazz improvisation, theory primarily serves to explain which notes sound good over which chords. Without this knowledge, you'd have to figure everything out by ear, and your skills/talents would have to be good enough to do that in real-time. My ears aren't that good, and even with constant ear training I probably won't ever reach the level of those legendary players who could play everything entirely by ear. So, for people like myself, theory bridges the gap between what we can and cannot hear. Rather than wonder which chords are being played, we can look at a chart and have everything spelled out for us.

There are several other benefits to knowing jazz theory, including:


When writing tunes, you can use theory to combine chord progressions and harmonies in sequences that you know sound good together. Likewise, you can use your knowledge of theory to reharmonize existing progressions into new and/or more harmonically interesting progressions.


If you have to play unfamiliar tunes in front of an audience or for a recording session, you'll definitely want as much information ahead of time as you can get. Being able to read chord changes will take a lot of the burden off of your ears (and nerves).


That's right, theory can help you with your ear training studies! Rather than rely totally on your ears, theory can help you find those next notes. For instance, if you identify a perfect 4th (1st 2 notes of "Here Comes the Bride") and you know the starting note is an F, then you can use theory to determine that the next note is a Bb. Ideally, you want to be able to do all of this with your ears, but as mentioned earlier, theory can bridge the gap between what you can and cannot hear.


Playing scales, arpeggios, and chord progressions will help train your ear to identify the sound of jazz melodies and harmonies.


The old phrase "knowledge is power" comes to mind. The more you know about something, the easier it is to understand and use. While this is true with jazz, it's important to remember that jazz is an artform. All the knowledge in the world will not make you an artist. It's how you apply that knowledge that counts!


Advanced theory concepts such as chord substitutions and alterations can help players unlock new sounds and directions in their playing. For some people, these ideas are easier to come by when visualized and/or thought of from a mathematical/structured approach.

Of course, all of the above can be accomplished solely by ear, but to do this you'd need exceptional aural skills. Believe me, you'd know if you're one of those people. If you make mistakes playing by ear, or if you accidentally play "wrong" notes, then you aren't one of them... sorry!


Most jazz musicians know at least some jazz theory. The following list is a decent starting point for your jazz theory studies:


All keys: Major, Dominant Seventh, Dorian Minor, Blues. As you advance, learn Diminished (H/W and W/H) and Whole Tone scales

Develop enough fluency so you can start on any note and play through to that note (and beyond) for any key and quality. Also, be able to play scales in a variety of intervals (skipping 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, etc). The goal is to develop enough dexterity so you can play well over any key at fast tempos. You'll probably never actually play a whole scale from top to bottom in a solo, but you will likely find many instances where you play 3-5 note portions of scales or interval skipping scales as you join one idea to the next.

ARPEGGIOS (1, 3, 5, 7)

All keys: Major, Dominant, Dorian Minor, Half Diminished, Diminished

As you listen to and transcribe solos, you'll likely notice that most players incorporate arpeggios in their solos. Arpeggios outline chords, grounding your solo to the changes. As with the scale exercises, practice playing arpeggios in a variety of sequences (7-5-3-1, 1-5-3-7, 7-3-5-1, etc).


Now that you know the scales and arpeggios, you can learn which ones to play as you encounter various chord changes, and you can practice playing over common jazz chord progressions. This is where people generally get hung up in theory. It's also the reason whey there are dozens of books on jazz theory that go on for hundreds of pages. No need to get carried away at first (or ever!). You can read the vast majority of charts simply by being able to play over the following chord types: Maj7, Min7, Dom7, Half-Diminished


It's really up to you how far you want to go with theory. Whatever you do decide to focus on, be sure you spend AT LEAST as much time working on ear training skills as you do working on theory. And be sure you aren't moving too quickly from one skill to another. For instance, it would be silly to start learning chord substitutions if you still haven't learned the blues.


Comment by nj

I'm strictly amateur (piano), but my experience was very similar to yours. I'm very good at book learning, so I picked up theory very quickly, but it took much longer to learn how to use my ears. I'm at the point now where I can "hear" pretty well, but still sometimes have trouble turning what I hear into coherent solos (partly a technical problem, partly not always having something interesting in mind to play :))

One specific problem I see with the way jazz theory is taught (even by otherwise good books) is an overemphasis on scales, and an underemphasis on the specific qualities of individual chord tones (b9, #9, etc.). It's certainly easier to think in scales--e.g. Db melodic minor over C7alt--but doing so without really understanding how each individual tone sounds over the chord leads to meandering solos.

Overemphasis on specific scales also means you miss out on the importance of chromatic passing tones between scale degrees. If you only play the notes in the scale, you miss out on a lot of the jazz sound. (Even the stuff I've seen on "the bebop dominant scale" misses the point; there are a lot more chromatic passing tones you can use on a dominant than just the natural 7 between the octave and the b7.)

Comment by Chris

I totally agree with both you (rick) about ear training and NJ about scales.

I agree that ear training is something that is so hurrendously important in jazz that its not funny. You can know ALL of the theory that exists about jazz but when push comes to shove if you can't 'communicate' the idea in your head to your instrument then its not worth knowing. Because knowing the theory tells you what notes to play, but never how to play them and in what order, that you have to decide and if you can't, you'll end up with solo's of just notes rather than an actual melody. However, i think the only way to learn to use your ear is to just practise and practise and practise playing on your instrument, soloing without knowing the chords. By doing this you eventually will hear a sound (An Fm7) and might instantly play something like; G,A,Ab (triplet) then C or maybe a Eb. just because you 'hear' the notes that would work over that chord (i know, you didn't need that much info to get the point...:-P)

and as for what NJ said about scales i totally agree! People get far to wrapped up in practising scales, never once in one of my solos have i played a complete scale. James Morrison (www.jamesmorrison.com.au - download his examples he has posted) is ,in my opinion, the worlds best musician at the moment and is definatly tying for worlds best on trumpet with wynton marsalis, but in an interview he said that he has always been a lazy person and therefore was never the type of person who would sit in his room and play scales. Infact, his argument to scales is that "Why play the scales? If you learn to play every piece then you'll have learnt to play every scale -musically - and playing the pieces of music would definatley be more fun!" Anyway, i've drifted away from the point.

The idea of playing dorians, mixolydians, locrians etc is simply as a GUIDE to help you find notes that you may not have realised were there. But i think that Charlie Parker found the secret to playing jazz, EVERY NOTE will fit so long as you resolve it to the right note! and a right note is never more than a semitone away, you just need to know which way to go. For example, if you played a b5 (of a chord/scale) you can resolve up to a 5 or you could resolve to a 4 - both within a semitone! The b5 - 5 would obviously be the more preferable but the 4th of a scale will fit nicely if u know where to go from there!

The very last thing i will say is that if your a theory person to think of every chord you see as a FULL scale but with four prefferable notes. Litterally EVERY song in the Real books or Fake books you will find has chords that can be treated as a complete scale on its own... experiment and listen, its all you can do.

Regards, Chris

*Before im finished even god'll be swingin'*

Comment by Chang

I think a good way to think of theory is like grammar. Grammar gives you a structure for understanding language-based communication.

How does a child learn a language? It is not by learning grammar!

A child learns by LISTENING carefully over and over to others who speak the language. Eventually the child learns to hear the words and each word begins to have a unique signature sound as well as a unique meaning. Then the child tries to mimic the words through his instrument (the vocal apparatus). It can take a while to get it right. (Ever hear a young child trying to say words with Rs?) Then the child learns to combine words in a way that more effectively allows him to communicate what he needs. (eg, "MY toy!")

All of this happens way before any grammar is learned!

If you think about it, if you imagine a CAT in your head and can't think of the word CAT, all the grammar in the world will not enable you to express the idea of a CAT! No knowledge of parts of speech, verb conjugations, or sentence construction will get you to the word CAT!

This is exactly the problem in musical education. The correct place to start is to hear lots and lots of INTERVALS and associate each one with a name. We must be able to tell each one of them apart because each one conveys a different musical idea. This is like learning elementary words like YES, NO, ME, DOG, HOUSE, MOMMY, FOOD, etc.

Then we must learn to hear the difference between unique interval combos (scales, licks, riffs, simple melodies, and simple harmonies). This is equivalent to learning idioms, phrases, and simple sentences (eg, "I AM HUNGRY!"). It is only at that point that theory becomes very useful in helping us arrange our musical 'vocabulary' in much the same way that grammar helps us organize the words we speak or write. If one doesn't have a basic vocabulary, then grammar is absolutely useless! Similarly if you can't hear the difference between the M6 and m7 intervals, or you can't pick out the notes which distinguish the minor from the major scale, then music theory will not be nearly as enriching as it could be.

Hope that helps!


Comment by Brad

I love that everyone is so big on ear training here. i agree with a lot of the stuff here and have a few additional thoughts on jazz theory-

I really believe that for performers, learning to recognize jazz theory by ear is equally important as knowing it in your head. It's good to know what the function of a IV and V chord are but being able to recognize them by ear is much more useful. Likewise, knowing what the available tensions are on a dominant7 chord is good because those are the tensions that SOUND good.

It can go either way, you can learn the sounds first and then learn to identify them or you can learn the theory and then learn to hear the theory.

As for scales, every note in a scale sounds a certain way and when you've learned to hear and play scales you will start to recognize the notes in your head... and in other people's playing like, "wow, they just played the major 7 note over that dorian minor chord"

Comment by Felix

Yeah I always had trouble in ear training. We had a sing/conduct and a count/clap sight singing thing that gave me trouble. Then we had a class where the teacher told you how many measures and the key, after that they would sing the example and you had to figure out the rhythm and pitches on the fly on three chances. I never had problems with the stuff you memorize like the number of measures and the key signatures, and clefs but I had fits with the rhythm and pitches.

Over time I have gotten better at it. But I hated failing at doing that. One thing is I found keyboard or piano players were notoriously weak ear players because pitches are predetermined by the tuner and not us. We never tune to someone else. They tune to us.

Believe it or not I could play church music by ear very well but that is because I knew Tonic Sub-Dominant and Dominant chord changes well. I knew Plagal Cadences, Authentic, Semi, and Deceptive Cadences well also. I did not know the tunes but it didn't matter I could always harmonize church music of the 70's and 80's. Church music has become far more complex now however.

I practice sight singing a lot now, transcribing on the fly and at near "real time". I work on voicing harmony and voice leading for choirs by ear. I am getting better at it but it took me decades to do this well.

Comment by dekipeki

Hello Rick, Here is a quick guide I have made for those wanting to practice some basic jazz theory, hope it helps some students: http://dekipekis.wordpress.com/2012/07/24/jazz-musician-magic-ultimate-quick-reference/

Thank you for a well written piece. It is helpful to understand why knowing jazz theory can help me as an improvising performer.

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