Of course there are many jazz musicians who learn standards because they want the standards to be their primary choice of repertoire. Great! Jazz standards are “standards” because they are great tunes! Jazz standards are worthy tunes that musicians like to play and audiences like to hear.
But are standards only useful for jazz musicians, or can they benefit musicians of other styles? Why are standards so important? Who should learn them? Can other musicians who play other styles of music develop their musicianship by learning some jazz standards? How about jazz musicians who want to compose originals? Why should they care about learning standards?
I’m a jazz musician, but I am also a music educator. Sometimes I have students who come to me who have little interest in jazz but who know that I can help them become a better musician. I highly encourage those who play rock, folk, classical, country, metal, blues, and even singer songwriters, to study jazz standards because it can only improve their awareness of music within their own genre. They don’t have to give up their genre; they can use jazz to help them excel in their primary style! Similarly, jazz musicians who primarily compose original music should spend plenty of time learning standards to make their own compositions richer and more interesting.
When I was coming up as a jazz musician, I was told that it’s vital to learn 2,000-5,000 standards. The jazz artist who encouraged me to do this is a great player and had his heart in the right place, but I don’t really think that advice is correct for everybody. I don’t think that every person who studies jazz needs to learn hundreds or thousands of standards because we all have different musical dreams and goals. And that’s healthy! Not everyone has to know 5,000 standards by heart to be a good musician.
What I can tell you is that I’m so happy that I spent years digesting hundreds of standards because these tunes taught me so much about music! People have many different reasons for learning jazz and for learning standards, but I believe learning some jazz standards is a great thing for musicians regardless of their path, even if they aren’t primarily a jazz musician. There are other benefits to playing standards even beyond the joy of playing these great tunes.
Here are 4 reasons why learning jazz standards is great for musicians in any genre:
1) Jazz Standards teach you how to improvise better.
Jazz tunes generally have a predictable musical form that doesn’t change from chorus to chorus because the form is intended to be a stable vehicle for improvisation. The form repeats itself in a predictable way and doesn’t generally change much from chorus to chorus.
2) Jazz Standards help you learn to compose better.
You will be learning from some of the greatest composers of the 20th Century! There has been a movement in jazz over the past ten or fifteen years toward playing more originals. Great! Original tunes can be fresh and engaging to audiences. However, learning dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of standards expands your toolbox for when you write your own tunes. If you can navigate jazz standards, then writing your own music becomes easier. All of the knowledge you learn playing standards adds more tools to your toolbox. You can draw upon these tools when you compose.
3) Jazz Standards teach an extended palette of chords.
Standards elevate your knowledge of harmony. You have to deal with 7th, 9th, and 13th chords, as well as alterations of these extensions. These harmonies make 3 note chords seem very simple! The knowledge of chords required in jazz will help you when you go to play any other style of music.
4) Jazz Standards elevate your knowledge of melody.
Again, when you learn standards you are learning songs written by some of the greatest composers in history! Their melodies are logical, lyrical, and they simply sound good! Those who pay attention will get lots of new ideas on how a melody should be constructed.
There is a lot to be gleaned from playing the incredible body of musical repertoire we call “Jazz standards”. These are simply great tunes. Learning to navigate jazz standards is a real education for musicians. These are great tunes that live on, and all musicians can benefit from their study, even musicians who don’t consider themselves “jazz musicians.”
Studying jazz standards makes musicians stronger and better equipped to approach all other musical pursuits. Make a goal of learning jazz standards a high priority for your own musical development, regardless of whether jazz is your primary genre! Learning standards is one of the best things you can do for your musicianship. Standards are great tunes, and effectively navigating the standards is one of the most fun, gratifying experiences a musician can have.