The emphasis on musicians composing and improvising their own music has been a central part of jazz culture since the music’s inception. When jazz musicians write their own music, it greatly contributes to their development as unique, distinctive, and innovative artistic personalities. Artists with particularly idiosyncratic musical styles are an important feature of jazz’s heritage and tradition. The highly individuated styles of many of jazz’s key performers are a vital aspect of what makes jazz music so special and unique.
Nowadays, we spend a lot of time learning how to improvise, but somehow composing seems to get less attention in the jazz world, especially in jazz education. For example, jazz arranging and orchestration are core areas of academic study in many collegiate jazz programs, but the teaching of how to compose original music in a jazz style seems to be somewhat less common. The lack of attention given to teaching concrete ideas on how to compose in a jazz style can be frustrating for those who want to try their hand at writing their own music but don’t know how to get started.
Part of the problem is perhaps the result of a tendency within jazz culture to try to mystify composition as “unteachable.” Conventional wisdom seems to indicate that composing is a very ephemeral, personal, creative, mysterious, and indescribable process that arises organically from deep within one’s being. As such, you either have it you don’t (“it” being the magical gift of compositional skill). This commonly held sentiment and its underlying attitudes toward composition are captured neatly in a quote someone once shared with me that they attributed to legendary jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond:
“Writing is like jazz: it can be learned, but it can’t be taught.”
I’m writing to argue against this myth. I believe jazz composition can be taught. It is a concrete skill set that can be learned through structured practice just like improvisation. Through the process of listening, imitation, analysis, theoretical study, and goal-oriented regular practice, you can develop compositional skills and start to develop your own personalized voice as a composer.
Here is a step-by-step list of practices and ideas you can start incorporating into your musical life right now to help you get started as a jazz composer.
1. Absorb jazz’s musical/sonic vocabulary through regular listening.
Listen to as many different iconic jazz recordings as you can, and especially try to locate recordings with widely varying styles and instrumentations. Listen with intent and focus – listen like a composer would to all aspects of what’s going on musically (more on this in #2 below). Try to set a concrete goal, such as listening to at least 3 new jazz albums every week, and keep a listening diary/notebook where you keep track of what you listen to, what your likes/dislikes were, what jumped out at you from the recording, what you learned from it, etc.
Also explore other styles of music in your listening routine, since this will help you stay inspired and discover fresh “outside of the box” musical ideas.
2. Brush up on your music theory.
Take advantage of all of LJS’s resources and use any other jazz education material available to you. Utilize jazz educators, fellow musicians, books, videos, and online resources you find helpful to educate yourself about harmony, chord/scale relationships, different types of chord voicings, rhythmic concepts, tonality, etc. The more understanding you have of how other people think about jazz theoretically, the more “tools” you’ll have at your disposal as a composer.
3. Start looking at scores/lead sheets of compositions you like and analyze them.
Put yourself in the composer’s shoes and try to figure out how they might have come up with the ideas they wrote down. Pay attention to all aspects of the composition/arrangement.
Ask focused questions, such as: What’s the intended instrumentation? Are the melodies generally modal, chromatic or something else entirely?
Is the harmony modal, tonal, chromatic, atonal, etc.? Is the harmony generally static, or does it change a lot? How many sections are in the composition? Do the various sections contrast or complement each other, and if so how (for example, consider key centers, types of melodies, activeness of the melody, dynamics, etc.)? What are the instruments’ roles when the piece is performed? Does the composition fit a standard format such as a blues, rhythm changes, etc.? Are there rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic themes/elements that recur or that are transformed to tie the piece of music together?
As you ask these and any other questions you can think of, keep a composition diary/notebook with a list of compositional devices you come across that you like or that struck you as particularly common, useful, etc.
4. Start composing a little bit every day (or at least once a week), and treat it like a musical exercise.
Incorporate composing into your practice routine the same way that you incorporate scales, technical studies, etudes, transcriptions, learning tunes, etc. Set a concrete goal for yourself, such as composing at least 8 bars a day, at least 5 days a week. Your mini “compositions” don’t need to be fully sussed out pieces of music. As a matter of fact, it’s probably best if they’re not. Just treat it like any other fun musical exercise.
Come up with 8 bars of a melody and write it down. Or try an 8-bar rhythmic idea, chord progression, bass line, set of melodies with counter-melodies, or any combination of these and any other musical elements you can think of. You can even just sketch out a vague 8-bar concept on occasion.
Treat this exercise with lightheartedness and an attitude of openness and self-exploration. It’s okay to write something down and immediately throw it away afterward. Not every 8-bar sketch will be or needs to be a groundbreaking masterpiece of inspired musical genius. The process is more important than any specific goal.
Just engage with the act of composing on a regular basis. You can share your exercises with friends, family, mentors, teachers, and fellow musicians to get constructively critical feedback, or not – it’s up to you. The point is to start “working out” the composition “muscle” in your brain.
5. Compose short, self-consciously imitative pieces with very specific guidelines.
For example, write a 32-bar tune using standard jazz chord changes in an AABA format in the style of Thelonious Monk. Check out Monk’s music for inspiration and ideas, then try to come up with your own melody and chord changes that fit with Monk’s compositional style.
This process forces you to confront the aspects of a composition that give it its unique flavor (see #2 above). It also will give you an impetus to start immersing yourself in jazz’s musical vocabulary through concentrated listening and study.
6. Dive in and start composing!
Build on what you’ve learned, draw on the musical vocabulary you’ve absorbed, and start writing your own music. It can be daunting to come up with an idea when you’re staring at a blank page of music manuscript paper (or a blank computer screen, if you use music notation software). It is helpful in these instances to give yourself specific assignments. Parameters or restrictions are especially useful.
For example, write a tune in ¾ time with 2 contrasting sections, or write a blues, or write a rhythm changes, or write a contrafact (a new melody over a pre-existing set of chord changes) based on a jazz standard you like. Give yourself a creative “box” to work within to help narrow down some of your musical choices so you don’t shut down in the face of all of the decisions you have to make.
There are so many considerations, it can be stressful to try to tackle them all from scratch: tempo, meter, harmony, melody, rhythmic feel, form, motivic development, etc. So give yourself some structured guidelines to help you get started.
For example, if you pick a blues, the length, form, rhythmic feel, and harmonic structure are all largely already determined for you, so that gives you fewer variables to worry about.
7. Share your work and get constructive critical feedback about your compositions from friends, family, mentors, teachers, and fellow musicians.
This is a great way to help you get ideas about what is and isn’t “working” or sounding “good.” But of course, take all feedback and advice you get with a grain of salt. Although composing requires a concrete skill set that can be taught, ideas about what makes a given composition compelling or not are very personal and subjective. Everyone has different tastes, so learn to take constructive criticism with grace, humility, and an open mind, but also trust your musical instincts and be confident in how you want your music to sound as you grow and develop as a composer.
I hope this is helpful and inspires you to take the plunge and start writing your own music today!