When it comes to learning jazz standards, solos and licks, there isn’t a wrong or right way. But there is the easy way and the better way.
The easy way is just to buy some sheet music, read the melody and chords off the page, memorize (or sometimes not) and call it good. That’s certainly the instant gratification way, but I guarantee you that’s not the best way to learn jazz language or any piece of music.
Remember that jazz is a language. One of the most important parts of learning a language is mimicking. You hear something and copy it. If you ask almost anybody who is bi-lingual, they will tell you they became fluent by immersing themselves with native speakers and being forced to listen, decipher and respond.
Jazz is not music that is meant to be learned from sheet music. It never was. Back in the bebop days in the 1940’s, jazz musicians would pile into clubs and listen to each other play. They would literally pick things up on the bandstand, in rehearsals, and by just listening to records.
That doesn’t mean they couldn’t read music, or never read music, but learning music by ear was always the primary method. That’s something I want you to understand. Jazz is first and foremost an aurally learned music. So if you want to become a great jazz improviser, you need to follow in the footsteps of the great jazz musicians before you.
Learning music by ear is not always the easy way, and if you aren’t used to it, you may find it quite difficult at first. But it’s the best way hands down, and the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Don’t misunderstand me either. Sheet music is not bad. Can sheet music play a role in your jazz education? Of course, it can. In fact, reading is an important part of learning a language. It can be a great tool to conceptualize and analyze jazz language. It can also be a great resource for checking the work your ear has done. If you’ve gone through the process of learning a jazz standard by ear, you may want to check a chord or two you are unsure about or a piece of the melody that seems ambiguous. In addition, if you’re in a bind and don’t know a tune at a gig, there’s no harm and checking out a chord chart on the fly (although this shouldn’t be abused).
The idea is not to throw away sheet music but to know its place. If you truly want to become great jazz improviser, you are going to need to get your face out of the pages and instead open your ears.
But if you’re anything like me, you don’t take action on something unless you know why you are doing it (especially if it requires more work). So why should you learn jazz by ear and not sheet music? Let’s go over some reasons:
1. You will internalize it better.
As I’ve already hinted at, learning music by ear tends to be harder for most than reading it. If you’re a competent reader, it’s almost as if the answers are given to you. You don’t have to think as critically. When we use our ears to learn music, we are forced to translate what we hear to our instrument.
Along with the struggle of learning jazz from recordings comes repetition. You have to listen to small fragments of music at a time and figure it out on you instrument. This naturally results in many repetitions. In short, the harder you work for it, the more likely you are to remember it.
2. Jazz calls for reaction.
Jazz music is based on improvisation. Improvising is one of the core components that makes jazz, jazz. Improvisation is all about reacting and responding to one’s environment. Most of the time you can’t be sure exactly what to expect, but the fundamental idea of improvisation is that you will react to what is happening on a whim.
This is where sharpening your ear comes in. Let’s say you are playing a jazz standard and a ii-V-I chord progression is coming up in the form (in the key of C: Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7). But suddenly you hear the piano player approach it chromatically (Ebmin7-Ab7-Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7). What do you do? Do you quickly flip through a recipe book of licks and choose one that fits the scenario? Of course not! There’s no time for that, nor is it in the true spirit of improvisation.
Jazz is not predictable. Sheet music is. When we learn jazz language by ear, we are training ourselves to respond to the music with our ear.
3. It helps you become an interpreter.
Jazz is not a calculated kind of music. The spirit of improvisation is movement and change. If there are too many rules and limitations attached to the music, the magic begins to wane.
In jazz, everyone has a unique voice. We may be trying to say similar things, but ultimately it come out a little bit different. I may play the melody to a song one way, and you may phrase it a little differently. The message is still the same, but we both have a unique way of saying it.
I rarely use a piece of sheet music to learn the melody of a jazz standard. The only time I ever take a peek is when I can’t find recordings that play the melody “straight”, which with some research, is not hard to do. And while that can be helpful sometimes, if you learn a melody from sheet music you miss the point.
Jazz is about expression. Jazz is about interpretation. When we learn jazz language by ear, we are in sync with the spirit of the music. We are training our ears to respond, and we are internalizing the music so it stays with us. The sheet music is not bad, but it can tempt us to use it as a crutch, not as a tool.
The next time you feel lazy, and tempted to reach for some sheet music, stop. Consider the potential of learning the music by ear.