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LJS 152: Music Theory Checklist for Understanding Jazz Improvisation

Welcome to episode 152 of the LJS Podcast where today we are covering my music theory checklist for understanding jazz improvisation. If you are wondering what step-by-step building blocks you need in place for understanding jazz harmony and improv, this is a solid list. Take notes on which ones you need to work on. Listen in!

Listen to episode 152

As a music educator and content creator, I spend a lot of my time trying to get into my student’s heads. I want to know their struggles, what they’re thinking, and what barriers they are hitting so I can help them better.

Years ago I noticed that there will some students in my jazz practicing course that were getting left behind. There were some fundamentals that were missing.

So I started thinking, “If I were starting from scratch, what things would I need to understand about jazz improvisation?”

That ultimately lead to me writing my eBook and companion course Zero to Improv, which is a music theory-based approach to understanding jazz improvisation from the ground up.

Today’s episode is a deep dive into my music theory checklist. These are things I discuss in my book, and I want you to take a look at this list to see where you fit in.

Here’s what I talk about in today’s episode:

1. Scales- 3 elements of knowing and putting them to use.

2. Chords- The basic qualities, extensions, and alterations.

3. Scales and their relationships to chords- understanding how they connect.

4. Chord progressions- how to build them in major and minor keys, and which ones are important in jazz music.

5. Jazz standards- which ones to know and important song forms in jazz.

6. Conceptualizing jazz language- music theory approaches to understand what you are hearing.

I want you to think critically about this list. Which areas do you need to work on? Are there any topics or concepts that you have no clue about?

That’s okay. What’s important is that you take action. Learning how to play jazz, in my opinion, is a combination of aural learning and filling in the gaps with the theoretical. Make sure you understand the basics of jazz theory, and that element will surely set you up for success.

Important Links

Zero to Improv eBook and Companion Course

LJS 114: Minor Tonality and How to Build Minor Chord Progressions (feat. Dan Carillo)

LJS 96: Important Jazz Chord Substitutions You Need to Know

LJS 115: How to Balance Music Theory and Playing by Ear

LJS 150: Using Enclosure to Create Bebop Lines Over a Jazz Blues

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. talking modes and inversions, what modes would you recommend to learn first? am asking because if i go through chord inversions in ionian mode, i get phrygian, mixolydian and locrian? now all of them are useful, but then when i take ii V I or ii V i, it'd maybe be better to replace phrygian with dorian for the i's? am i thinking too much? :))

    • Hi Jiri! Knowing all of the modes is ideal, but if we are thinking about a ii-V-I, realize all of the notes are still coming from the major scale. The ii chord would be Dorian, V chord Mixolydian, and the I chord Ionian. The only difference is which note you start on in the scale. Just be careful how you use scales to improvise. Focus on chord tones, and focus on learning and composing musical ideas over that chord progression.

      • thanks for your reply, Brent 🙂 could you go through the typical modal chords that highlight the sound of a mode the best in your podcast please? something really focused on modes 🙂 thanks for your great work! cheers, jp

  2. When talking to students, you probably want to slow down a little.
    I think it would help you communicate more effectively.


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