4 Tips For Switching From Classical To Jazz

classical music picIn todays lesson we’re going to focus on 4 tips that will help you make the transition from playing classical music to playing jazz.

I recently received a question from a new reader asking me how to make this switch more easily.

I think this is a great question because most instrumentalists initially start with some sort of classical based training.  They don’t know how to take their already existing knowledge and apply it to a new style of music.

There are definitely some differences in the way you approach learning them. So, lets get started discussing some of the differences now!

1. Jazz Is An Oral Tradition Based Music

A lot of the stylistic elements of jazz can’t be accurately written out. Whereas in classical music almost everything is written out for us.

This one fact can make a lot of classical musicians nervous. Don’t worry though we can still learn jazz but we just need to learn in a slightly different way.

To learn jazz properly you can use written lead sheet/chord chart as a starting point but ultimately we learn the style by doing a lot of listening to great jazz and figuring out what we’re hearing. We then apply these “discoveries” to the way we play.

Deep listening is so important!  If we can truly hear than we can truly play.

(related lesson: How to learn from recording yourself)

How Do You Learn To Hear?

Transcribing music is one of the best ways to train your musical ear. You don’t have to notate everything but you should be able to at least play along with the recording.

Try transcribing some of the concepts you hear on recordings. Start simply and just figure out 4 bars of something that appeals to you.

In a perfect world it will be on a jazz tune or a chord progression you are already familiar with.

Figuring out and matching the pitches and rhythms of what you hear will do wonders for your musicianship.

First Jazz Transcription

A great first solo to transcribe would be Miles Davis’ solo on the tune “So What”.  If you need some tips transcribing your first solo you can read this first jazz transcription article.

Just as reminder you’re not just listening for pitches.  We’ve all heard the famous statement, “It don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.” Pitches are only a small part of the story. 🙂

Jazz is a rhythmic based music played with grooves. So, actual rhythms, rhythmic placement within a beat, and articulation of the notes take on an increased role.

Rhythm and articulation are HUGE components in jazz music. Never forget that. It’s not just the pitches it’s how you play them.

If you need more help with rhythm you can check out this lesson where I teach you how to make your jazz tunes swing more.

2. Jazz Theory Concepts

Most of the time when we play jazz we will be improvising on a tune and essentially building our own arrangements.  To do that well we need to have a deep understanding of how harmony works as a whole.  For that reason knowledge of jazz theory is vital.

Spend time familiarizing yourself with some jazz theory concepts. Study some common jazz chord progressions. Familiarize yourself with the chord voicings that jazz piano players would play over those chords.

There are lots of lessons already on this site featuring this material. For example, you can check out lesson on spread voicings, rootless chords, shell voicings, Bill Evans chords and lots more.

Knowing some theory and chords could help you play classical music as well but nowhere near as much as in jazz. In jazz we are responsible for choosing many of the notes we’d play in a piece whereas in classical all the notes are chosen for us already by the composer.

If you’d like to really sharpen your jazz theory fundamentals I created a program that takes you step by step through everything you need to know.

beginner jazz pianoEssentially, it’s how to go from zero to playing chords and songs you love in 30-60 days. You can check out that program right right here Zero To Jazz Piano Hero.

3. Acquire The Jazz Vocabulary

When you learn jazz it’s similar to learning any new language. In order to speak the “language”, i.e…. playing authentically on jazz tunes…you need to know what “words and sentences” to say.

Studying jazz licks and common jazz patterns are the equivalent of studying words and sentences in our new language.

The most popular chord progression in jazz is the II-V-I (2-5-1). I would recommend you learn and really study as many II-V-I licks as you can.

They are the life source for jazz vocabulary and the licks can be applied almost everywhere.

It would be even better if you analyzed how the licks are built so you could come up with your own variations on the licks. This is a great way to begin developing your own language within the context of the jazz tradition.

To get you started learning licks you can check out this Bill Evans lick lesson, this Charlie Parker lick lesson or this turnaround lick lesson

If you prefer to learn jazz improv in more of a course format there is also my Jazz Masters Method DVD.

4. It’s All About The Jazz Song

Doing musical exercises obviously serve their purpose.  We must never forget though that exercises are really only a means to an end.

The real point of doing any exercise is to improve our playing of real music i.e….. jazz tunes, jazz standards, jazz songs, and jazz repertoire!

You can know all the jazz chords in the world, all the coolest voicings, and all the coolest licks etc. but if you haven’t spent time applying them to jazz repertoire you’re missing the point of the music.

It would be similar to you learning all kinds of interesting vocabulary words in a new language but never being able to throw them together in the context of a real conversation.

The vehicles for our conversation in jazz is the standard jazz repertoire. So, everything we talked about above needs to be applied to jazz tunes!

What Jazz Tunes Should You Learn?

There are hundreds if not thousands of tunes in the standards in the jazz repertoire. (Many of which I teach you inside the Premium Jazz Membership Program.)

Fortunately, though you can just start with learning a few tunes and use those as a springboard to learning other tunes.

You see alot of the same chord changes and harmonic motion happening in many of the famous jazz standards.

You can start learning great tunes like All The Things You Are, Misty, Autumn Leaves, Satin Doll, Girl From Ipanema, Fly Me To The Moon, Summertime, Cherokee etc.  Every time you really learn a jazz song the next one you learn will be easier.  

Need some help finding the right jazz songs to play?  Definitely check out this article on finding the right jazz fake books and sheet music.

I would also recommend reading this article for beginning jazz tune suggestions.


Do you have any additional tips for ways to transition from classical to jazz?  Please leave a comment below.  We would love to hear them!

If you are new here be sure to also subscribe to the free jazz lessons in your inbox email list.  You can sign up on the right side of the site.

  • Ilya

    Excellent article!  Just useful information.
    Let me get started discussing)).

    First, we should do not afraid start over (after all, we start learn a new language from the beginning)). All that we know and are able to will help us and we will make progress more quickly than others.

    And secondly, let’s not ignore the possibilities of modern technologies and put them on the our service! Programs to manage the pace, key, style should be used!


    (Excuse my English. Thanks to Google translator!)

    • @Ilya. Thanks for the kind words. I am also a big fan of using modern technology to practice. You make an excellent suggestion!

  • carlos

    very good excellent information. I would like to how to play the only girl from ipanema which scales to use. Thank you

  • Thank you for this web Steve. 
    It is amazing and has a lot of useful information.
    I’ll start with “All of me” as my first jazz tune.

  • Thanks for these, Steve. I’ve been wanting to learn jazz piano for some time. I’ve been studying classical and play ragtime and Christian contemporary, but would love to learn to play jazz. This is an awesome resource. I’m looking forward to going through your step-by-step suggestions here. Any more suggestions for musicians experienced in other kinds of music but just starting are more than welcome.

  • J

    Being a classically trained pianist myself, boy do I have some tips on transitioning from classical to jazz that I wish somebody would have told me when I first started playing jazz!
    1. Learning jazz is just like learning a new instrument all over again or a new language. I thought because I already knew how to play the piano, jazz would be an easy transition. Man, was I ever wrong! Having a good technique can only take you so far. Knowing your basic rootless 9th and 13 chords is absolutely essential to start. Most important is how the chords SOUND and how they FEEL in your hands. Then, knowing your basic voicings, jazz theory, rootless left hand voicings and scales you can use to improvise is key, but my point is learning jazz WILL TAKE TIME, SO BE PATIENT WITH YOURSELF. Think of learning jazz as learning a foreign language or basic Ab major scale and how long that took you to play well and fast without thinking about it. Catch my drift?
    2. You can’t learn jazz in a “classical” way. What I mean is, sure you can learn an Oscar Peterson transcription note for note, but jazz is largely improvised music. While transcriptions give you a very good sort of “guide” and a wonderful source for ideas, you can’t always be playing the same exact thing every time you play a tune. I’ve tried this in the past and learned the hard way that playing a transcription in real time in front of people will often backfire on you and will sound contrived and not “real” and will often fall apart, and leave you feeling empty! Most of the time if you are playing straight from a transcription you will be thinking about the tune from muscle memory rather than harmonically/really knowing the tune. One little slip and you WILL be thrown off! The point is, learning a transcription is only half the game, trying to apply what you’ve learned from the transcription in your overall playing is the other piece to the puzzle.
    3. Even though jazz is largely improvised, you aren’t just playing “whatever you fee like.” You actually are improvising in a specific way. Again, jazz is a language and you must learn to speak it effectively to pull it off well. LISTEN to how the great players solo over chord changes,
    4. Classical players often stumble through a piece trying to get every note right in the initial learning process of a piece. In classical music, we learn the notes enough that we don’t have to think about them after a while and know when specific notes/chords/runs/arpeggios come up and how they feel in our memory, its very planned out. Unfortunately, this is horrible training for jazz, because when playing a jazz tune, the MUSIC AND CHORD CHANGES DON’T STOP TO GIVE YOU TIME TO CORRECT MISTAKES, its constantly moving. This has been the biggest stumbling block for me personally. My advice would be to play along with recordings of tunes, play-a-longs, and with a real band as much as possible. Remember, the music is constantly moving and we have to adapt to the chord changes ON THE SPOT in real time, there aren’t any second chances.
    4. ALWAYS try to play in time and with a rhythmic, swinging groove. Metronomes are your friend. Remember, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”!

    5. LISTEN and TRANSCRIBE to as many tunes and solos as you can, listen to as many versions of a tune as you can, and analyze whats going on in the solo of a tune and what techniques the specific player is using. Listening will help you learn new tunes, help you be able to transpose to different keys, and generally help you be able to play on the spot, maybe with musicians or a tune you have never played with before. Transcribing will help you learn the jazz language faster than anything else and will give you insights and ideas to what works and what doesn’t!
    6. Find a good jazz teacher, this is obviously very important!
    7. Avoid playing anything in a mechanical, repetitive, patterned, “classical” way. Always be thinking about how improvising over a tune or chord changes is an exercise in composition rather than “playing through a piece”.

    8. Last but not least, PLAY EVERYTHING IN ALL 12 KEYS. This will do wonders for your improvisational skills, ear training, and overall musicianship. It may be hard at first, but soon you will find that everything will start to flow, its easier than you think. Trust your ears!

    I hope these tips helped, and best of luck!

  • Candace

    I’m struggling to learn to play jazz piano after a lifetime of classical training, and one question keeps bugging me. Maybe someone here can help. See, I know what it means to “know” a classical piece – you can play it all the way through, at least some of the time, without screwing up. My vision isn’t the greatest, so I always tried to memorize everything too. But what does it mean to “know” a jazz tune if you don’t play it the same way each time? How do you know if you “know” the song? How much do you have to know about it? And what does memorization have to do with it all?

    • J

      Candace, great question, I was wondering the same thing when I first started out (I was classically trained through college fwiw.) “Knowing” a jazz tune is much more than just memorizing the written notes, even if its only one page (like most jazz standards). “Knowing” a tune in the jazz way means knowing and having an unconscious understanding of the form, the basic written chords/harmony, and the written melody and how they all relate, although thats just scratching the surface.

      From there, especially for pianists, you must know the bass/root movement (i.e., bassline), how to comp with rootless chords, how to solo over the chord changes with rootless chords, basslines and using shell voicings in the left hand, and how to ALTER the chords and chord changes when you play using altered dominants, tri-tone substitutions, etc. That means you have to know the basic chords on the lead sheet, various ways of playing those chords (rootless, quartal harmony, block chords, etc) and then knowing how to ALTER and SUBSTITUTE those chords. and THEN combining all the techniques described above creatively.

      Basically, think of a one-page jazz tune like learning a 10 page classical piece. I only play 1 or 2 tunes at a time until I am completely comfortable with them IN A FEW DIFFERENT KEYS as well! So, say it takes you 4-5 months of daily practice to learn a classical piece inside and out. It should take the same amount of time with any jazz tune you are working on!

      You’ll “know” the tune once you have an unconscious and effortless mastery of the form, what chord is coming next, and how to solo over it and solo over common progressions like the 2-5-1 (ii-V-I). You must spend a LOT of time learning how to solo over changes like the 2-5-1. and a lot of time LISTENING to different versions of the tune. Memorization comes into play with knowing the chord changes and melody of the tune by heart. You must spend a lot of time playing the basic changes before you can alter the changes.

      I hope all of this has helped, if you would like to know more please email me at jhighland99 at yahoo dot com as I could go on forever about this.

    • JoBlow

      Candace, “Knowing” a jazz song means the following: 1. Knowing the chord progressions cold. 2. Knowing which scales to use over a chord or series of chords i.e. II V I and instantly recognizing that pattern in the score and 3. Becoming comfortable with the process of improvising or instantly creating new melodies that fit over those chord progressions. 4. Being able to do all of the above in a relaxed manner. Hope that helps!

    • Mila Gold

      I’m classically trained as well.Know the melody by memorising it. Work out the chord progression which is normally at 2 51. That’s the skeleton of the piece. Then embellish the song by adding runs,colour tones etc

      • Hi​,

        Glad to hear you all trying to work out transitioning from classical to jazz! For a more details on how to successfully transition to jazz piano, check out our Premium Membership course at *www.freejazzlessons.com/premium .* Thanks.

  • This article has been a big help to me. I am a classical guitarist interested in developing my jazz skills. I feel like I have been groping in the darkness since I started. Do you have any suggestions of supplemental material that may be helpful to me as a guitarist trying to make the classical to jazz transition?

  • rashidi pembe

    Im a saxaphone player, I know all scales and I played more than 25 yrs now in Tanzania , East Africa, but my problem is to improvise in jazz for following chords.please help me which chord snd what scale yo improvice? And like Aminor 7 flat 5 chord which notes I will use for improvice. I have grade 5 certificste of music.

  • Doug

    You have provided 4 good tips for those switching from classical to jazz. From my experience, I would add another tip, i.e. those classically trained will find that some jazz theory contradicts what they have already learned. This, of course, results in some confusion. Here are 4 examples:
    1. In jazz theory a C6 chord (which is viewed as an alternative tonic chord in C Major) is viewed as an Am7 chord in first inversion by those classically trained (which may be used as a substitute chord for I)
    2. A ‘rootless’ chord, where the jazz theorist points out that the chord’s root is played by the bass or keyboard player, is not viewed as rootless in classical training.
    3. To someone classically trained, a chord like F11 in root position may be shown in jazz as a slash chord, i.e.: Cm7/F.
    4. Whereas those classically trained often use both upper and lower case Roman numerals (to distinguish between major and minor chords), jazz theorists often use upper case only.