Making the shift from classical music to jazz


In this article, I am giving my perspective as a musician who made the transition from classical music to jazz, and I aim to demonstrate how a background in classical music can help you get better at jazz improvisation.

Show of hands, who amongst you has started to learn your instrument with classical music first, before dabbling in jazz?

[raise my hand]

I started playing the piano around age 10, and I was fortunate enough to be instructed by an exceptionally talented teacher. She taught me the the ins and outs of sheet music notation, cultivated my sense of rhythm and exposed me to a wide variety of classical music.

Building on a solid foundation, I later decided to take up a new challenge. I started exploring jazz through old-school ragtime pieces and once I got hooked, I sought out a teacher who would be able to teach me the fundamentals of jazz theory and improvisation.

It has been give or take a decade since I went down this rabbit hole.

Am I a jazz master now?

Not even close. But I think I can safely call myself a hobbyist jazz pianist.

I am sure many of you find yourself in the same shoes. You have some form of classical musical education, and now you are a jazz musician, or you find yourself on the way of becoming one.

I am wondering: How are you holding up?

As far as I can tell, it was one hell of a transition for me.

Today, I would like to reflect on this journey, and I will outline some key lessons that may be helpful to you as you are going through the same transformation.

How is being a classical pianist different from being a jazz pianist in practice? What have I learned in the process? And how can I use my classical background to my advantage?

To set out, let’s begin by defining what I mean by the terms “classical music” and “jazz”.

What’s the difference between classical music and jazz?

If you look up “classical music” or “jazz” in an encyclopedia or dictionary, you may find that both terms are rather vaguely defined, and there seems to be some debate over what “sort” of music should be included in or excluded from either category.

Merriam-Webster defines classical music like so:

Music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries characterized by an emphasis on balance, clarity, and moderation; music in the educated European tradition that includes such forms as art song, chamber music, opera, and symphony as distinguished from folk or popular music or jazz

And jazz is defined like so:

American music developed especially from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre

I am not quite happy with either of the definitions.

If you look at the definition of classical music, The works of J.S. Bach (early 18th century) or Debussy (late 19th century) would not be included in classical music, even though you may very well hear them on your local classical music radio channel.

And what about operas and symphonies written by contemporary composers that fit with the “classical” style?

Similarly, jazz is no longer just American music, as it is actively developed in all corners of the world, and some of the greatest examples stem from places such as South Africa or Japan.

Also, syncopated rhythms and polyphonic ensemble playing are completely optional in jazz, to say the least.

As you can see, more often than not music simply refuses to be forced into theoretical categories.

To get around this, I will use a more practical approach to distinguish “classical” music from “jazz”. And on my journey to becoming a jazz pianist I found this to be a quite natural way to categorize music.

Let me explain.

Sheet music vs. lead sheet notation

In my training as a classical piano player I worked through countless pages of sheet music ranging from Bach fugues to Beethoven sonatas.

The easy part about classical music is that your instructions are all there, in black and white. Everything that is needed to make a piece of music come alive is laid out note by note, measure by measure, accent by accent.

The hard part is that I often spent weeks or even months on end practicing a single piece. And while the end result may be spectacular, I found every bit of it painstaking and nerve-wrecking.

I discovered that jazz works exactly the opposite way (or, for that matter, many other modern styles of music).

The refreshing part is that you no longer work towards a static goal, i.e. mastering a single piece, but you work on developing the skillset that allows you to play any tune in any way you like.

The hard part is that you give up the security that comes with having clear-cut instructions in front of you about what exactly to play and how exactly to play it.

Gone were the days of sheet music, where each and every note to be played was written out in a precise and unambiguous sequence.

Instead, I was confronted with a very different system to encode music, called “lead sheets”.

Even the visual difference is striking. Take a look:

image[score_vs_lead, comparison of classical sheet music vs. jazz lead sheet notation]

To my initial dismay, all you have in a lead sheet are relatively sparse chord symbols that outline the bare skeleton of a piece of music. And only if you are lucky, a melody line is written out in notes.

This made little sense to me at first.

What am I supposed to do with this? What is the point of writing down music in such a hopelessly vague and ambiguous manner? What is the point of a sheet that makes it all but impossible to reproduce the music in the precise way the composer intended?

I eventually learned that this attitude, perhaps born of my training as a classical musician, was completely misguided.

Being “vague and ambiguous” is not a weakness of lead sheet notation but it is its greatest asset!

For the first time in my life as a musician, I was no longer a mindless puppet mechanically executing the rigid will of the composer. I was free to express my own creativity within the gentle boundaries of the lead sheet.

So there you have my working definition of classical music vs. jazz:

Classical music is written down exactly as you are supposed to play it, whereas Jazz follows some form of lead sheet notation and you may play over the changes whatever you like.

I know, I know. I am absolutely oversimplifying things, and I realize that some people may take offense by my shameless bundling of dozens of distinct genres of music.

Phrased my way, classical music now includes things like film music scores. Think of Howard Shore’s score to Lord of the Rings, or John Williams’ theme to Star Wars.

And naturally, jazz will now include any form of music that uses lead sheet notation, ranging from blues, gospel, and rock to country, folk and pop.

I am fully aware that at this point any respectable professor of musicology would have torn my thesis to shreds.

Be it as it may, experts will always squabble over definitions, but at the end of the day, the music doesn’t care.

Let’s see why.

Anything can be jazz

In my transition to a jazz piano player I fell victim to another misconception.

Given the fundamental difference between anything “classical” and anything “jazz”. I thought I had to start over from scratch. I thought I had wasted all the years studying classical music. Surely none of that stuff would be useful in jazz?

I couldn’t have been more wrong!

If you followed a similar trajectory like me, getting into jazz improvisation after playing classical music for years, think about all the beautiful pieces of music you came across.

Think about all the neat little melodies, themes, patterns and phrases you have heard and ask yourself: Does all of this belong into the the dustbin of history?

It took me a while to realize this, but it turns out I can use this stuff. All of it!

The endless volumes of music written over the centuries are an infinite source of solo material.

Who is to stop me from taking snippets of classical music, make them my own and turn them into jazz?

Let me demonstrate a few examples, where I “borrowed” themes from some of my favorite classical pieces and turned them into jazz.

J.S. Bach's Minuet in G major


The neat downward scales lose nothing of their charm when used in a bebop phrase:


W.A. Mozart's Piano Sonata No 16 in C major – Andante


The Andante is in 3/4, but the melody can be adapted to 4/4 for a swing lick:


Beethoven's Piano Sonata No 17 in D minor "The Tempest"


Here, I take the main theme of the tempest and soften it up a bit to use it in a ballad:


Do you see how this works?

The process of taking a snippet of classical music and turning it into jazz requires some training. It is not always straightforward and easy, and more likely than not you will spend some time tinkering until you have a phrase that you are happy with.

But this is a skill that can be developed, and I encourage you to try it out. Go to your attic and dig up your long-forgotten sheet music. You will be surprised what gems you find in there to use here and now in your own jazz solos!

This is a powerful way to add true and tested snippets of music to your musical vocabulary, and it may just become your greatest asset as a classically trained musician!

Go ahead and give it a shot. To start with, why don't you take the three classical snippets above and try to come up with your own jazz variations?

And don't forget, whenever you invent a neat lick this way, make sure to upload it here on the LickStack so that others may use it too.

What better way to honor the classical composers of old than to take their musical ideas and keep them alive in our jazz solos?


Variation of lick 241


Variation of lick 243


Main theme of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No 17 in D minor "The Tempest"


Variation of lick 245

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