I'm a jazz musician, and as such, I tend to shy away from very dogmatic compositional rules. Over the last few weeks, however, I've been wondering if studying things like SATB voice leading or species counterpoint or what have you will prove to be beneficial to me. Sorry if this is a silly question, I'm just wondering if such skills can actually translate to a scope beyond classical composition.

I don't mean to degrade classical music either! I was classically trained as a child, and Liszt made me fall in love with music.

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    Welcome! Please check out this help page on how to get objective answers. Stack Exchange isn't really oriented for "please share your differing experiences" kinds of discussions; it's for clear-cut right/wrong answers. This question might have one, but it's kind of "Well yeah, exposure to any kind of music can always benefit another kind to some degree." Is it necessary? probably not. How much benefit? Maybe you'd like to edit to narrow the field a bit. Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 14:26
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    When you said "classical composition guidelines beneficial to a jazz composer", the first thing that came to mind for me was actually jazz and classical music's shared use of ternary form.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 14:46
  • "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist" -- Pablo Picasso; "Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively" -- Tenzin Gyatso
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 9:06
  • Ask Quincy Jones, who studied classical counterpoint and orchestration with Nadia Boulanger. Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 14:18

3 Answers 3


It's a widely-held misconception that there are any kind of "very dogmatic compositional rules" in any way in classical composition.

Maybe there once were... but I don't believe that, myself. In music theory classes, teachers enforce "rules" on student composition work (as in, "complete this four part harmony using the voice leading rules we discussed in class"). All you have to do is review a relatively small amount of actual compositions by actual composers to know that they never followed those rules. Those rules are only for theory class, not for composing. A cursory glance (or listen) at music composed from Beethoven through today will reinforce that understanding.

In fact, the tropes and genre markers of jazz are just as much "rules" of jazz composition as those of classical, pop, rock, Balinese gamelan, etc. Some things that might seem like jazz "rules" to an outsider are the common use of ii - V - I, always making it a ii7(b5) when the i is minor, playing in the Dorian mode instead of the Aeolian mode, when to use b9, #9, #11, etc. You just learn over time that doing all those little things makes music sound both more like jazz and also sound more pleasing to the ear.

Side note: I just finished a university courses in both jazz improv and theory for pop and jazz, and we had to adhere very assiduously to tons of rules in both those classes. I can't stress it enough: rules are classroom concepts, not music theory, genre, or compositional concepts.

So it is with the "rules" of SATB voice leading and counterpoint, etc. Being aware of them and using them to inform your composing will make your music sound more like the genre that the "rules" are from and usually make your music more pleasant, accessible, etc. It won't make your music sound daring or unusual, but one effective way to use the "rules" is to treat them as rules that you follow but then you choose moments to "break the rules", and those moments will stand out.

I'm just wondering if such skills can actually translate to a scope beyond classical composition

Trivially, the answer is yes. How do you think jazz came to be? Despite The Lydian Chromatic Concept, jazz music and theory was not developed in a vacuum from nothing. The ii - V - I cadence appears in many "classical" compositions of the late 19th century, to cite just one example.

Every area of musical knowledge can inform the art of composition. What will really feed into your composing voice and abilities is the study of music itself, not the music theory. However, a greater knowledge of music theory makes your study of music much more efficient.

Without knowing theory, you might read and listen to a Bach fugue and think "ok, there's some notes here.. and then similar notes starting while the first set of notes changes, and then it sounds like a third copy of the initial notes... and then... chaos?"

With an understanding of theory, you can use all kinds of shorthand: "Here's the subject... there's the answer - point of imitation is the fifth... it's a tonal answer..." etc. With knowledge of theory, you can quickly analyze, describe, and catalog what you're hearing and reading. It becomes your mental database and toolset for your own compositions. Maybe you think one day, "I'm going to write a jazz tune with two melodies that start kind of like a fugue, and the point of imitation will be a tritone". Just by having that thought, which didn't require any instrument or sheet music to write on, you have a skeleton for a new composition.

That's the power of music theory for composing.

Which music theories will help you compose? Any of them. All of them. Study taiko drumming, Cree (First Nations) songs, musique concrete, or punk rock. All of it will show you something distinct in music and you can work elements of into what you write.

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    With knowing theory, you might read and listen to Bach and think "ok, here's the subject, here's bla bla and then... chaos?? what the heck is going on, but... OMG, where did that Neapolitan come from, and how on Earth did he manage to make it sound completely natural to return to the home key here?" Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 12:33
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    Virtually every set of rules that purport to characterize the compositions of a specific area was actually invented after the masterpieces of that area were already written. Even Olivier Messiaen is on record saying that he didn't invent the techniques of his highly personal musical language, but discovered them in the pieces he had already written. Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 14:41
  • Do the masses (even when those masses are wearing suits or evening gowns an sitting in a theater) want to hear "daring or unusual"? I think that's just to impress critics and other musicians.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 2:34
  • Indeed, the point of rules in exams like that is to test that you understand what that bit of theory is. If you failed to follow it then you failed to learn what it meant.
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 9:03

Short answer: YES is it absolutely helpful. Here are a few examples.

  1. Learning strict four-part writing rules in SATB is enormously helpful. You will find that even though the chords are much more complex in jazz, the basic ideas (tendency tones resolving up or down on dominants is but one example) often come into play in jazz writing. Other things, such as avoiding parallel fifths, aren't really a feature of jazz.

  2. Studying counterpoint is also helpful. You won't write strict Fux-era counterpoint, obviously, but learning from how Bach puts together voices is useful. He tended to have one part move slowly and another move faster, and then switch the roles. This keeps both voices interesting and moving forward. This is exactly how you would do it if your trumpets are carrying a melody and your saxes play a countermelody. When the trumpets breathe, the saxes play something more interesting. When the trumpet part is rhythmically interesting, the saxes are less so.

The study of these fundamentals needn't be dogmatic; theory is supposed to be descriptive, not prescriptive. But you will certainly be a stronger writer if you are informed by theory from the common practice period.


Species counterpoint is not a composition method, it's a teaching method.

Having said that, how are voice leading and counterpoint not at play in jazz? It's normal to have smooth voice leading between chords in jazz. If you compare a jazz bass part with a solo line, you certainly will have independent lines, which is the essence of counterpoint.

Historically classical music is an ancestor to jazz, so it should be a surprise that elements of classical style can be found in jazz. When the jazz style shifts to modal or free jazz, that historical link is lessened or broken. But, that's no different than pointing out that composers like Stravinsky dispensed with or embraced aspects of classical style depending on what they wanted to do.

...I tend to shy away from very dogmatic compositional rules...

Voice leading and counterpoint are sort of two sides of the same coin. Beyond that you didn't list the rest of the classical dogma.

Is ii V I one of those dogmatic rules?

Is repeating an A section with alternate endings, contrasted with a B section another dogmatic rule?

Is starting and ending in the same tonality another?

The question becomes which style we are talking about - classical versus jazz - when we start listing out "dogma."

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