Let me preface the question with a bit of background because I'm not even sure if I classify as "beginner" or "intermediate" or anything like that.

I took your run of the mill piano lessons for 8 years. Started at 3 Blind Mice and ended with attempting to learn the full Rhapsody in Blue before junior year of high school happened and I dropped lessons because of time.

Now it's four years later, and while I've been playing all the time, learning songs here and there, and writing a few short songs of my own. I really got into Jazz last year, mostly listen to Herbie Hancock and Ramsey Lewis, and I figured learning a few of their sons wouldn't be too hard. This was my entrance into learning how much different Jazz is than regular piano. I "learned" Canteloupe Island and The In Crowd, but soon I realized all I knew how to do was play the main chords and the basic structure of the song. I wanted to be able to do the fancy solos that were in the recordings, and soon I was on a google hunt trying to learn improv.

I learned the blues scale, and I immediately thought I was the best soloist around. It sounded good and I figured it could be applied to every song all the time. And that's about where I am now. I can play several Hancock songs, I know one or two standards, but I want more and seem to have hit a place where everything seems to be hard to understand and most videos assume you have knowledge of all the things like every scale and every chord.

I'm a huge fan of fast Jazz, like the big band type stuff. I also like the piano bar style of it, and was very impressed when I watched a jazz pianist going to town one night at a club.

So here's the question: where do I go next? Learning songs doesn't seem to really help me. I know you can't exactly "learn Jazz" but I'm doing something wrong here. I'll sit down, play the songs I know, try and make up a few solos over them, play with some chords, get nowhere, and then burn out because I'm no longer having fun. It's not that healthy to my enjoyment of playing.

I'd love to know the best route to take for someone who doesn't have two hours a day to sit down and practice scales and chords over and over again.


7 Answers 7


You mentioned "videos assume you have knowledge of ... every scale and every chord" - well, the best way to attempt to tackle a lot of Jazz is to understand the theory very well.

Jazz improvisation may look spur of the moment, but it is all based on a strong understanding of what notes, scales, modes and chords will work at any point. Without that you will remain stuck in the same rut.

Learning the theory doesn't however, have to mean practicing scales over and over again. It means understanding the components of the various scales and how they can be used.

We have a lot of questions here on specific parts of theory, on modes and scales, on improvisation, and loads tagged with jazz. Additionally, there are countless videos online displaying all of these.

  • Very helpful answer. I think the problem for me is not finding the information and videos but being able to actually use it in practice. Sure, you can learn every scale of every key, and you can learn a few dozen jazz variations of chords, but again how do you apply that knowledge? My biggest issue here is probably the lack of a teacher or path. I don't have a defined "curriculum" to stick to, and no real way to apply all the chords and scales that I learn. That's more of what I was looking for in this question. How can I learn a jazz song the right way, ie without sheet music.
    – Patrick
    Mar 24, 2016 at 17:46
  • 2
    Actually - the one common thread you will see across Music.SE is Find yourself a good teacher - this works when you are a beginner, but also whenever you are stuck or need a new direction.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Mar 24, 2016 at 17:50
  • @Patrick, the best way to gain that knowledge of how to apply the theory is to transcribe jazz piano solos from your favorite recordings. If you're not sure where to start, begin with Wynton Kelly. After transcribing a few of his solos, you'll find that you can start accurately predicting where his lick will go just after hearing the first few notes. When you reach this point, you know you're absorbing not just the scales/rules, but the ideas that he uses to apply the theory to actual musical settings.
    – jdjazz
    Mar 11, 2021 at 5:01
  • Step out of your comfort zone and survey across the field and even outside of…I’d look at jazz that springs from gospel, rock, old New Orleans and Chicago styles and musicians. If you do too much at once, it’ll just be confusing, but if you let it build, you should both increase your mental library and discover more affinities — eventually leading to a great style of your own. It just doesn’t all happen at once, and some frustration is a required part of the process. Jan 2, 2023 at 13:30

First of all, yes you can learn Jazz.

Where do I go next?

Ok, so you have a good repertoire of songs that you have learned over the course of playing the piano, you know what scales are, you know what chords are, and you know how to read sheet music. Great!

Now, if you want to get anywhere advanced with playing Jazz (or any genre in general) you need to learn music theory. There's no way around it. At the start it's difficult to learn on your own, but you'll get better at it so long as you stick with it. Remember, you want to get better at playing the piano, right?

So, where do you start? I highly recommend you start with intervals. What are they? Why are they important? What do they sound like? What do they look like on the staff?

After that learn how to construct and read big chords. It is extremely important to know what you're playing and be able to communicate it if you're working with other musicians. Here are some examples: F7b9#5, AbM7#11, C+M7add13, D°7, GmM7 etc. This might seem a bit complex but if you want to understand it the only thing hindering you is yourself.

At this point you may want to dive into the world of scales and modes. If you're getting bored of everything you're playing and want something to spice up your improvisation, this is a great place to start. I suggest you start with the Greek scales and move on from there.

Comprehending only these three areas of music theory will dramatically increase your skills as a Jazz pianist.

There are so many Jazz topics that it would take me forever to list them all here. I don't believe there really is a best route to take in learning music - though some might disagree. So learn whatever interests you and eventually you will run into a new topic. It's all interrelated.

If you get stuck on a certain concept, move on! Learning should be fun and not stressful.

Also remember that music is more of an art than it is a science. If your ear is telling you to do something else from what your mind is telling you, do it! The rules are just a "standard" guideline.

Here are some links that helped me in learning Jazz and music theory.

http://www.musictheory.net/lessons https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLB585CE43B02669C3 http://tobyrush.com/theorypages/index.html http://www.hooktheory.com/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mode_(music)

Good luck!


I think the simple answer is to find a good jazz piano player to teach you. That may be hard to find depending on your location but, although jazz requires knowledge of the theory that others have commented on, it's also very much an oral tradition that's difficult to pick up without a teacher to put you on the right footing. There are books like The Jazz Piano Book that contain lots of fantastic info on theory but the I doubt they're a replacement for a good teacher.

  • There are also some good jazz piano teachers on YouTube, like Aimee Nolte for bebop and Bill Hilton for cocktail and blues jazz. Again, it's no substitute for having a teacher in the room, but you can learn a lot about voicing and improvisation from them. Feb 18, 2017 at 22:15

Find a recorded solo that you like. Listen to it repeatedly, until you can sing it. Then work it out on the piano. Repeat.

The purpose of this excercise is: 1. Teach your ears and your fingers some jazz vocabulary; 2. Learn to translate what your hear into notes that you can play. That ear training will help you pick up more ideas from what you hear, and also make it easier to play the ideas that you hear in your head.

Learn some common jazz chord voicings well enough that you can sight read a lead sheet.

Find some people to play with. When they're not available you can play along with recordings or software (like band-in-a-box or iReal Pro).

Also, find a teacher.

Disclaimer: I'm a fourth-rate beginning jazz pianist myself (and have been for years).


If you are capable of/enjoy self-study (I'm not very good at it), check out Jamey Aebersold's jazz "method" series that begins with How to Play Jazz and Improvise.

There are a LOT of books there; most revolve around learning songs in a particular genre or from a particular artist, but several are more theory/exercise-oriented.


A very wise jazz musician once told me "play what you feel" when I asked about how he knew how to improvise. I then asked something along the lines "how am I meant to show my feelings through playing?" and I was given the answer "listen, then listen more". I was no more than 9, and it made no sense, but I now think (at almost 40) that this is the key to it all.

Much later I asked a great friend and fabulous guitarist (Kit Morgan) some questions about what he was playing and was told frankly "I have no idea; I just went with it - was it awful?" and then he confessed he'd have no idea how to play the same thing again (but rest assured he'd have played something just as great).

The point to all of this (there probably isn't one) but I've learnt that a good technical understanding of the instrument mechanics is very important such that one doesn't think about the instrument (similar to operating a proper camera). Secondly, a good understanding of music theory and the idioms of the style being played, as well as sympathy and empathy to the creators of the style (ever heard a purist hard bebop player in a dixie band? usually it doesn't work for that reason).

How does one get to this level? By all accounts listen, listen, and listen again, then practice, practice and more practice. Then record yourself and listen, listen, and listen again to your playing no matter how bad it sounds (if you think it sounds great you should take advice from a psychologist - no credible musician has ever felt that way).

Can I do any of those things well? No, but every time I play I try and play what I'm feeling before anything else as I feel that to do anything else is dishonest.


I heard Andre Previn having a discussion with Oscar Peterson and they spoke of playing along with the recordings of Art Tatum. Andre studied Tea for Two for 3 years learning it measure by measure through listening and repetition. Licks and their fingering can be practised and repeated, inverted and transposed.

Greatness can be attained: practice, practice, practice. Mozart never had to study a piece with the discipline and rigidity of his teacher...but Mozart was a Genius. Those who possess great talent can bypass rudiments, but if KNOWLEDGE is what you want to attain, go to the Greats, the Masters, and sit at their feet, so to speak; refine your ear; break down the masterpieces, bar by bar, lick by lick an hour a day or an hour a week. Self-determine how proficient you'll become.

Can you replicate what you hear? That is the "dialogue" of your instrument(piano). As you increase in proficiency, you'll have more to "voice", There are still only 88 keys on the piano...so it's your IMAGINATION that holds your Greatness, your unique melodic-speak. Find what YOU like and "wash, rinse, repeat", so to speak. ENJOY.

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