I am a classically trained pianist, and I consider myself to be decent at playing. However I'm a poor sight in jazz, which is something that I really like. This summer I plan to study jazz thoroughly, so that by the end of my holidays I can play some decent solos, comp adequately, and even interpret some jazz standards and play my own versions.

I understand that there are two paths to take when learning jazz: transcribing the greats, and learning theory. I also know that jazz education was not readily available during much of the 20th century, and that's why many people learned by transcribing.

I have come across websites and blogs that promote ear-training and transcribing over learning music theory such as this and this (even the jazz theory books that I own emphasize the importance of transcribing). They say that transcribing allows you to eventually be able to "hear your solos in your head" before playing them, as well as allowing you to mimic others and eventually develop your own style. I want to acquire both these skills.

Similarly music theory can also improve improvisational skills, but it doesn't teach melodic innovation. That is, I may have a very good idea of what notes will "sound good" but I won't know be able to think of any innovative melody. This is why I believe that transcription will be more important for me than theory.

But at the same time, I think that theory can really help with comping and playing harmony.

So to sum up: Are there any things that music theory can do which transcription can't do? If so, how much importance should I give to learning jazz theory, that is, approximately how much time should I take from transcription and allocate to theory?

Thank you for your answers, and feel free to correct me if I've said anything wrong.

PS. I own both the Jazz Theory Book and the Jazz Piano Book (both by Mark Levine). I plan to exhaust the information in them eventually, if not now.

  • I've always thought that improving your improvisational skills does teach you melodic innovation. Unless you always improvise bad melodies, you should get better at coming up with melodies if you practice improvising them often enough. Even basing your initial improvisations on existing pieces can improve your improvisational skills to the point that you can come up with original melodies on the spot, IMO.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 7:45

3 Answers 3


Consider an analogy with literature. You can become an author by reading good books, or by studying language and grammar. In reality, you will want some of both. Each is valuable, but in different ways. The latter provides understanding and insight into the first.

Music theory is sort of the grammar behind music, and the extent to which it helps you will depend largely on how comfortable you are with abstract concepts, and how curious you are to analyze how things work.

Personaly, as a very analytical person I find it hard to imagine playing without a knowledge of theory. But I know there are plenty who do just that.


The two go hand in hand. As you transcribe, you'll see that certain patterns apply (like the ii V I turn-around). IMO, you don't need as much theory as you think... I was focused on learning modes and chord substitution but have gotten much more from transcribing and practicing the language.

But like you said, transcribing is more important.. you can become a good improviser without knowing theory. Theory will just help you understand why and will make transcribing easier in some cases.


When transcribing, it's easier to understand WHAT'S happening, after a muso has actually produced something. When looking at the theory behind it, this will explain WHY and HOW it works. As said previously, you need both to make your playing a success. Merely doing the first, you will be able to play copycat phrases all day long, without actually knowing what you're doing. Lots of successful players do this, and it works for them, and they maybe don't need to know more. In fact, they're capable of taking the next steps and makining their own phrases.

However, some people prefer to know what they're actually doing - the theory - and understanding this allows them to progress in a far more enlightened way.

It's quite dependent on how your brain is wired. On a need to know basis, some do, whilst for others, it just gets in the way of their creativity.

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