Look at a wall.  What you can see is just the finish, the paint or wallpaper.  Most residential walls are made of drywall supported by vertical 2×4 pine studs, 16in apart.  If you measure from one corner of your room to one edge of an outlet, that distance will very likely be a multiple of 16in.  This is one of many conventions that allow several carpenters who have never met to come together and build a house. A similar, though more intricate set of practices allows jazz musicians who don’t know each other to come together and play music.

The 2×4 stud of the American Songbook is the form.  Think of any American Songbook song and if you sing through the lyrics, you’ll find that you’ll either sing the same melody two times with the second time being slightly different at the end; or you’ll sing the same melody twice then a different melody, then the same one again.  The first form is “Binary” and the second is “AABA”. For example: “White Christmas” (go ahead and hum it through) is Binary, and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (sing it like you mean it!) is AABA. Most Jazz standards are 32 bars long; either 4 sections of 8 bars or 2 sections of 16.

A  band of musicians who have never played together before will play the full 32 bars with the singer or melodic instrument playing the melody, then the band will improvise over the harmony of the 32 bar structure, changing who plays the lead line at the end of the full 32 bars.  So even though the music is improvised, there is a standardized framework of which the casual listener is unaware; just like when you look at a wall, there’s a standardized support system that you don’t see. When you hear a jazz band at a cocktail party or restaurant, you’re hearing the musical equivalent of a standard residential wall with a unique coat of paint.

Jazz can seem unintelligible and complicated at first.  Once the idea of form is understood however, the intricacies that bring the music alive are no longer mysterious.  This pedagogical approach can be applied to learning any new skill. Here are 5 tips for learning like a jazz musician.

  1.  Learn The Form

When I learn a new skill, I first try to learn the conventions.  As far as I can tell, there’s a 2×4 stud or a 32 bar form to just about everything. Once I know the conventions, I’m free to improvise within them, change them, or break them.

  1.  Study The Legends

No matter what you’re trying to learn, a new language, a new sport, and new professional skill, there are people who have already mastered it.  Find out who the masters are and study what they do.

  1.  Practice

It’s a cliche to say that practice makes perfect but there simply is no shortcut to mastery.  The frequency, quality and regularity of your practice will determine your progress. By following the first two suggestions, you can learn to practice more efficiently. 

  1.  Hang

Socializing with people who share your interest is a means of gaining perspective, sharing ideas, learning about new developments and forging friendships.  Some of my fondest memories and most useful insights occurred in jazz clubs in the early morning hours.  

  1.  Perform

The crucible of performance is where theory hardens into steel or melts into slag.  If your ideas don’t work in the real world, they need to be re-tooled.  Not every skill requires performance but substitute, publish, compete, or share depending on what you’re trying to learn.

I love learning about the conventions of other disciplines so please let me know what works in your field.