From Vocabulary to Language

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard educators and musicians refer to learning about jazz improvisation as “learning the jazz language.” Believe it or not, the more I learn about jazz improvisation, the more I agree that this analogy is spot on. The biggest issue that many folks run into, however, is turning the vocabulary into the language. I’d like to share with you some of the thoughts and methods used in my personal practice and in my lessons studio for converting the vocabulary into the language.

The ABC’s of Jazz

Having good working knowledge of our vocabulary is essential both to our ability to converse with words and with music. No matter how much you dread practicing, memorizing, and internalizing scales and arpeggios, there’s no getting around the fact that they are the A B Cs of our musical language.

Scales and arpeggios serve as our musical nouns and verbs. Since arpeggio tones form the basis for chords and are often the target tones of our musical lines, their natural role in the language is as musical nouns. Guide tones (typically the 3rds and 7ths of the chords) and scale tones are often used in moving our lines forward. These serve in the action role as verbs.

We have many musical adjectives including auxiliary tones and passing tones. It could be argued that certain chordal alterations are adjectives or nouns depending on how they are used.

I don’t want to run the risk of letting our focus shift from language to theory, so I’ll just mention that there are many types of scales and arpeggios related to the various chords found in jazz. A long-term study of scales and arpeggios will help you develop fluency with the vocabulary while also building technique.

Musical Topics

As with any conversation or story we might tell, it is important to have an understanding of the topic of discussion. The same is true with our musical language. I think of chord progressions and melodies to tunes as musical topics. In order to have a musical conversation with a rhythm section, other horn players, or an audience, we need to know and understand the tunes we are playing.

Knowing the lyrics is an important part of knowing a tune that is often overlooked by horn players. This provides us with an understanding of how to phrase the melody. When to breathe and articulate, the use of inflection, and the way we use dynamics are often affected by the words of a melody.

Understanding the form and chord changes of a tune we are playing helps us with note selection and creating musical sentences (phrases) that tell a story about the tune. This way we can get beyond just playing chord by chord.

Learning and recognizing common chordal groupings helps when it comes to understanding how chord progressions work. We’ve all heard of ii-V-I’s, but there are many other common chordal groupings and tonal center shifts you should learn to recognize. A common tonal shift is to the relative minor key- another one that many tunes include is a shift to the tonal center of the IV chord on the bridge. Analyzing chord progressions numerically can help you learn to recognize chordal groupings and tonal center shifts.

The Way Things Are Played

We often spend so much time learning the notes that work on chords, the vocabulary in other words, that we forget to think about how we play things as we improvise. Just like we all have a certain amount of character and personality in the way we speak, we want to develop character and personality in the way we tell our musical stories.

Long tone and overtone practice can help us learn to control and voice the sound. They can also help us learn how to locate different timbres and textures in our tone, providing us tools for creating expression in the sound. At times we may want a sweet tone- other times a strong and centered tone- and other times an intense, harmonically rich tone.

The way we say and play things is also affected by the inflection we use. This can include things like vibrato, growls, bends, scoops, falls, and even embellishments like grace notes and turns. Listening to great players can help us learn to recognize some of the inflection techniques we might want to search out in our playing. Awareness is the key. If we know something exists, we can work to find it.

If you listen to great players, you’ll also notice that one of the most defining characteristics of their musical voice is their personal style of articulation. Compare the sounds of Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Stitt and you should immediately notice a marked difference in their articulation. Begin your articulation practice with traditional “doo,” “dah,” and even “tah” articulations. As your command develops, search for other articulation styles to include in your playing. Just like there are a number of consonant syllables in our spoken language, there are a number of types of articulation we can find on our saxes.

Rhythmic variation provides us with different ways of stating ideas. By having different rhythmic options, we are able to get more mileage out of our vocabulary. We are also able to change the energy of passages through syncopation, triplets, and even 16th notes. This allows us to match the mood and intensity of our language with the mood of the musical moment.

Licks and Transcribing

Transcribing is a great way to learn what others have played and how they’ve played it. You can benefit by transcribing complete solos, melodies, or even licks.

One thing I found valuable in my early days (Yep, I’ve been playing for many years!) was to just put on a recording of one of my favorite players and play along. It didn’t really matter if I found the exact notes being played. The focus was on matching style and phrasing. I learned how musical story lines were developed. I also learned about the players articulation, dynamics, and relationship with the rhythm section.

As a natural companion to transcribing, writing etudes is also beneficial for learning to assemble the language. In writing an etude, you can take licks or ideas from transcriptions or from other vocabulary you are practicing, and work at assembling them in a logical storytelling manner. This way you can compose your musical story, then go back and edit it to be certain it makes good musical sense. I believe that some of the most productive practice I have ever done came in the years when I was writing my jazz etude books.

The Conversation

One of the best ways to polish our musical language skills is to play with others. Whether with a teacher, at a jam session or a gig, or just with fellow musicians and some play-along tracks, nothing beats playing with others. This provides opportunities to react, respond and interact with others.

It’s important in these situations to work at listening to, imitating, and anticipating the musical ideas of the people you are playing with. After all, good conversation involves listening.

Beyond the Vocabulary

We’ve covered many aspects of your jazz improvisation vocabulary and identified ways to incorporate them into your musical language. Keep in mind that we all have different ways of speaking that define our personal voice to our friends and acquaintances. Our goal is to get beyond the vocabulary and develop our musical language skills in a recognizable manner that represents us as individuals.

Randy Hunter is a professional saxophonist and private instructor based in Atlanta, Georgia. He offers Skype lessons and has an extensive series of mixed media jazz improvisation and beginning saxophone lessons available at