Learning jazz by listening

How I Discovered the Importance of Listening to Learn Jazz

Learning jazz is first and foremost about learning to listen. That’s what I understood when I began exploring this genre of music. As a former student of classical conservatory, I was used to learning through visual means. But jazz changed everything for me.


The Secret to Success: Listen and Imitate

I discovered that listening was the key tool for learning jazz. I started by learning a few songs with sheet music, but quickly realized that I learned even better by listening and imitating. I listened to recordings but also participated in jam sessions. It was an ideal opportunity to expand my repertoire by playing with other musicians and learning chords during solos.
In these collective sessions, a song was sometimes played until everyone had improvised, giving me the opportunity to learn the chords by hearing them. I developed the habit of always learning by listening.

I became more and more comfortable with chord progressions while playing in jams. The more I practiced, the more I developed automaticity with the progressions. And because of this, I could learn new songs simply by listening to them repeatedly. Not just the melody but also the harmony!

And it was by listening and imitating other musicians that I continued to progress.


“Advice from a Master: Didier Lockwood”

Didier Lockwood insisted on oral transmission, musical ear, and rhythm. He encouraged us to work on our ear by transcribing solos from recordings. At the beginning of each class, he played phrases that we had to imitate and play back instantly. So, I learned to develop reflexes for improvisation based on a good ear for what was happening around me.

“My Approach as a Teacher”

Now that I am a teacher myself, I encourage my students to try to imitate what they hear, including vibrato and bowing techniques, without using sheet music. I show them how to reproduce what they hear by making a conscious effort, even if they can’t reproduce everything perfectly. It is the effort to try to reproduce what they hear that will help them gradually develop their musical ear.
I also ask them to work using only audio first and then watch the video later to see the bowing and fingering if they wish.

In the last 2 years, I have created 111 mini jazz violin tutorials with phrases that I spontaneously invented in videos on social media. They were originally meant to be learned by ear, but I still created the sheet music at the request of my subscribers. So, even if you learn the phrases by ear, you can check them against the sheet music…

Singing a Phrase Before Playing it on the Violin

A highly effective way to learn a piece by ear is to sing the musical phrases and then adapt them to the violin. The goal is to do it yourself without needing to see fingerings or bowings. And if the melody isn’t played exactly the same way, it’s not a problem because in jazz, there’s not just one way to play a melody…I never play the same melody the same way. That’s what keeps me interested in jazz!
If you can’t do it, don’t worry: the effort to try to transcribe the singing to the violin will move you in the right direction, gradually creating the link between what you hear and your fingers.
At the bottom of the page, you can practice with my 8 ear-training phrases!

The usefulness of ear training for improvisation

Learning a tune by ear takes longer than reading sheet music, but it’s more useful for improvisation.
If you only learn by reading sheet music, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll be able to improvise with what you’ve read. Whereas if you learn by listening, you are directly in the groove and you learn the right musical intentions with the right jazz accents. You’ll also get the swing.

Of course, by reading sheet music, you won’t need to listen several times to learn a new tune, and it will be much faster. But if you have to play it in public or at a jam session, you won’t have memorized it as well as if you learned it by ear. And you can learn any tune this way.

Learning the melody

To learn a tune, I strongly advise you to listen to several versions. With YouTube or Spotify, you can find the most famous versions of standards, on violin but also on vocals, trumpet, saxophone, piano…
At the core, jazz is not a written music. The Real Book with the standards’ sheet music was created based on versions of the tune. It’s like a summary of what’s interpreted for a melody, but jazz musicians never play it exactly as written. You need to modify it rhythmically and put in typical jazz accents.

So, if you learn the melody of a standard without sheet music by listening to several versions, you’ll be able to interpret it more easily in a jazz aesthetic than if you read sheet music…

Learning the harmony

As a violinist, I’m used to focusing on the melody. However, by studying the harmony of several tunes, I understood that it’s just as important for understanding a piece of music. It requires practice, and even more than for the melody, but it’s worth it.
To be completely comfortable with the harmony of a standard, you have to hear it in your head in the same way that you hear the melody!

A good exercise for learning the chords of a jazz standard is to listen and try to spot the bass by ear before looking at the chord chart; just like with the melody, try to learn it by ear before looking at the sheet music. Then, do the same by trying to spot the notes of the chords by singing the thirds, fifths, and sevenths, and then the full arpeggios.

I learned a lot about harmony by playing gypsy jazz, especially by playing in jams. However, I could only do that because I had already studied many chord charts. By having automatism with chord charts, I could learn new tunes simply by listening to their harmony, as well as their melody. To achieve this, you need to practice chord changes by playing arpeggios, which are just the notes of the chords. Listening to others improvise can also help develop an increased awareness of harmony.

Don’t always stay in the key of the tune

When a tune is in a given key, you can often stay in that key. But you need to learn all the chords, as sometimes it can also sound wrong to always stay in the base key of the tune, as a part of the tune can be reharmonized in another key.
One single chord can also pose a problem…

Let’s take an example: the song “Lady Be Good” is in G major. This means we can improvise in G major. However, the second chord is C7, the seventh chord: if we play the B natural of the G major scale over this chord, it won’t sound very good… So it’s important to identify key notes, like in this example, the Bb which is the minor seventh of the C7 chord.

I hope these tips have helped you and that you too can master jazz harmony, as well as learning by ear! Don’t hesitate to share this article. And good work!

Below is a short video where you can practice transcribing by ear 8 phrases that I play in a loop:

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