This page was last modified July 11, 2013


How to teach music

As a music student you won't get very far justnoodling around and playing what you want to play without any structure. Jazz in particular is a complex, highly structured art form that would be difficult to figure out just noodling around on your own. Guidance and structure is necessary.

Now there's many ways to teach music. When it comes to jazz, the two primary ways are:

(a) you learn theory and apply it to your instrument

(b) someone shows you what to do without necessarily teaching theory

Both methods have the same result. (b) is good because there's no verbage and extra thought processes to get in the way of translating music from the fingers to the ear. If you find a good instructor, they simply show you where to place your fingers and which pool of tones are available for you to use. They teach in terms of building blocks - they provide you these building blocks, and show you how to combine them and put them together.

(a) achieves the same result, but with theory as the basis of understanding the building blocks. This method is useful if there aren't any instructors available. The added advantage is that you can generalize upon the theory, understand how to transpose to different keys, etc.

Now, in both approaches there are good ways to teach it and there are poor ways. The good ways tend to:

  • provide an outline of the structure without overwhelming the student with too much detail
  • leave it to the student to piece together the building blocks themselves without relying on written music
  • provide the proper structure

The poor ways to teach tend to:

  • provide too many "exceptions" and "what ifs"
  • focus on irrelevant, unimportant things
  • leave too much to chance
  • too basic for the student's interest or skill level
  • too complicated for the student's interest or skill level (in other words, a failure to empathize with the student)
  • fail to properly translate the experienced musician's thought process as they sit at their piano or other instrument.

When experienced musicians make music and improvise, there are looking at the 12 tone scale in terms of "chunks" - each chunk includes certain tones and omits others. As the harmony of the song progresses, the chunks are replaced by different chunks. The proper way to teach music is to show which "chunks" are used under which circumstances. That's what my books do, but something a lot of jazz teachers fail to do because they have not taken the time to analyze the tactil/thought process that occurs when they play.


The following is an excerpt from my book "Understanding and Implementing Harmony on the Piano - Volume 6"

How to Teach Music

In order to teach music effectively, one must do several things

  1. Avoid being vague. Vague advice produces vague results. It can be tempting to take the easy way out and to advise a student to learn through trial and error, especially considering this is how many musicians cut their teeth. Although messing around is an important part of music, it is not the preferred method of learning. A teacher must make every effort to have the patience to thoroughly explain things.
  2. Understand how playing by ear fits in with learning the theory. With few exceptions, people do not get very far on the road to making music by learning only to play by ear. It works for simple forms of popular music but not for more complicated forms. This is particularly true when it comes to piano (a polyphonic instrument) and when it comes to jazz (a complex form of music). Playing by ear, of course, is important, but it is not the only ingredient. Learning to play what you hear in your head will not happen without a structured foundation. The way to achieve these goals is by taking a tandem approach that teaches the structure of music as relates to a tonal concept and trains the ear at the same time. As the structure becomes more complex, the ear develops, not the other way around.
  3. Recognize and accept the importance of structure when it comes to making music. A lot of musicians just want to jam. There's nothing wrong with jamming, but you won't get much beyond the pentatonic scale. Jamming is not the only way to play. You need to make a conscious effort to apply structure to everything you do in music.
  4. Realize that knowing how to playand knowing how to teachare different things and do not necessarily overlap. As with many things there are those who can do, those who can teach, and less common are those who can do both. Students should keep this in mind as they seek out mentors.
  5. Realize that: knowing how to playand knowing why it worksare different things. In any art form, there is a certain nebulous area in the subconscious that tells you what you do without necessarily telling you why you're doing it. It does not matter when it comes to presentationof the art, but it does matter when it comes to teachingthe art. In this book I have provided explanations for things I have a good understanding of, and I have chosen not to attempt to explain things that I do not.
  6. Realize that oversimplification is not a valid way to teach music. It is preferable to explain things as accurately and thoroughly as possible right from the beginning so that the student does not end up making assumptions that prove incorrect down the road. It is better to provide more information rather than less, even if the student cannot absorb it all at once. It lets them see where the path will take them. Providing too little information is as bad as providing no information. It causes frustration. The student, in their frustration, tries to figure out on their own how it works and runs the risk of deriving an incorrect explanation or analysis.
  7. Accurately portray the scope of the materials you teach. Teaching how to improvise on diatonic modes is important but it is not jazz and you should not portray it as jazz.
  8. Provide useful, practical, real-world stuff. The goal is for the student to get gigs, play for other people, perform publicly. Brief, veiled glimpses of the the knowledge and skills they need to do that does not do them any good. It's a disservice to the student because it delays their progress and in some cases it can be so misguiding as to lead him or her down the wrong path.
  9. Scales by themselves are useless when it comes to making music. Only talk about scales if you put it in the context of avoid tones and pivots. It is unfortunate that most beginning level jazz instruction does nothing more than tell you which tones are in a scale and which scale can be used in a particular chord.
  10. The best way to learn jazz is to start with a complete set of proper tools.

The importance of structure

Music is a combination of structure and emotion. Both are equally important. Unfortunately the structure part often gets pushed aside because it requires more effort, more thought, and more work. But the fact is, ignoring structure runs the risk of playing sloppy. A lot of musicians will tell you to learn how to play what you feel. Unfortunately that doesnt work unless you learn the foundation first. Playing random notes without any effort to structure them, is not music, it is gibberish.

Structure is the logical progression from chord to chord and from tone to tone against the backdrop of tonality. It is the consonance and dissonance, the tension and release, of chords the revolve around the key center of the song. Structure is what makes a good improvised line sound complete. It is what makes the listener anticipate the outcome of a passage even before it is finished.

An unskilled artist creates a sophisticated piece of art by accident. A skilled artist creates a sophisticated piece of art deliberately,but also is capable of doing something that appears disarmingly simple, even novice, or childish. He or she has mastered their craft to the point where they understand and implement the different levels of complexity. Your goal is to be a skilled musician.

Once you have learned the structure and acquired the tools and skills to implement the structure, then you are free to let your emotion guide what you play.

The goal of right hand improvisation is not to play a random collection of tones but rather to create a logical progression of tones that weave in and out of the songs chords and tonal centers in a process of tension and resolution.

Learning jazz

Non musicians often believe that jazz improvisation is the random playing of tones on a scale. Musicians of course know better but nonetheless are often left to their own devices to try to make sense of the complex structure that underlies the music. Sure you can randomly hit tones and sometimes by coincidence it will sound jazzy, but it will also at other times sound meaningless and in fact it is not jazz because you are not knowledgeably informing the tones you play. Many people, even accomplished musicians, find it difficult to learn jazz. Some eventually come to believe that there is a secret rite of passage that only the lucky or talented are privy to.

The reality is that there is no secret but the trick is to learn the right things at the right time. Too little and you have nothing to look forward to. Too much and it overwhelms you. Just theory and you won't learn how to play. No theory and your playing will be childish.

A misconception is that the proper way to learn to play jazz is by training your ear, that you must learn to recognize and play the different intervals by ear, pick out notes by ear, and play songs by ear, before you can play jazz. That is a False Statement: You don't train your ear before improvising or playing jazz, the ear training occurs as a consequenceof study and practicing.

The fact is that jazz chord changes are too complex (and fast) to figure out by ear alone, it doesn't matter how good your ear is. Ear alone will never decipher the structure. If you take only the play by ear approach you will never get out of the starting gate. Your improvisation will never achieve the level of sophistication that is possible from learning harmony

The proper way is to learn to play jazz first and your ear improves whether you make the conscious effort to improve it or not. As your ear improves, so do your skills.