Hearing Jazz - Tips for Active Listening

There is simply no substitute for listening to music when you are a serious musician. Listening to Jazz is the single most important activity you can do to develop your sound, style, vocabulary, and enjoyment of this art form. But listening to jazz cannot be the same as lighting a candle. You know, when you light a candle, it sits in a corner or on a bookshelf, you enjoy the smell, maybe the ambiance, but that is about it. We cannot listen to jazz in the same manner and expect to get much out of it. There has to be a level of engagement with the music. For most students, engaging in the music we are listening to is a learned process - here a few tips to help you along the way.


  1. Be Active - the listening examples in this class are meant to make you do a little work. It is nice to listen while you are doing homework or even washing dishes, but to truly develop a better conceptualization of Jazz you need to be actively “hearing” the music. This means carving out just a few minutes for the engagement between you and the music to be the most important thing.

  2. Listen in Groups - you can learn a lot be noticing what other people are hearing. I remember listen to an album with a friend for the first time - he had picked up on completely different things, it was like listening to the album for the first time all over again. As long as the focus is still on active engaging with the music, listening in groups can be a huge benefit. Besides, its fun!

  3. Physically Externalize Pulse - on a very basic but almost spiritual level, the best way to engage in this music is to actively become a part of the exact same time feel as the musicians on the recording. Tap your heel, snap on two and four, get up and shift your weight from left to right on one and three.

  4. Sing, Sing, Sing - This one is a biggie and probably accounts for the most “work” you will do as a listening. Here is a breakdown of what you should be able to do. They are listed in priority of what should come first:

  • First: Sing the Melody - Pay attention to all the little nuances. Work to stylize the melody the same way as the players on the recording. Your singing should seek to put emotion into the music - it is not just pitches and rhythms. Everyone should know melodies to tunes regardless of their instrument or role in the band.

  • Sing the lead line in the section you play in. If you are a horn player pick out some background licks or calls and response. Piano and guitar can sing some comping ideas, bass should be able to pick out the bass line and sing it. Drummers should vocalize some drum fills. When you hear something you like - copy it by singing.

  • Sing Solo Ideas. This certainly doesn’t have to be the entire solo, but it is important to vocally emulate some of the better licks and ideas. The jazz solo is the heroes change to tell their story. Copy some of the best lines and be able to sing along with the performer.

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