How Jazz Works

By: Cameron Lawrence

Jazz Music

The Preservation Hall Band in New Orleans, 1970
The Preservation Hall Band in New Orleans, 1970
G.D. Hackett/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Beginning listeners are often disoriented by their first experiences with jazz. Its structure is typically more complex than other popular forms of music. And because of its improvised nature -- with multiple melodies and rhythms working together -- listeners accustomed to more structured, predictable forms of music might find jazz difficult to follow. But those same things that make jazz difficult to appreciate at first are what more seasoned listeners come to relish.

­­­T­he first step in understanding how jazz works is knowing what to listen for. Jazz ensembles -- which can have two to 20 players -- range in style, size and instrumentation. But they are all united by three basic elements: improvisation, syncopation and blue notes.


  • Musicians and critics agree that improvisation is at the heart of jazz. It happens when a player follows a moment of inspiration into unwritten territory, and he or she composes while playing. Improvising takes a great amount of skill and concentration. When a group of musicians know one another's playing style well, they're able to follow and support one another to make new and interesting parts that may or may not be played again. Improvisation allows for a kind of communication between players known as a call-and-response pattern. This is a common element in African music. It starts when a soloist, singing or playing, issues a "call" and the other participants sing or play back a "response."
  • Syncopation refers to shifting the emphasis of a song's rhythm, or beat pattern, to weak or unaccented beats and notes. To better understand syncopation, try this exercise: With your feet, stomp to the count of "one, two, three, four," saying "and" between each number. Stomping on the numbers means you're stomping on beat, or in rhythm. Now, while stomping on each number, clap each time you say "and." Clapping on "and" means you're accenting the weak beat, also known as the offbeat. Each time you clap, you're syncopating the rhythm. Our exercise is a simplified version of syncopation. But skilled musicians can syncopate smaller denominations of notes, dividing the offbeats into eighths and 16ths of a single count. Syncopation appears in jazz when two rhythms are played against each other. This is where jazz gets its swing, the feeling that makes listeners want to tap their feet or dance. No doubt you've heard the saying "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." And if you're a jazz musician, if it doesn't swing, it isn't jazz.
  • Blue notes occur when a musician plays or slides through a scale, flattening some of the notes (playing them a half-step lower than expected). These are the dissonant, "bent" notes we hear in blues and jazz. A blues scale is a minor pentatonic scale: The third and seventh notes of a major scale are flattened (creating a minor scale), and the second and sixth notes are taken out, making a five-note pentatonic scale. Let's look at how a natural A major scale becomes a blues scale. A major: A B C# D E F# G# A minor: A B C D E F# G A minor pentatonic (blues scale): A C D E G

­­Now that we know something about the basic elements of jazz, let's take a look at jazz history.