An open piano, a metronome, a tuba, and some sheet music
Jazz and Classical—Musical, Cultural, Listening Differences
The Beat Goes On by Prophet and Poet

Jazz and Classical—Musical, Cultural, Listening Differences

Early next year a CD will be released featuring my compositions on Nonesuch Records. I’m very excited about the recording, which features Joshua Redman, one of today’s greatest working jazz musicians, as well as Brooklyn Rider, one of today’s most brilliant classical string quartets. (The equally brilliant jazz bassist Scott Colley and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi round out the ensemble.) This project marks a high-water mark in my work of genre blending, and offers an occasion to reflect on the differences and similarities between these two ways of making music. I’ve had sustained and rich experiences in both musical styles over the years, so I’ve had a chance to observe some general attributes of musicians who have been trained in each genre, and compare and contrast the two. For me the differences can be boiled down to a difference in musical culture.

The more of the rules you know, the deeper your understanding of them, the more you have the impression of belonging to the tribe.

Musical culture is something that is acquired gradually over a long period of study and practice within a given genre. It comes along with a set of dos and don’ts that become quite deep-seated. The more of the rules you know, the deeper your understanding of them, the more you have the impression of belonging to the tribe. Fractures and variations on these rules can occur at the level of the sub-genre. If jazz musicians think fundamentally differently than classical musicians, it must be said that “fusion” jazz musicians think quite differently than “straight-ahead” or “avant-garde” jazz musicians. The same goes for classical—world-class Mozart interpreters can stumble when tackling, say, Ravel. And the gulf between new music interpreters and more mainstream interpreters of the classical repertoire can seem vast.

It’s an obvious metaphor for political division—and I do think that stylistic preferences in music are a kind of politics played out in the abstract. People align themselves with one or another musical culture, and, though they may spend hours rationalizing their preferences, the basis for such adherence involves something much more primal. For someone who is into swing, something that doesn’t swing according to their definition can offend their sensibilities in a way that totally and completely bypasses the intellect.

Violinist bowing on a violin in standard classical music playing position (under the chin)

So the problem of merging musicians from two genres that seem far apart is in fact a diplomatic challenge, not that different from the problem of merging sensibilities within any group.  It starts with a really clear, non-judgmental understanding of the differences, both musical and psychological. Here are six areas in which classical and jazz musicians vividly differ:

1. Rhythm. There is no more marked area of difference between classically trained players and players trained in jazz than the domain of rhythm. Jazz musicians prioritize above all else a kind of steadiness of pulse, a consistency of rhythmic placement. They worship at the shrine of the eighth note, the sixteenth note. You can call this an orientation toward groove, or a metronomic approach—though, even if it begins from a principle of total evenness, it ultimately transcends the metronomic and goes to the realm of feel, that is to say each person’s own individualized approach to this evenness, to subdivision.

Very few classical musicians I’ve worked with have even heard of this idea of feel, and even the ones with good rhythm don’t obsess over it to the point that jazz musicians need to in order to obtain an expected level of competence. So to a jazz musician, the classical musician’s sense of rhythm can seem bafflingly substandard.

But in fact this needs to be understood in a completely different way. Classical musicians simply look at rhythm differently. They see it as an expressive element. By stretching the pulse one way or the other, they can support the longer musical line, which to them is of highest importance. The irony here is that jazz musicians’ use of rhythm is in a way LESS expressive than that of classical musicians. That expression is re-injected on the subtle level of feel—and indeed the best jazz soloists do make expressive use of time, by laying back against the beat or floating over it, but these effects work precisely because they create tension against an underlying pulse that is unchanging. Actual tempo fluctuation is strictly to be avoided. This is why, while it may be very difficult to get classical players to groove, it’s equally challenging to get jazz players to effect a convincing rubato.

2. Dynamics. When shading a phrase, when injecting drama into their performances, classical musicians obviously make frequent recourse to dynamics. Jazz musicians, uh, not so much! I remember in one of our rehearsals that Colin Jacobsen asked Josh Redman what dynamic he was playing at a certain passage. Josh grinned sheepishly and said, “Jazz musicians don’t really use dynamics.”  He wasn’t far from the truth—many jazz players, especially horn players, play at a fairly static volume. There certainly isn’t any established tradition of crescendo and diminuendo, outside the world of big band.

The overall dynamic of jazz is much louder than that of classical music, at least at the chamber music level. This is probably because of the prominence of the drum set in jazz, which is extremely loud compared to any chamber instrument (and has gotten considerably louder with the advent of rock music) and tends to play at a fairly consistent volume. To compete with this, other jazz musicians have gotten accustomed to playing at louder volumes, as well as becoming habituated to electronic amplification. Jazz saxophonists play at or above the volume of a classical trumpet, so when they suddenly have to play with a string quartet, they have to play around 1/8 their normal volume to blend!

3. Tone and Intonation. Jazz musicians can be obsessive about their sound and their tone quality, but overall I would say it’s less a priority than it is in the classical world. Sometimes jazz musicians also go for bigger rather than better in this regard, for the above-stated reasons.

In this category perhaps should be included things like vibrato. For a string player, vibrato is at the core of their playing, and vibrato practice is an important part of their musical development. Jazz musicians practice vibrato much less, and consequently have much less control, far less variety of speed and amplitude. It’s simply not as much used as an expressive element.

Intonation is much less of a concern in the jazz world than in the classical world. There’s the tradition of classical musicians tuning before the concert begins; many jazz musicians just hope to be in tune by the end.

In fact, I see intonation as a kind of inverse of rhythm. For classical musicians it’s a subject of years of true obsession, and like rhythm in jazz, classical musicians view intonation as a grid. You could think of jazz musicians, conversely, as having a more expressive approach to intonation. It’s not necessarily even conscious, but with saxophone players in particular a kind of idiosyncratic intonation can become an identifiable feature. I’ve seen classical musicians listen to Coltrane from his quartet period, for example, and actually burst out laughing at the intonation. But as any Coltrane aficionado with some technical understanding would agree, that sharp, almost pinched quality in the high register is an integral part of the surging angst of the Coltrane sound.

4. The Page. No discussion of the differences between jazz and classical musicians would be complete without touching on their respective approaches to the written page. Nothing tells you more about the brain structure of a musician than watching them try to negotiate written music.

Classical musicians tend to automatically inject expression into music they read. They understand well that written music is meant to be interpreted, and tend to be comfortable doing just that. I’m often amazed at how a classically trained musician can bring a page of written music so vividly to life, often without even understanding it! Their instincts in this regard tend to be highly developed.

Jazz musicians, by contrast, who are not as accustomed to reading, treat the enterprise with trepidation, and they can be really uptight about just getting the right notes. With fear and anxiety as their jumping off points, their interpretations of written music can be astonishingly leaden, played with all the joy and verve of a high school student who’s just been sent to detention.

This has to do with the relationship between theory and practice. For the jazz musician, theory and practice are inseparable—to be a successful improviser means to have integrated the two, there can be no other way. As such it’s very difficult to play anything without understanding its theoretical meaning.

On the other hand, you can be an entirely competent classical musician—I’ve seen this on many occasions—without having the slightest idea what is motivating the music you’re playing from a theoretical perspective.

This divorce of the theoretical from the practical does have the benefit of encouraging a more literary, imagistic, extra-musical approach, which can be a good thing—since after all, music really does have emotive, personal, narrative, and ultimately cultural meaning, beyond notes and rhythms, and that meaning is arguably even the most important of music’s qualities. But it also raises issues of legitimacy—anyone can give any interpretation to a piece of music, and since this is a very subjective quality, it’s harder to assess.

5. Improvisation. If classical musicians excel at rendering a written passage in musical fashion, their stumbling block tends to be improvisation. In the inverse situation to jazz musicians reading, classical musicians tend to be uncomfortable when asked to improvise. And they should be, because to improvise really well takes a lot more work than is generally understood.

In the inverse situation to jazz musicians reading, classical musicians tend to be uncomfortable when asked to improvise.

Improvisation is not merely a set of rules or precepts, or even a feeling of freedom—it is, again, a specific culture. It’s like a language. If I asked you to speak Chinese, you might try to do so with passion and vigor, but that wouldn’t really get you anywhere unless you studied it seriously for quite a while. In fact, it would take years to learn to speak it, and depending at what age you did so, you might never sound credibly like a native.

In jazz, performance and composition are organically intertwined. It’s the soloist’s voice that makes the music unique, whereas in classical music a good piece played by a less-than-stellar musician can lead to at least an intellectually interesting, if not aesthetically satisfying result, much more often than a less-than-stellar piece played by a great musician can. Technical flaws recede because, after all, the performer is simply the medium through which the composer imparts the musical message. It’s like listening to music on a great home stereo vs. cheap computer speakers—the difference may be glaring to the sensitized few, but for the most part the music comes through.

6. Shared References. The other thing that’s palpably different between jazz and classical musicians has to do with specific musical references. What did you play 1000 times in high school to the point that you now roll your eyes every time you hear it—Beethoven’s 1st Symphony or “Blue Bossa”? Those shared references, even as we may mock them, form a cultural substrate that actually plays a surprisingly big role in how we interact on a day-to-day basis.

Side view of a saxophone

Differences in Listening

If practicing these two genres entails basic differences, there is also a fundamentally different way of listening to them.

Since my early training was in jazz, for me listening to jazz is easier—and takes less mental strength—than listening to classical music. Listening to classical music, as so many introduction courses tell us, requires a basic understanding of form and sub-genre. Form—sonata and rondo, minuet and scherzo, and so forth—needs to be understood before the music can be properly ingested. Key relations also play an important role, so knowing exactly which pitches are being played is helpful in following the compositional narrative.

In jazz, by contrast, forms are based on the chaconne-like repetition of a series of chords, over which improvisations are played. The improvisations create the variation, and so in some sense the music is not travelling; it always comes back, again and again, to the same place.

I’ve noticed that the underlying repetitive structure of jazz can be really difficult to hear for people who are not initiated into its language. Traditional jazz, which is based on 12- or 32-bar forms and archetypal harmonic sequences, is something that the seasoned jazz musician, by dint of working in these forms over and over again, comes to hear intuitively. I can be at a jazz club listening to a group play standards, and I can be conversing with someone while simultaneously knowing exactly where I am in the form of whatever tune is being played. This process of listening becomes very natural, and then it becomes the basis of the assessment of how the soloist is playing. How is the soloist’s sound? How are the ideas—are they original, are they spontaneous? What is the level of interaction between soloist and rhythm section?

Even with new jazz composition, this formal repetition most often remains. The forms may be exotic, but they’re almost guaranteed to repeat at some point, to form a basis for improvisation.

Even the idea of repetition is different in classical music and jazz. Whereas in classical music a repetition tends to be strict, in jazz even a repeated melody is constantly varied both in the melody and the accompaniment. Thus jazz is both more repetitive and more flexible in its means (although this strictness of repetition in classical music has been challenged of late by early music specialists).


This compendium of differences between the cultures of jazz and classical musicians is a source of ever-increasing fascination to me. I used to feel frustrated when a violinist couldn’t play a groove, or when a jazz pianist froze up in front of a written passage. But really these are just manifestations of differences in brain structure, differences in training, and ultimately differences in culture. When you incorporate people with such differences into your music in an adroit way, you can—instead of losing something—augment your resources to create an art that’s tremendously multifaceted and rich, that celebrates and even thrives on difference.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “Jazz and Classical—Musical, Cultural, Listening Differences

  1. Raro

    “…the performer is simply the medium through which the composer imparts the musical message.”

    That’s offensive!

    Reply
    1. Bill

      I love all the music genres,especially jazz and classical music..Through my experience,I have been trained to hear music like the Suzuki method and yes,its about interpreting the composer,but,music in Africa,asia,india has transmitted their music through AURAL means for a long time…not necessarily from sheet music.Its more organic to me..I believe if I was able to talk to Beethoven we would agree on internalizing music…His ability to hear the orchestra colors,the 3rds,5ths,etc. inside his mind,soul,is all I’m talking about…..Truly hearing just gives you more in your palette to paint colors with.However you do it.In the middle of the desert even if you have no sheet music !

      Reply
  2. Bill

    You have some interesting points here but as a pro jazz musician and a trained classical flautist ask a classical player to sing a lydian scale on any note? Or sing me a phygrian scale ? Ask them what is the #9 of Ab…..Play that Ab b9#9 #4#5 chord and ask them to sing the #9 ? The pros hear in a contextaul setting,meaning what a note sounds like in a key and there can be many keys in jazz.I believe jazz musicians can hear more than a regular classical musician.When your ears get opened your hear it in classical,jazz, any music..I love classical and feel if you want to go deep into your instrument,study classical ways.Let it spill over into that amazing improvisational music called jazz ! Listen to Wynton marsalis who plays both genres…Listen to hubert laws who plays both..Listen to Joe henderson or jerry bergonzi on playing different time zones and rhythms against a group.I haven’t heard any deeply studied classical musician who is that loose in phrasing…A lot of the classical musicians ive played with are stiff,and have a hard time REALLY SWINGING….Also a lot are snobs and are in there head.
    Learning to compose for an orchestra is another thing and highly honor that..I am in that process now,but I am in love with the playing of music in the present with other open jazzers that expand rhythms on the spot.

    Reply

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