Learning to Make Music

Play together, learn together.

Learning to make music, like many many other abilities people can acquire, depends on “doing” - not focusing on the mechanics of the activity.

This is the primary way our brains and bodies acquire fundamental skills such as walking and talking. Over the years, Jazz Night School has proven this to be true across diverse performance-based learning experiences within combos, vocals, and big bands. That’s great because not only does that offer us a way to develop our abilities but we can do so in the company of others - which makes it even more fun and rewarding.

Is that all it takes?

Growing musicianship however requires the development of certain core areas which require individual work. In fact, the amount of solitary time invested and the quality of effort dedicated to developing these primary components of music making directly determine the state of our musicianship.

For the person whose goal is to become a conversant music maker, able to collaborate and compose spontaneously, there are four primary components of musicianship to develop which cannot be effectively achieved through the learning-by-doing approach alone: 


  1. Ear Training / Hearing - Learning to recognize and understand what we hear.
  2. Instrument Proficiency / Physicality - The sounds we can make depend entirely on our physical encounters with our instruments.
  3. Improvisation / Real-Time Composition - Speaking for ourselves, musically speaking.
  4. Theory / Music Knowledge - Filling our brains and turning on light bulbs.

Jazz Night School provides a breadth of classes that help students develop each of these components of musicianship. Some classes focus on a single skill or area, while others integrate several areas into one learning experience. Class offerings can be searched by each of these four studies to help you find learning opportunities that are best for your situation. Classes or class sequences can also be recommended for students upon request.

Ideally, life would allow for concurrent progress on each important area of study and continued experiences playing with others in ensembles. Realistically, that isn’t always possible. Try to at least work on your largest deficit first.

1. Ear Training / Hearing

Learning to recognize and understand what we hear should be the starting point. Didn’t we all learn to speak by first listening and learning to comprehend what we heard? To contribute to a conversation, we need to understand what is being said. Being able to listen to and comprehend the sounds of the moment are necessary capabilities for the spontaneous and collaborative creation of music. 

Learning to recognize what we hear is actually not difficult, if we learn the “language” of music. Learning the language of music can be more manageable than learning verbal languages. Instead of a system of arbitrary sound associations, the language of music is an assembly of universal sensations or perceptions that every hearing person subconsciously experiences and understands. Learning to hear and understand music involves our conscious brain becoming aware of things our subconscious already knows - a fun experience. This process is often the key to providing our conscious mind the confidence that our subconscious has command of an ability so that we don’t even think about it anymore. That is the goal.

Elements of music we should develop our ability to hear and interact with instantly include: rhythms, flavors of tonalities (e.g., major and minor), tones within a tonality, flavors of the tones within a tonality, distances between tones (intervals), types of chords, harmonic progressions (sequences of chords), song forms, music styles, instruments,and musicians.

2. Instrument Proficiency / Physicality

The sounds we make depend entirely on our physical encounters with our instruments: percussion, strings, horns, voice, everything. And the diversity of sound production we’re capable of (how adept we are) depends on the size of our muscle memory vocabulary. And since it follows suit that once you can hear a language you’ll want to speak it yourself, your second priority is learning how to work with your body and your instrument to make sounds! 

This, surprisingly, is easy to overlook! We “pick up” an instrument and start to play with others. Music is so wonderful,  powerful, and generous - lack of ability does not diminish our experience. But how we play, physical processes involved in playing our instrument such as motion, weight, muscle deployment, and velocity are integral to developing our musicianship.

Beyond the fundamental physical mechanics of operating an instrument (the actions required to create each pitch or sound), the physical manner in which they are executed determines quality of tone and dynamics, and the physical efficiency determines ease and velocity. We bundle these elements together through our exercise of building block portions of sound production such as articulations, scales, and arpeggios. It is valuable to be mindful of each element as our brains and bodies assemble them into one action so that we can develop optimum muscle memory. Each musician’s instrument proficiency is as great as the volume and care of their efforts towards this work.

Typically the most valuable, effective guidance for learning and improving instrument facility is found in one-on-one tutelage of private lessons.

3. Improvisation / Real-Time Composition

Speaking for ourselves - musically speaking: There are many people who most enjoy reciting compositions of others, and why not with all the great music available in the world. But for others, that’s not enough. Fortunately, if you would like to speak for yourself musically you can. You can compose and notate permanent forms and you can also compose spontaneously, making music in the moment to share  with others in an exhilarating real-time experience. This is what we call “improvisation”. In either case, spontaneous or notated, music communicates with people when it makes sense in some way.

Composing, especially spontaneous composition, can sound like a hard thing to do, but it isn’t. Humans are naturally skilled at being spontaneous and making sense while communicating in real-time. With our lifetime of experience it’s easy for our subconscious to leverage these abilities into music-making once we become conscious of ways that melodies make sense to us. To make melodies others can understand, we use rhythm to keep ideas related thematically. We also use tone types to convey tension or release in order to convey musical questions and answers. Even with just these two elements we can all make sense, compose, and musically communicate with ease. 

You may say, that’s nice and all, but does it really matter if my melodies are “making sense” to people? Can’t I learn what notes work on a chord and play something, or follow my ear and find notes that work? You can. But if you want people to listen and connect with what you’re sharing, you have to make sense in some way and quickly. Every soloist gets the listener’s attention just by starting their first note or phrase. Listeners are subconsciously always working to understand what they’re hearing, but they don’t like to work too hard: If the second phrase is not a message listeners understand in connection with the first, the soloist is on probation. If the third phrase is unrelated, listeners are probably finding another part of the music to follow. Maybe that’s sad, but it’s essentially true. We all, as humans, want to understand what’s being said - think about any book, movie, or conversation that you couldn’t follow. Communicating through music requires the ability to make sense.

4. Theory / Music Knowledge

Filling our brains and turning on light bulbs. The last of the core components of study best pursued outside of performance-based learning experiences is the broad and deep topic of musical knowledge. This is the collection of nuts and bolts in many shapes and sizes that reveal what is going on in music. From learning all keys, to understanding how exotic tonalities function, to knowing chord symbols, the Circle of Fifths, intervals - it all really helps! Developing this component, like all the other core areas of study, can be a fascinating, life-long journey. The more you know about music, the more liberated you are to create your own music. And, the more you understand, the more you can see how all those nuts and bolts assemble into the larger and less complicated constructs of music. This is another way our conscious and subconscious work together to make knowledge instantly deployable. Musical knowledge informs and empowers our musicianship.

Keep in mind that just reading about a concept without personally putting it to use in some way can be a waste of time. Try to take in new music knowledge by applying it and hearing its effect. Bit by bit you will build a grand structure - your musicianship.

Lastly, Firstly, and Always - Listening to Music

Surround your studies with listening to music. Encircling all of these learning experiences is the happily satisfiable requirement of listening to as much music as possible. There is no substitute for this step. Your mind and musical abilities will advance only through immersion in the listening experience. All music is learning ground, whether heard once or many times. As we grow in our musicianship, the same music we listened to before now yields new layers to digest. Listen to your favorites over and over and when you reach the point where you can sing along with the solos, you’ll know that your subconscious has learned ideas and concepts that you will draw on when you make your own music. Listen to music as much as you can.