What are the five elements of jazz?

If you didn’t take Music 101 in college and you’ve never played an instrument, then you probably aren’t familiar with the five fundamentals of jazz. Maybe you just love the sound of jazz, the way it makes you feel, and you’ve never quite been able to explain the magic behind it. That is more than okay! You don’t need to be an expert to love something. But, if you are interested in understanding what’s going on behind the scenes, we’ve got explanations of the basics right here in this blog post! Read on…

  1. Rhythm – Freddie Freeloader by Miles Davis

The rhythm is the beat at the heart of any jazz composition. It’s a pattern formed by a series of notes that range in duration and stress, which is what makes you tap your foot along to the tune. Like with most genres, jazz rhythms can be simple or complex, fast, or slow, but there’s always an underlying pulse, and, usually, jazz incorporates a variety of rhythms, which is what gives it such a snappy, swinging feel. 

“Freddie Freeloader” has a basic rhythm of 4/4, which means that there are four beats in every measure, and a quarter note receives one count. As you listen to this tune, count, or clap your hands one, two, three, four, and you’ll see what we’re talking about. 

  1. Harmony – Summertime by George Gershwin

Two or more notes that are played simultaneously creates the harmony, which is also referred to as a chord or change. In jazz, a chord usually consists of four to seven notes that are played at the same time, and the way that the notes are arranged in the chord convey a certain emotion. 

This jazz standard has a simple harmony. Can you hear when there are two or more notes being played at the same time?

  1. Form – Take the A Train by Duke Ellington

The form of jazz refers to the recurring chord progression that creates the structure of a song. Basically, there are multiple sections of a tune, and the way in which the sections are grouped determines the form. If you know anything about literature, forms are a bit like the rhyme schemes of a poem—for example, the first stanza may rhyme with the third and the second may rhyme with the fourth, creating an ABAB structure.

“Take the A Train” is 32 measures long and it’s separated into four sections that are each eight measures long. The first two sections have identical chords, the third is different and the fourth is the same as the first two. This form is called AABA. Listen carefully to see if you can spot the form! 

  1. Improvisation – Swing to Bop by Charlie Christian

Improvisation is exactly what it sounds like—musicians spontaneously compose music right there on the spot! This is probably the most crucial element of jazz, and the most challenging. A musician must not only be well-versed in his or her instrument but he or she must also understand how notes and chords play together, be able to play by ear (without reading sheet music), and be familiar with a wide variety of styles. No easy feat! 

This 1941 song was created through improvisation at a jam session. Listen for the interplay between the electric guitar and drum!

  1. Instruments and Sounds – Discoveries by Lorca Hart Trio

The most common jazz instruments are the saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, drums, guitar, clarinet, trombone, and flute. All these instruments run the gamut when it comes to their tones and sounds, which the musician must use to develop his or her own personal sound. Jazz is also unique in the way that musicians strive to express emotions, rather than just playing clearly. Jazz artists, for example, can manipulate pitches to “whine,” “growl,” or to play “darkly” or “lightly.”

Pay attention to the opening of “Discoveries” for the tenor saxophone and drum solo. Then as the song goes on, see which other instruments you can identify. Maybe you could even compare the way in which Ralph Moore plays the saxophone to another saxophonist, like Wayne Escoffery, to see how each musician creates a personal sound. 

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