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Jazz and classical piano: closer than you might think

jazz piano vs classical piano

Many pianists wonder what is the difference between jazz vs. classical piano. Are the two styles really that different? Are there different techniques involved in classical vs. jazz music styles? Are there different approaches to music in jazz piano vs. classical piano? What would I need to learn in order to switch between jazz and classical piano styles? 

This week, we will explore the bridges between jazz vs. classical for learning how to make music. What approaches, techniques, and skills remain constant between jazz and classical piano? What differences do we need to account for between the two schools of thought? Let’s check it out!

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Jazz piano vs. classical piano: the similarities

Jazz and classical piano styles share many similarities. Both styles benefit from some knowledge of scales, chords, and piano technique. For example, understanding the names and locations of the piano keys, understanding the basic major and minor scales, as well as the structure of triads and seventh chords will go a long way in both jazz and classical styles.

If you need some refreshment on these topics, online piano lessons with Skoove can help you cover the fundamentals of piano that are suitable for both jazz and classical styles, as well as pop, rock, blues, and more. After all, knowledge is power and the more you know about the piano, the more fun you will have!

Classical music vs. jazz: the differences

While classical piano and jazz piano share many fundamental similarities, there are some key differences between the two styles. Classical music is focused more on performing repertoire exactly as a composer has notated it. While there are abridged versions of more advanced classical pieces that are suitable for beginners, the goal in the music is generally to perform the piece as accurately and precisely as the composer has notated it.

On the other hand, jazz piano is more firmly rooted in improvisation and less focused on the precision of a notated performance. Jazz repertoire is based more around melodies, chord progressions, and rhythms that are used as vehicles for improvisation. 

No two performances of a jazz piano piece are identical. This difference is part of the magic of improvisation, but can often be a little intimidating for those pianists who have only studied classical piano repertoire. 

jazz vs classical

Steps to switch from classical to jazz piano

Switching from classical to jazz piano is not as difficult as you might think. There are some simple strategies you can practice to develop your skills in the direction of jazz including:

  • Practice more ‘advanced’ harmony like seventh chords
  • Learn the modes of the major scale for improvising
  • Learn some basic jazz repertoire or ‘standards’

Practice the seventh chords

Practicing the different families of seventh chords will open your fingers and ears to the basic chords used in jazz piano styles. The four basic types of seventh chords you should practice are:

  • Major seventh chords
  • Dominant seventh chords
  • Minor seventh chords
  • Minor seventh flat fifth chords

All of these seventh chords are four note chords. You can think of them all like basic triads with one additional note. 

For example, the major seventh chord is a major triad (think C – E – G) with a major third added on top (think C – E – G – B). The dominant seventh chord is a major triad with a minor third added on top (think C – E – G plus B♭). The minor seventh chord is a minor triad with minor third added on top (think C – E♭ – G – B♭). And the minor seventh flat fifth chord is a diminished triad with a major third on top (think C – E♭ – G♭ – B♭).

Doodle around with the modes

Do you know how to play the major scale? For example, the C major scale is spelled C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C, the same thing as all the white keys on the piano. If not, practice this scale before moving on.

Did you know that you can actually build 7 different scales just from this one collection of notes? These different forms are called the ‘modes’ of the major scale. The reason we learn the mmodes of the major scale for jazz piano is because each of the modes corresponds to a particular seventh chord.

For example, if we play the major scale from C, we call this the Ionian mode. The Ionian mode corresponds with the major seventh chord. However, if we play all the same notes of the C major scale, except we start on D (D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D), we have created the second mode of the major scale, the Dorian mode. The Dorian mode corresponds with the minor seventh chord. If you want to sound like you know how to play jazz piano, you need to understand how the different modes of the scale correspond with the different seventh chords. 

Here is a quick run-down of the musical modes of the major scale in C:

  • Ionian mode (C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C) corresponds with major seventh chords
  • Dorian mode (D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D) corresponds with minor seventh chords
  • Phrygian mode (E – F – G – A – B – C – D – E) corresponds with minor seventh chords
  • Lydian mode (F – G – A – B – C – D – E – F) corresponds with major seventh chords
  • Mixolydian mode (G – A – B – C – D – E – F – G) corresponds with dominant seventh chords
  • Aeolian mode (A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A) corresponds with minor seventh chords
  • Locrian mode (B – C – D – E – F – G – A – B) corresponds with minor seventh flat fifth chords.

While this may seem a little complex if you have never approached it, these scales are basic fundamentals to jazz piano and you should take the time to understand how each one of them sounds and operates.

Learn some tunes!

Finally, if you are truly interested in bridging the gap between classical and jazz piano styles, you need to learn some jazz repertoire or ‘standards’! Fortunately, Skoove has many great lessons with piano sheet music on jazz repertoire for you to practice with.

For example, “Blue Moon” by the famed songwriters Rodgers and Hart would be a great place to start. With a simple chord progression and classic melody, “Blue Moon” is a wonderful way to dip your toes into some basic seventh chords to improvise with.

For example, “Blue Moon” by the famed songwriters Rodgers and Hart would be a great place to start. With a simple chord progression and classic melody, “Blue Moon” is a wonderful way to dip your toes into some basic seventh chords to improvise with.

Another example from Skoove’s library is “Fly Me to the Moon.” Originally composed by Bart Howard in 1954 but made popular a decade later by the singer Frank Sinatra, “Fly Me to the Moon” is another jazz standard that is perfectly suited for beginners interested in checking out some basic jazz chords  that are nice and simple to improvise over.

Finally, “Autumn Leaves” is one of the most frequently performed jazz standards. Basically everyone who studies jazz at any point will learn how to play “Autumn Leaves.” While the chord progression is a little more complex than “Fly Me to the Moon” or “Blue Moon”, you should not be afraid. The tune is a classic of the standard jazz repertoire and quite fun to improvise with!

Bring it back to basics

There are many similarities between jazz and classical music and you can apply many of the same skills from classical piano to jazz. Understanding of basic scales, chords, and piano technique is essential to both styles. 

However, the biggest difference is the approach to performance. Jazz relies more on improvisation through skeletal song structures while classical music leans on highly composed material that is performed nearly identically everytime. 

If you are interested in learning more about topics like the modes of the major scale, jazz chord progressions, and piano technique, give Skoove a try with a 7-day free trial this week!

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Author of this blog post:

Edward Bond

Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.

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Start your musical journey
  • Fall in love with the music - Learn your favorite songs; whether they're classical, pop, jazz or film music, all at a level that suits you.
  • Enjoy interactive piano lessons - Learn with courses that help you master everything from music theory, chords, technique and more.
  • Get real-time feedback - Improve your practice with rich feedback as Skoove listens to your playing and highlights what went well and areas for improvement.
7 days free trial
$9.99 / month after the free trial, billed annually at $119.99
Start your piano journey now!