Classical vs. Jazz Music

Long story short, I was classically trained in piano from the age of 6 completing up to the Performers ARCT Diploma Royal Conservatory Music Program (like any other Asian kid). Then the discovery of Alicia Keys in the summer of 2000 opened up my world and passion for R&B, then soul and then neosoul that completely transformed my music repertoire, my playing and writing style. The "transition" from classical to R&B/Neosoul and now jazz is one that is very challenging but extremely rewarding when I find myself in "the pocket". The learning curve has given me huge appreciation and respect for both genres. As I continue to learn and practice the theory that characterizes R&B/jazz/neosoul music, I've come to notice a few differences. (For the purpose of this blog, I'm going to focus more between classical vs jazz because there are also differences among R&B/Jazz/Neosoul). But are there similarities between the two? Is one harder than the other to play and/or learn? Here are some differences I've noticed that I personally feel differentiates the two genres.

1) In Theory...

In addition to the practical component of RCM, there was also the theoretical component. I failed one of the harmonic theory courses. That's right - I failed and here's why. I used too many consecutive (hidden aka "exposed") fifths and octaves in my compositions. The first difference that I noticed was how "strict" classical music is particularly when it comes to composing. In jazz you don't only need to also know theory but to master application. The harmonies and chords starts with a similar basic structure but jazz/R&B/Neosoul increases the complexity by using extended chords - 9ths, flat 13ths, suspensions. To the classical ear, this will sound dissonant but I immediately loved the sound - I call them "CRUNCHY CHORDS"! In addition the chord inversions, intervals (I had no idea what a tritone was!!) and the different types of scale modes (I literally thought that major, minors, natural, melodic and harmonics were all there was!) are all integral parts to jazz music. Chord progressions are typically traditional in classical music whereas in jazz movement changes every 2 seconds, are irregular and in my opinion a wee bit more complex.

2) Page vs Stage

The "restrictive" nature in classical music is not a bad thing! In fact I now know that these rules are in place to respect and reflect the history and evolution of classical music from the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic to Post "Great War" years. Classical musicians usually perform musical notes as they are WRITTEN ON PAGE by the composer and hardly "stray" from the score. Sight reading (ie. being fluent in reading music notes and rhythm) is practiced ad nauseam. There are a lot of "guidelines" as to how pieces should be played from dynamics (eg. forte vs mezzo piano) to tempo (eg. allegro vs adagio) to  characteristics (eg. vivace vs. cantabile)

Jazz music is heavily IMPROVISED. The basic chord progressions learned in theory is then used to improvise melodies and different rhythms over them - on the spot, in the spur of the moment on stage! My current favourite pianists are all jazz pianists - Robert Glasper, Big Yuki, Brian Culbertson, Noah Kellman to name a few. When I watch and listen to their live performances I am mesmerized by the ir improvisations and wish that I can one day get to their level. The freedom that jazz allows musicians to own and share spontaneously is very refreshing. The harmonies and progressions that are developed on the spot is extremely mind blowing and allows personal expression - an art that I appreciate about jazz music.

3) Brain activity of a classical vs. jazz pianist! #NERDALERT!

I came across this study and I REALLY ENJOYED the science behind. A study called "Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently" that was published in the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. In summary this study found that classical pianists while playing focus on fingering and technique vs. jazz pianists who focuses more on improvisation and adaptations. The jazz pianist "re-plans" much sooner and therefore were better able to react and carry on their performance. (Maybe this explains why I find it soooo difficult to improvise and recover after making mistakes!) The classical pianist excels in the technical aspect and finger positioning and therefore made fewer mistakes while playing. A really really interesting read!

Both styles require a lot of practice and dedication. Even though I am currently more involved in the jazz/R&B/neosoul genres, "never forget your roots" - I am so grateful (of course not at the time!) that my mom put me through the grueling years of classical training because it has shaped me into the musician and artist I am today!