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An Introduction to the Jazz Language

The world of jazz is an interesting world comprised of a complex, dense musical language. For someone looking to start learning jazz it is often very hard to sift through all of this information and find a good, clear spot to start his or her journey down the rabbit hole known as jazz. This article is for those new “jazz cats” out there (if you’re learning jazz, you might as well get used to all of the jazz slang terms!), or in this case “jazz kittens”, and it will present an introduction to the basic melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements of the jazz language. Lets get started!


One of jazz’s defining traits is the use of improvisation. Being able to spontaneously create and/or alter melodic material in a live setting is paramount to being a jazz musician. The world of improvisation is a very tricky world to navigate because there are a myriad of different devices and languages to absorb. Also, improvisation is a very individualistic thing so everyone has a process unique to themselves; different things work for different people.

At its roots, improvisation is simply creative control of melodic material so a good place to start is with some simple, raw melodic material that you can use in your improvisations so lets take a look at four common scale choices and what chords they can be used on. These scales will act as creative tools that you can use to improvise melodies!

#1: Major scale (1-2-3-4-5-6-7)

Ah the good ol’ major scale! It’s very common in jazz improvisation and is typically used over Major 7 chords (more on Major 7 chords soon!).  Here is C major (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C). Be sure to practice in all 12 keys!

#2: Dorian (1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7)

This is the second mode, or variation, of the major scale. Commonly used on minor 7 chords. Here is C Dorian (C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C). In this case, C Dorian can be used on C minor 7.

#3: Mixolydian (1-2-3-4-5-6-b7)

The fifth mode of the major scale and is commonly used to solo on dominant 7 chords (very common in the blues!) Here is C Mixolydian (C-D-E-F-F-A-Bb-C) which can be used to create melodies over C dominant 7.

#4: Locrian (1-b2-b3-4-b5-b6-b7)

This is the seventh mode of the major scale and is commonly used on minor 7b5 chords. Here is C Locrian (C-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb-C) which can be used on a C minor 7b5 chord.

Learn these scales as written and then in all 12 keys. Once you have the scale memorize, practice trying to create melodies just using the scale!

For more on scales check out this video:

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