The most effective way to learn jazz piano theory

If you are the kind of jazz pianist who enjoys learning huge mounts of jazz theory at one time, then by all means, keep doing this. The intellectual process motivates you to keep learning and you love the process. Don’t change a thing about how you learn.

For most pianists, though, this method doesn’t work very well. I get new piano students all the time who have eagerly started jazz method books only to find that they are too “front-loaded” with theory. All the content is valid, but it’s simply too early in the learning process to assimilate it all. So the student gets frustrated and soon loses interest. It’s like a toddler having to learn the “theory of walking” or something equally ridiculous.

The good news is that none of the jazz greats learned this way! They learned by listening to a lot of jazz, beginning to learn tunes, and diving right in. When they did learn a new bit of theory in the form of a scale or chord voicing, they would spend days, weeks, or even months applying that new information to everything they played. Only when it became easy and natural would they be ready to learn a little more theory.

This is how my jazz piano teacher Billy Taylor told me he and his contemporaries learned and it worked for me as well. There’s simply too much theoretical information in jazz for anyone to learn it all at once. Besides, there’s really no reason to do so.

Rather than feeling you have to learn everything at once, start by choosing one and only one piece of theory to learn right now. It may be chords voiced in fourths or the Dorian mode. Whatever you choose, try to apply that concept to everything you play. Have fun with it and enjoy the new sounds your hands are playing. Practice it in all 12 keys and on many, many songs. This will certainly keep you busy for a while and then, when it has become so easy that you don’t have to think about it anymore, you’ll be ready to move on to the next little bit.

This musical approach will keep you interested, motivated, and vibrant for years to come, and your playing ability will improve at a rate that’s equal to your theoretical knowledge. After all, that’s what you’ve always wanted, right?

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