Characteristics of Music: Jazz

Apr 14, 2021

There are so many kinds of musical genres out there, and though many are similar, no two are exactly alike! That’s why we’re taking a little time to explore what makes some of these genres so unique.

Last week we got started with a look at the characteristics of pop music. Let’s keep that ball rolling with jazz!

Although the audience at a jazz show may not always agree on which music or which artists qualify to be included in “jazz,” you can recognize jazz, on a fundamental level, through an understanding of some of its basic characteristics. Let’s take a look!

The Nature of Jazz

One of the reasons the audience can’t always agree on what jazz is, is thanks to one of the genres most defining characteristics: the high-value musicians place on finding their own unique sound and style. This means, for example, that trumpeter Miles Davis sounds vastly different from other trumpeters like Louis Armstrong or Clive Baker.

Jazz musicians like to play their songs in their own, distinct style, which means you can listen to the same song played by a dozen jazz artists, and hear a dozen different sounds. Each musician’s style is different, as do their improvised solos. Jazz is all about making something familiar – like a song – and turning it into something fresh. It’s about taking something shared and making it personal.

These are just some of the reasons jazz is still around and often considered “America’s classical music.”


Syncopation, in a nutshell, is when a note is accented that wouldn’t normally be accented. Think about it this way: usually, as you play your instrument and tap your foot to keep time, you accent notes on the downbeat, when your foot touches the ground.

Jazz, on the other hand, emphasizes the upbeat instead. Since this is uncommon in most musical genres it helps to keep the music exciting, engaging, and even surprising. It keeps the music from getting boring and gives the music a somewhat “offbeat” feeling.


Another key element of jazz that’s connected to syncopation is swing. Swing, although a somewhat subjective quality, is that forward momentum a performance often has. The feeling of swing is created using a “swung eighth note.”

Eighth notes, by themselves, are worth half a beat. But a swing eighth note comes in the form of a group of three notes, called triplets. The first of the three notes is played slightly longer than the last two, creating a short-long rhythmic pattern, one many jazz musicians call a “sprang-a-lang.”


Jazz, perhaps more than other genres, requires many specialized and innovative techniques, mainly because its players create the music mostly spontaneously. It’s true that well-known jazz standards have a recognizable melody set to consistent harmonies – but the best jazz performers make their mark with their incredible improvisational skills.

In order to best enable this incredible improvisation, jazz relies on the blues scale. It can be played for the entirety of a 12-bar blues progression. For example, a C hexatonic blues scale is ideal for use when improvising a solo over a C blues progression. This technique is so versatile that the blues scale can also be used to improvise over a minor chord.

The blues scale helps give jazz its “funky,” “down-home,” and “earthy” sound.

Bent Notes & Uncommon Modes

Another key characteristic of jazz music is the regular use of note mixes that can’t be recreated on a piano. Jazz performers twist or bend a note – by bending the guitar strings or sliding between notes on a saxophone – they change its pitch and create a sound that doesn’t quite fit into the Western chromatic scale. These “bent notes” give jazz a mysterious, intense, and vital quality.

Connected to this idea of bent notes is another common jazz technique: the use of innovative modes. Modes are different scales or groupings of notes. Instead of using fast harmony changes that require a soloist to use a wide range of scales, modular jazz songs – as well as skilled improvisations – work around a couple of scales – either chromatic scales, or scales from India, Africa, Arabia, or others.

Distinctive Voices

Finally, just as each individual singer has their own particular voice, so too does each jazz artist. With a little experience, you’ll be able to identify varieties in phrasing (how each performer assembles a series of notes, just like speech patterns), tone, cadenced sense, improvisational style, and all the different components that come together to create each performer’s melodic identity. For example:

  • Miles Davis was known for playing the trumpet in a muted whisper.
  • Charlie Parker’s saxophone always had a sharp edge, and his solos featured speed and variety.
  • Jo Jones created an entire symphony of sounds with only his drum kit’s cymbals.

A jazz musician isn’t only a musician. They’re also a sort of composer – one who creates their music on the fly and in real-time, and whose style and preferences play a role in the performance just as much as the structure of the song they’re playing.

In the end, it can be difficult to define jazz, simply because there is so much room to create during any given performance. But if it swings with off-beat notes, flies into wild and fun improvisations, bends notes in ways you’d never expect, and offers up a distinct and unique voice, you’ve probably got yourself a jazz song!

Are you looking to start your own musical journey? Get started today with the professional instructors at The Music Studio! Check out all the programs we have available – both in-person and not online – and take your first steps into a wider world of music today!