Improve your jazz listening skills

2014-04-16 — Article of 900 words - Available in Italiano MOCC edX Music Jazz

A MOOC on Jazz from University of Texas at Austin

From January to March 2014, I followed Jazz Appreciation a MOOC from University of Texas at Austin. The course goals were to enhance “enjoyment of jazz by developing an informed understanding and deep appreciation of the art”. I greatly enjoyed following the course and I recommend it to anyone interested in jazz. A new session will be probably available in early 2015.

My journey with jazz music

First a little personal background to put in context my recommendation.

I have no formal musical education, but I listen to various types of music: classical, rock, pop. Some years ago I decided to explore jazz music to find out if I liked it. I red magazines and books, I listened to the recommended disks, and I slowly built an appreciation for the music and a taste for some of its styles. Without a musical education I knew I wasn’t fully appreciating it, but I didn’t find any readily available intermediate source of information on jazz: one that could explain jazz more deeply without getting too technical.

Then, in the latest two years, the MOOC phenomenon exploded. I got interested in it and I followed some courses on computer science and statistics. When I saw the jazz course offered by edX and red its syllabus I had no hesitation: I had to participate.

How the course is organized

The course is described as “an introduction to and discussion of the jazz idiom, emphasizing listening skills and comprehension of the process of improvisation. Particular attention will be paid to musical contributions of leading jazz artists throughout the history of the music”. The course has a length of 10 weeks, and every week there are few videos on a specific theme:

  1. How Jazz Works
  2. Developing Listening Skills: Hard Bop
  3. Refining Listening Skills: Cool Jazz and Bebop
  4. Bebop and Swing: The Classic Jazz Eras
  5. Ellington and the Beginnings
  6. Louis and Miles
  7. Miles and Trane
  8. Trane, Free Jazz, and Mingus
  9. Keyboard Giants: Monk, Evans, Hancock, and Corea
  10. Fusion and Stars of Today

While the first week introduces basic terms such as form, melody, harmony, rhythmic feeling, the following weeks develop the same terms and some more advanced in the context of jazz history and jazz styles.

Professor Jeff Hellmer teaches in nearly all of the videos. His style is very relaxed. He explains the concepts thoroughly and with many repetition to make them stick. Often he uses the piano to better explain a particular technique or jazz piece. He is passionate about jazz and its enthusiasm makes the lessons very interesting.

Every week you are introduced to a jazz style and to the leading artists of that style. Professor Hellmer explains not only the technical details, but even the historical and social background of the years in which the style was born. Even more important every new style introduced is compared to the previous.

If you already know something about jazz styles, you can see from the syllabus that the order of presentation is not strictly chronological: hard bop (50s) is presented before cool jazz and bebop (40s-50s), swing (30s-40s), and early jazz (20s). While it seems strange at first, I think that the order has been chosen for its pedagogical purpose: first styles, such as hard bop and cool, with a clear form structure and few instruments, then styles more “complex” in term of virtuosity (bebop) or number of instruments (swing).

The participation to the course is evaluated with a weekly check (you have to confirm that you watched the videos) and by testing your progress in memorizing the concepts explained with a SR system powered by Cerego. I already used in the past SR system such as Anki and SuperMemo, and I think that using such a system in a musical appreciation course, instead of the usual weekly quizzes, is a great idea.

What I learned and why I recommend it

Thanks to this course I surely improved my listening skills and I got a solid grasp of tempo, rhythm, melody, and harmony. Moreover I was introduced to jazz styles and artists that I barely knew before.

Clearly this course is not a substitute for a course on musical theory or practice. If you don’t have a formal musical education some concepts could only be learned intuitively. For example, you could appreciate improvisation, one the main characteristics of jazz music, but probably you will not fully understand how artists that play together for the first time could improvise on a precomposed melody and obtain a result of such beauty.

I want to conclude recommending again this course. If you don’t know anything about jazz, but you are curious and want to learn something about it, or if you listen regularly to jazz but you are not an expert and you don’t know exactly why you like it… then follow the course at the next session available.