Jazz Piano VS Classical Piano – Which Should You Learn First?

Classical VS Jazz Piano

Jazz piano vs. classical piano is an exciting topic that brings me back to my early days when I started to learn to play the piano. After about a year of my introductory basic piano lessons, I had to pick which route to go down.

The routes I had to choose between were jazz and classical. I ultimately decided to learn classical piano first. This is a decision that I am happy about to this day; however, I wanted to create this article to give you insight into what you can expect between jazz and classical.

I am a firm believer that both styles are great for pianists to learn. Jazz and classical piano are vastly different, and it would be insane to say otherwise. This being said, they both have a ton of value to offer piano students.

Jazz Piano Vs. Classical Piano Overview

After about a year of lessons, you will typically choose a piano style you want to focus on. The main reason for this is that most piano instructors do not teach both jazz and classical.

The main difference between jazz and classical is that jazz taps into the improvisational side of things more than classical music.

It’s not uncommon for highly talented classical pianists to not be able to play basic improvisation. The reason being that classical music doesn’t leave a lot of room for improvisation unless you’re studying it on the side.

Classical Piano

Classical piano is excellent for those who like structure. You will often be reading sheet music and playing what you see on the page.

While music is open to interpretation, classical music is meant to be played to what you see on the page.

Some classical piano standards are some of the most beautiful pieces of written music in the world today. 

There are many different styles when it comes to classical piano. While instructors will typically have an idea for a curriculum that they will want you to study, you will also usually have a choice for pieces you wish to learn.

I’ve personally always liked piano pieces that had emotion, whether they be aggressive or slow. 

Why Don’t Classical Piano Inustrctors Teach Improvisation?

Many classical piano instructors never learned improvisation themselves. I studied piano in college, and none of my instructors were going to impress with improvisation.

This isn’t a bad thing; it’s just that classical music doesn’t require improvisation.

You will typically be learning to play classical pieces from famous composers such as Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Brahms, etc. 

There’s never a section in classical piano that calls for a bar to be improvised.

While I played classical piano for about ten years, I always had a knack for improvising, and I couldn’t help but want to play more improvisational styles.

I thought having a background in classical music still helped me improvise as many classical pieces require good finger dexterity.

Where I think classical piano instructors can swing and miss is that they leave out improvisation almost entirely.

A lot of this comes down to the music theory side of things. I always found that my music theory knowledge lacked until I took music theory in high school.

While I always had a great ear, I didn’t understand why I was playing chord progressions and improvising in certain ways until music theory.

Jazz Piano

Some of the best jazz piano songs can be played in a wide variety of arrangments and difficulties. Jazz piano is extremely complex and can feel entirely foreign to even highly talented classical pianists.

This is because jazz piano has this other side to it that contains mathematics. When improvising, there are a lot of things that you have to learn in jazz piano, outside of being able to do it physically.

I’ve always found it fascinating to watch incredible pianists play jazz music. You can tell they are always thinking ten steps ahead and navigating themselves through the music.

This being said, the curriculum for jazz piano is vastly different than classical piano.

You will likely start out with a book on jazz theory and start learning the basics of blues improvisation and scales.

As you get better at improvising, you will start to be introduced to more complex chord progressions and scales, keeping you moving along on your journey.

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