Intro - Hello everyone, Kyle Shook here again with Music Scene. I have been teaching piano for a while now, and this is one of the most commonly asked questions. There are many differences between the classical pianist and the jazz pianist. In my experience the phrase “Jazz pianist” does not just mean a person can only play or has studied jazz music, and the phrase “classical pianist” does not mean a person only plays or has studied classical music. In fact, the definitions in my experience are quite different than most people think. Below I will list the definitions in my opinion and 4 differences between the two phrases.
Basic Definitions - I am going to list these two very basic definitions below, so the article is easier to understand. These definitions are my own opinion from my own experience playing piano.
Jazz Pianists – A person who plays and understands chord theory and can read chord charts. Can play without music sometimes.
Classical Pianists – A person who can read notes and play with music in front of them.
Side Note -These two phrases actually do not mean they play classical or jazz music at all.
1 – Reading Music
Jazz Pianists a lot of the time do not read traditional double clef music. Instead Jazz Pianist usually read chord charts that also have the melody line. Sometimes jazz pianist also play by ear, because they have such a deep understanding in chord and chord theory they are able to do so. Classical pianists traditionally just read the two clefs of music. In my experience classical pianists will have to have a sheet of music in order to play a song.
2 - Understanding of Theory
A good pianist usually has a great understanding of chord theory and music theory. In my experience a traditional jazz pianist has a different understanding of theory than classical pianists. Jazz pianists usually have a deep understanding of chord theory and scales, so they can comp and create solos with whatever song they are playing. Classical pianists usually have a deep understanding of piano and music terms such as crescendo, moderato, etc. Both of these undertandings of theory are very important.
3 – Memorization
Jazz pianist usually like to memorize solos from their favorite old school jazz player. Classical pianist usually memorizes classical pieces. When jazz pianist memorizes a song they usually use their ear to figure it out, while a classical pianist will review the notes over and over until the piece is memorized.
4 – Gigs and Bands
In my experience jazz pianists get more gigs, but classical pianist can go to competitions and perform well. The reason I believe jazz pianist get more gigs is to play in a band generally one must be able to understand and read chords. A pianist in a band usually does not have the exact notation in front of them (which is what a classical pianist needs) they will have some sort of chord chart, or they will have the piece memorized.
If someone has been playing piano for a long time, there are many different skills that they could be good at depending on what type of practice and piano style they have chosen. They may be great at making up chords and playing songs that way off the top of their head or with their ear, or they may be great at reading notes, and they can play any piece of music put in front of them. I would recommend to be a well-rounded pianists one should study both ways, so they can read the music and also understand chords and how to play in a band.
If you would like to study either of these styles please click below.