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What’s the difference between Classical, Pop and Jazz piano lessons?

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

One of the main differences between classical piano lessons and pop/jazz piano lessons is that pop/jazz piano lessons typically place more emphasis on improvisational skills than classical piano lessons in general. If you are wondering what that means, improvisation is basically creating musical material on the spot. This would mean that the performance of the same pop or jazz tune will usually be a little different (or sometimes very different) every time it is played. In a way, classical piano can be likened to reading a prepared or memorized script word-for-word to create a presentation, whereas pop and jazz piano can be likened to reading bullet points off cue cards, and coming up with most of the parts spontaneously.

Having said that, the question, “which is better?” might come to mind. The answer really is, it depends on what your goals for piano lessons are. If you are looking to learn the piano so that you can sing along to a simple piano accompaniment, taking pop piano lessons that use a chordal approach would be more suitable. A chordal approach refers to a piano teaching method using chords (read more about chords here). The advantage of a chordal approach is that it makes learning very easily accessible even to beginners. If you do come across teachers touting their services promising to teach you your favorite piano tunes within a day or so, chances are, they are teaching using a chordal approach. With just knowing a few chords, you might be surprised at how many songs you can play.

As a beginner piano student, one of the downsides of learning the piano through a chordal approach is that, you may find yourself reaching a plateau in your learning progress very quickly. This is because starting with a chordal approach doesn’t sufficiently prepare and develop the student for the more complex muscle memory patterns required for intermediate to advanced pop piano material. Even progressing to a “high beginner” level of pop piano may become a drag because the student has skipped past much of the basics through a chordal approach.

Taking classical piano lessons would develop the student’s musical abilities more holistically (especially in terms of technique), and prepare students more adequately to take on more challenging musical material, regardless of the style of music, be it classical, pop, or jazz. This is because classical piano repertoire utilizes a wider range of muscle memory patterns in general, and thus develops the pianists ability to be more adaptable to different types of movement patterns around the piano. Classical piano syllabuses also tend to be better developed, and the learning progression tends to be more linear.

There are, however, possible downsides to classical piano lessons. The first being that many people do not relate to classical music because classical repertoire is not as widely heard on a day-to-day basis in modern society. As such, the learning of classical repertoire may feel ‘dry’ to some, although one might argue that taste for classical music can be acquired and inculcated.

Because of the way that classical piano is often taught today, students often do not learn to communicate, listen, and respond musically with other instrumentalists as much as pop/jazz students do. This is an important and arguably one of the main points of learning music in the first place. One of the main reasons why this important learning outcome is often missed in classical piano lessons, is overemphasis on exam syllabuses as an end in itself. The thing about exam syllabuses is, they are only frameworks that approximate the needed learning outcomes and skills to succeed in playing music. While exams can be a great way to pursue music education, being confined in the exam bubble is the fastest way to ruin it.

Up till this point, we have yet to discuss much of jazz piano and you might be wondering if jazz and pop piano are the same. A significant part of jazz piano lessons focuses on melodic improvisation. In a typical jazz performance, each instrumentalist in a jazz band will often take turns to take a “solo” - a short section where each instrumentalist will improvise the music material. The difference between pop piano and jazz piano improvisations is that jazz musicians often take full-blown improvisations whereas pop pianists generally improvise more closely around the tune itself. One may say that jazz affords greater freedom in improvisation than pop (in general).

All in all, it is not so much the type of lesson than it is the teaching method that determines the quality of music education. One of the ways to get the most value out of a music education is to start with classical piano lessons with a teacher who has a balanced level of experience in at least two of the broad genres (e.g. well versed in classical, pop or all three), and who is able to combine classical, pop and jazz piano approaches to develop a student’s musicalities from different perspectives. Here at Alpha Piano Studio, our core teachers are well-versed in at least two of the broad genres, if not all three of them. Get in touch with us today to find out more!

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