6 things to know about jazz composition

October 23, 2014

Most of the influential composers in jazz history—such as Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington—approached the craft of their music from the perspective of the player. In addition to the written note, the interaction and/or invention on the part of the players in an ensemble is essential to the success of a jazz composition. I keep this in mind when I’m writing my own music. I carry this philosophy into all musical styles, improvisational or not, as the connection to the player in an ensemble is essential for the successful communication of ideas.  Here are six things I’ve learned about jazz composition:

Photo by Pamela Fong.

1. Write Singable Melodies

Players can only be as expressive as the paths that are given to them. Great melodies will inspire expression and improvisation from the player, and will inspire you in turn to write great counterpoint. Be able to sing the melodies you write so you can feel how instrumental players might interpret them. A great way to practice melodic construction is by writing simple shapes that tell a story right from the very first phrase.

2. Intervals and Rhythm

Igor Stravinsky said that he was most concerned with intervals and rhythm. Rhythm is also the heart and soul of jazz.  

Create a groove that you like and improvise melodic ideas based on it, working out the details later. Also, try varying the intervals in your melodic ideas, keeping a close eye on the ones that might make your music more unique in your approach to writing. Experiment—you might prefer to use mostly whole-steps, or perhaps half-steps or fourths, or a combination of all of them to make your own unique sound. 

3. Use Transitions

How do you make a transition from one phrase to another or from one section of a song to another?   Or even from one song to another? Transitions give us a feeling of continuity in our performances. They are important on many levels. Without them, the music makes no sense. The opening phrase of your song should lead me to the next one. A good transition inside of a song can be as simple as a melody or bass motion that gets you from one key area to another. 

4. Manage Your Energy and Form

A great composition or arrangement will manage the energy of the performer from the beginning of a piece to the end. Also, the way you decide to put your forms together can make a difference in the energy of the piece. Does the song shut down after a minute to make room for a “free” solo? Is the entire ensemble playing at full force for two minutes? Where will you go from there? Do we really need to hear the entire melody again after three solos? The answer to these questions (and others), are entirely yours and will be part of your unique approach to song construction.  

5. Listen

We don’t create art in a bubble, and we can’t deny the humanity in music, as we rely on the inspiration of the community to drive our creativity. As we get more insular in our daily activities, it’s important to keep track of the music and musicians that inspire us, and to keep looking and listening for music that will push us in new directions. For example, I pause to think about what Debussy would have been writing had he not heard the gamelan.  

6. Make It Feel Good

I tell my students about this with regard to drum and percussion parts, but it goes for everything I write. If a part sits well on an instrument, the player will lean into the part and make it sing. The best way to learn this skill is to listen to players of many different styles. Keyboard players need to think not only about what notes to play in the chord, but how they fit in to the rhythm section. Think about the instrumentalist who’ll be playing your music, and the resulting experience will bring people together. That is creative music at its best!


Vince Mendoza has been at the forefront of jazz and contemporary music as a composer, conductor, and recording artist for the last 20 years, garnering six Grammy awards and 28 nominations. Mendoza’s new album Nights on Earth features his own compositions arranged for small and large ensembles. Find out more at vincemendoza.net.

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