Defining Jazz

Appropriate for grades 2 – 5.



Music is a form of communication and, as such, is constantly changing and evolving. Most musicians also view music as a language. Students need to appreciate the dynamic aspect of the definition in order to understand what is and isn’t jazz. Understanding the basic elements that define jazz as it changes to reflect the culture and times is essential to understanding why some music is classified as jazz and other music is not.


The purpose of this lesson is to help the students understand what defines the genre of jazz as well as to help them understand the dynamic nature of this music.



1. Understand that music is a language – just like English or Spanish.

2. Understand that Jazz is not easy to define.

3. Recognize the elements of what defines jazz


Key Point 1: Music is a language

Language is a way that individuals communicate. Music is a method of expression that is considered by many experts to be a form of communication. Music has the ability to convey abstract thoughts, ideas, and feelings.

Key Point 2: Languages are living things

Languages are not stagnant – they are “alive.” New words are born, meanings change, and words may die out from lack of use. Language changes as people change.

Look at the scientific definition of “alive” and discuss how language may or may not posses any of the characteristics of living things:

Living things are made of cells
Living things obtain and use energy.
Living things grow and develop.
Living things reproduce.
Living things respond to their environment.
Living things adapt to their environment.

From a sociological perspective, music is alive. It grows and changes to reflect the culture and times in which it exists.

If music is a language, then jazz may be considered a dialect. Spanish and English are dialects of language just like jazz or classical genres are dialects of music.

Key Point 3: Defining a moving target

When something grows and changes it is not the same today as it was yesterday. Defining something that changes is difficult because the thing itself is not constant.

Since jazz music has been changing and evolving since it was born, there is some disagreement as to what constitutes jazz music. However, there are some basic characteristics of jazz that help us to identify and distinguish jazz from other types of music.

Key Point 4: The Basic Characteristics of Jazz

A car has four wheels. However, everything with four wheels is not a car. A piece of music may have one of the elements of jazz and still NOT be jazz. In a similar way, there are some jazz pieces that don’t have all of the defining elements (Going back to the car example: not all cars have a hard top: some are convertibles).

The two main elements that identify something as jazz are syncopation and improvisation.


In syncopation, the emphasis is placed between the beats. Use the following samples to demonstrate the difference between syncopated and non-syncopated music.

Example 1 (No Syncopation)



Click on the player below to listen to what Example 1 sounds like.



Example 2 (No Syncopation with Band Playing Along)








Click on the player below to hear what Example 2 sounds like.




Example 3 (Syncopation)






Click on the player below to hear what Example 3 sounds like.




Example 4 (Syncopation with Band Playing Along)








Click on the player below to hear what Example 4 sounds like.



You can also demonstrate the element of syncopation by having the students clap a steady rhythm. Then have one member of the class clap in between the beats while you help the class to maintain the steady rhythm.



Improvisation is the technique of changing a melody as you play it so that it’s not the same every time. This may be done by modifying the notes, rhythm, or both. In jazz, players often improvise to reflect their moods. If a player is feeling down or blue, the musician might play slowly with a mellow tone. If the musician is feeling angry, the tone might be louder, more staccato (short, emphasized notes), and make rapid movement from one note to another.

Use the following samples of a familiar tune (Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) to demonstrate what improvising sounds like.

Example 5 (Improvisation embellishing the melody)








Click on the player below to hear what Example 5 sounds like.



Example 6 (Improvisation playing through the harmony)









Click on the player below to hear what Example 6 sounds like.



Classroom Activities using the companion CD:

Exercise1: “So Misunderstood” is written from the dog’s perspective. In your opinion, how does a cat think differently? Write a short poem on what your cat (or anyone’s cat or other pet) would sing about if the animal could sing. Or write a letter from your pet to you telling you how s/he REALLY feels.

Exercise2: Listen to the second song “Afternoons” and imagine what the dog is doing during different parts of the song. Write a story that connects the ideas together and tells about the dog’s afternoon.

Exercise3: Play an instrumental jazz CD (check your local public library). Discuss with the class what the composer was thinking or feeling when s/he wrote the tune. Discuss how the musicians may be feeling as they play the music. Now ask the class to interpret how the CD makes them feel by writing a short poem. Work as a group by listing adjectives, nouns, and phrases on the board. Keep the music playing as you work to organize the thoughts into a poem.

Resources/ Materials required:

Classroom, chalkboard or whiteboard, and a method for playing the samples (either PC with soundcard or a CD player with the samples burned to disk). Teachers are authorized to copy these samples to CD as many times as needed for educational purposes.