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Developing Your Own Language

David Berger



I was going to spend this morning working on my upcoming book: Creative Jazz Composing and Arranging, Volume III: Writing for Small Groups, but while I was reading through my email and Facebook posts, a member of the Jazz Arrangers group asked a question about Triad Pairs.  I’d never heard this term before, but I assumed that he was referring to stacking two non-related triads on top of each other. My assumption was borne out by the responses from other arrangers.


The online conversation led to comments about writing what you hear rather than using intellectually-derived techniques. Oddly enough, this is a topic that comes up over and over in the book I’m writing, as well as in the previous two volumes. Like just about every other musical issue, this is central to all the arts, our everyday expression and life itself.


Think about how you learned to speak. As an infant, you didn’t know any words. You heard your caregivers speak, and gradually learned the meaning of their words and how to produce those sounds so that you could be understood. First you learned individual nouns and gradually added some verbs and finally adjectives and adverbs as you copied their phrases and sentences. After a while you had enough understanding of how to put this all together so that you could start to form your own sentences to be able to express your needs.


By the age of three or four, you get the idea that reading would give you more power and control of your life, rather than just having mom and dad read you bedtime stories. So you learned numbers and the alphabet, and then progressed to 3-letter words, 4-letter words, and so forth. When you got to first grade, the idea of grammar was introduced, so that your speech would conform to the rest of society, and you’d be better understood and respected as a native speaker. You read all kinds of kid lit: Dr. Seuss, Harry Potter, and the like until you hit middle school where serious authors were introduced.


I remember reading poetry starting in the fifth grade, which led me to Edgar Allan Poe—first his poems and then his prose—I loved the way he told his macabre tales. By seventh grade we were diagramming sentences and reading Dickens, Hemingway and many other great writers. It quickly dawned on me that these authors were superior to everything I had heard or read in my short life in two basic ways: their speech sounded more beautiful to my ears (their rhythm, form, inflection, etc.), and they were better storytellers than my friends, parents, and even my teachers. They told better stories than the TV shows I watched.


So, now my teachers wanted me to emulate these great minds. I felt terribly ill-equipped. My vocabulary was too limited, and I hadn’t had sufficient life experience to draw upon. Or so I thought. When I look back now, I can see that a pile of things had happened to me in my young life, but I didn’t understand enough about those events and relationships to see their importance or universality. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I began to gain some self-knowledge and became a voracious reader. It would be another ten years before I started writing, first papers in grad school and then articles, liner and performance notes, and ultimately my blog and books.


My musical journey was not all that different in its path; I just progressed much more quickly. My early study of Bach chorales (starting at age 11) gave me a basis for understanding harmony. When I got interested in jazz a year later, I was able to apply the principles I learned from Bach to what I was hearing in both jazz and popular music (American Songbook).


I took jazz piano lessons for a year and listened to my slowly increasing record collection several hours every day. I wanted to learn to speak this jazz language like a native—Horace Silver, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and all my other heroes. It took me years to learn this language, but I was determined. I continued to play trumpet and piano in bands as well as arrange and compose for anyone who would play my music. Little by little the pieces started to fall into place.


I continued to listen to my heroes and added two new ones when I was 16: Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer. I frequented the Village Vanguard and came under their spell. I wanted to do what they were doing. I got friendly with Thad and would show him my scores. That summer I went to Berklee and studied harmony and arranging in a formal setting. It was very structured, and came easily to me.


When I returned home that fall, I started reading arranging, composition and orchestration books. I was playing and writing every day. I would try out the techniques I read about in books, but never substituted intellectual knowledge for what sounded good to me. My attitude is, and has always been, to learn as much as I can about what other musicians are doing, practice it, store that information away, and play and write what I hear. All that stuff I’ve studied will come out at the appropriate time. You can’t rush it or force it. But, on the other hand, if you have no technical knowledge, your subconscious mind has little to draw upon when you go to create.


Writers talk about finding their voice. Jazz musicians talk about finding their unique sound. These things will come naturally with time. We project who we are—all the things we like and the culture we grew up in. You can try to be someone else, but it won’t be authentic, and authenticity is essential in everything we do in life. When you think about it, we are no different at 70 than we were at one—learn the world around you and be yourself.

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  • Jeff Hornick on

    Bach didn’t write in “Bach style.” It wasn’t until Mendelssohn “rediscovered” Bach’s music that people dissected it in order to determine the “rules” of writing music “correctly.”

  • David Berger on

    That’s funny, Larry. When I was in my early twenties, I was talking to my buddy Rick Wald. He mentioned the blues scale. I had never heard the term, so I asked him what that is. He told me the pitches, and I said, “Oh, that’s that thing I do all the time.” He said, “Of course.”

    Two Duke stories:

    #1. Ellington would visit Herb Pomeroy’s class at Berklee when he was in Boston. He told Herb, “I love to come here to find out what I’ve been doing all these years.”

    #2. Paul Kondziella left Berklee to play bass in Ellington’s band in 1968. There was a piano/bass duet in every show where Paul would pick up his bass and go stand behind Duke while they played together. One night Duke plunks down a two-handed Co/Bbo. Paul leans over Duke’s shoulder and says, “Ah! Double diminished,” to which Duke immediately responded, “Oh, is that what that is?”

  • Larry Dwyer on

    Another perceptive blog from the master, David Berger! Listening (as David says we all did with language as infants and children) is the essential element to learning jazz or any other musical genre. My introduction to jazz came as a child from listening hundreds of times to the many recordings my father had of Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Harry James, Coleman Hawkins, and others of the 1930s-40s era. By the time I was playing in the elementary school band, I could also play jazz, because by then it was a language I knew. In college, music theory was easy: if we had to write write some chords to modulate from F to Db, I just thought of how Count Basie did it in “One O’Clock Jump.” I was probably 40 years old before I first heard of the “blues scale,” but had been playing blues for nearly 30 years at that point. Probably 80% of all those notes were actually in the “blues scale,” but musicians choose their improvised notes because they sound good, not because they follow some pre-set rubric.

  • Nancy Valentine on

    Beautifully and lovingly written! Thank you, David.

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