Discourses in Music: Volume 4 Number 1 (Fall 2002)

Understanding Jazz Styles Through Sociolinguistic Models

By James McGowan

When we think of jazz styles, we often think of categories such as Swing or Bebop, Cool or Free Jazz. Sometimes we think of places representing styles such as the Kansas City or New Orleans' jazz. We even find occasions where we hear comments like "such and such plays in the style of Thelonious Monk" or other famous musician. The lack of consensus and apparent freedom in the use of the term style unfortunately makes it quite ineffectual when trying to make stylistic distinctions within the larger jazz repertory. Some have tried to clarify what the term means in order to make it more useful for scholarly pursuits. Leonard Meyer, for instance, introduces a theory of style and style change that links choices made by composers to the constraints of psychology, cultural context, and musical traditions, in the process discussing why composers choose to replicate some compositional patterns and neglect others.1 Style defined here is thus broadly construed, but more significantly, should we want to specify tangible differences in how musical sound is structured, this concept is poorly suited for our needs.

Hildred Roach writes a simpler definition within a jazz context, stating that "style is a characteristic way of writing or performing music," adding that it is inter-related with technique involving "a method of procedure as well as a manipulation of idioms."2 Listing four loosely defined distinct styles, Dixieland, Hot jazz (that is, Louis Armstrong in the early 20s), Swing, and Bebop, the author has difficulty detailing quantifiable differences among these styles, and clearly states that distinguishing among additional styles is nearly impossible because of overlapping musical features. James Collier, defining "jazz" in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz a little more cautiously, tends to avoid the term completely except for acknowledging Swing and Bop.3 Barry Kernfeld, however, in trying to define "jazz" in the New Harvard Dictionary, uses other terms attempting to clarify the fuzzy notion of "style," including genre, tradition, school, approach, and sub-style. Unfortunately, this still fails to delimit what style is or how it differs from these other pseudo-synonyms, confusing the matter even further.4 In Figure 1, we see one of a number of attempts (this one by Bruce Clarke5) to provide an historical overview of jazz styles in tidy little boxes. These attempts are so generalized and often skewed to emphasize pedagogical biases that they provide neither depth nor accuracy in detailing musical characteristics among their so-called styles.

Clearly, if we are to develop analytical methods capable of elucidating musical content within the larger jazz repertory, we cannot rely on style categorization, laden with social ambiguity, fraught with pervasive disagreement of definition, and, ultimately influenced by personal bias of what styles we like the best. However, if we look to the field of sociolinguisitics, we find terminology and theoretical models that can help us develop tools to aid us in jazz theory research across the tonal jazz repertory. There are clear benefits of adopting "dialect" as opposed to "style" to label distinctions based on clearly defined parameters; and we will see how dialects can help distinguish among the several variants of consonances present in jazz's tonic harmonies. This study then identify limits to dialect categorization based on political, geographic, and social boundaries, and conclude by detailing other sociolinguistic principles that are highly transferable for the study of jazz.


Sociolinguistics may seem like an odd choice for comparison with jazz theory at first, but actually there are a number of ways in which the disciplines intersect. Both fields are relatively young, with their first significant work appearing in the 1950s, both study their own form of language6, and both must deal with language's changing nature over time. Jazz, as a whole, is often considered to be a language, distinct from Rock, Blues, European Classical, and others.7

Perhaps the most significant connection between sociolinguistics and jazz theory is that they are both hybrid sub-disciplines formed by combining aspects from broader, more established areas. The study of jazz theory came about from applying well-developed analytical tools found in traditional music theory to the prevalent social and performance factors in jazz practice. Sociolinguistics came about from considering linguistic concerns in the study of social structures, as well as social factors in the study of language. In both sub-disciplines, the academic goal is to consider logical systems within a governing social framework to produce and apply culturally sensitive tools in order to make sense of a primarily oral mode of communication. Unfortunately, while the creation of these new areas of inquiry seem to provide indisputable benefits, common criticisms from traditionally-minded scholars in their ancestral disciplines say that such study is essentially "too messy for science." For example, one linguist claims "[i]t is obvious that different communities exhibit variation in their speech... any social parameter whatsoever may be the locus of some linguistic difference. Unfortunately nothing of interest to linguistic theory follows from this."8 By not considering a changing social context in linguistics, however, one cannot answer many valuable questions such as "how can language fulfill the function of communication despite variation?" Similarly, traditional music theory, which in general has a difficult time providing meaningful insight into jazz practice, will typically avoid questions that jazz theory must address such as "how do you account for apparent stylistic inconsistencies in jazz musicians' improvisation?" We shall see that sociolinguistic tools can help us here.


The study of dialects has indeed provided powerful benefits for linguists. Since Labov's important work researching Vernacular Black English,9 the study of dialects has become quite a popular pursuit. Figure 2 shows several unique features of this highly researched dialect. When we see some of these examples, perhaps we remember some English grammar teacher we may have had in our childhood telling us that you should never speak or write this way. What sociolinguists discovered half a century ago was that the "English" that Blacks living in Harlem spoke was a fully functional dialect, complete with its own grammar and vocabulary rules, as well as a range of acceptable accents. We should remember that linguists today have recognized that of all the existing different dialects, no one is better than another, even though we tend to accept in society that there is only one way of speaking correctly. This "correct" English is often the standard dialect that you hear most on TV or radio, or simply the one in which you were brought up speaking.

While dialectology recognizes language variants, it also has the flexibility to isolate aspects of a dialect into components: principally grammar, vocabulary, and accent. Similarly, if we take the term dialect to distinguish among stylistic variants in jazz, we can also focus on specific dimensions of the musical language. For example, we can conceive of rhythmic dialects to demonstrate how one segment of the repertory handles rhythmic features differently than another.10


Another discernible type of jazz dialect is that of contextual consonance. While there are many jazz theory texts, there is no consensus as to when a chord such as a Major #11th is a consonant sonority or whether it includes dissonant elements that may or may not resolve. Even the word used to describe tertian chordal elements greater than the octave - tensions - is clearly suggestive of dissonance, while another term that describes the same phenomenon - extensions - is far less biased.11

In Figure 3, the six major-key examples of jazz cadences, or harmonic progressions of II-V-I, each end on a different version of a tonic harmony. They are progressively organized in terms of harmonic complexity. Note that Example A ends on a triad, B1 ends with an added 6th chord, C1 ends with a major 7th chord, and D ends with a #11th. Both Examples B2 and C2 also include an additional major 9th in the chord. Interestingly, the succession of harmonic examples here roughly corresponds to the types of harmonic consonances on tonics used progressively through time. Demonstrating a close link with European art music, the earliest jazz cadences end on triads; soon after, however, the "sweet" harmony of the added 6th became a standard harmonization of a tonic chord.12 The 6th in traditional theory and practice was already accepted as a consonance in intervallic and many harmonic contexts for centuries. Jazz really started to diverge from common-practice tonality with the extensive use the consonant major 7th. Some jazz theory texts today, like Mark Levine's Jazz Theory Book,13 expound that all major tonic harmony in jazz is a major-7th chord, whether the 7th sounds or not. While the major 7th is commonly regarded as a consonance by jazz theorists, albeit not universally, chords with members greater than an octave, are far less accepted as consonances. Interestingly, major 9ths crept up in tonic harmonies as consonances in practice as early as the 1930s, but 11ths arrived much later. The classic suspended 4th, with its goal of resolving to scale degree 3, has historically conflicted with almost all attempts at hearing the 11th (or 4th) as a consonance, with the exception of some minor-tonic harmonies. However, modern jazz musicians' love of lydian-mode content for tonic harmonies, has generally accepted the #4, more accurately labeled the #11 due to third-stacking, as a contextually stable chord member. Levine says "(y)ou can change a major chord (as in C-major 7th) to a Lydian chord (C#11) virtually any time [my emphasis]."14 While some qualify its use merely as a cliché ending to pieces, others have accepted its role as part of the jazz language.15

The many differences that competent jazz musicians have with regard to acceptable degrees of harmonic consonance suggest that there are different dialects of the jazz language present. An interesting point though, is that jazz performers will often tend to favour one Consonant-Tonic dialect over another in most circumstances, but when confronted with a completely different context, may change his or her dialect. For example, in the late 1940s when the new sounds of Bebop that tended to favour more harmonically complex consonances were being played in the 52nd-street clubs in Manhattan, the same musicians would still be playing Swing gigs elsewhere that would feature more "Sweet" harmonies (a safer dialect that could bring in more income).16 Today, a studio musician may be asked to play a Hard Bop session one day, Dixieland the next, and then play a Blues gig the following night. In each case, the performer may alter the way he or she plays. Note that when playing Blues, the performer will likely need to move beyond the choices listed in figure 3 and play harmonic consonances with Major-Minor 7th chords, thereby creating another Consonant-Tonic dialect option of the "Blues." In this situation, music may invoke Blues characteristics and yet still be fundamentally jazz. Alternatively, it may have moved beyond the limits of the jazz language, creating other challenges and necessitating other explanatory tools, definitely beyond the scope of this article.17


Let us now consider the role that Dialect boundaries provide. Dialects will form because of the interaction of political, geographic, and social factors, and then change over time.18 It should also be noted that all of these dialect boundaries are in some sense social, which is why the discipline is called socio-linguistics.

Our example of the jazz musician playing within the Blues language has an interesting parallel with political boundaries in spoken languages. Dutch and German are different languages, and both Germany and the Netherlands have a range of dialects within each country. However, close to the border of the two countries, the dialects of each language are in fact very similar to one another. In fact, the differences between the two dialects are less pronounced than the differences between the Dutch spoken at the German border and the so-called "Standard" Dutch. In this case, the countries' political boundaries had more to do with the identity of the different languages than the linguistic factors. Similarly, after the recent break-up of Yugoslavia, Croatia officially declared that they speak Croatian, while Serbia declared that they speak Serbian, but immediately before the political shuffling, they both spoke the same language Serbo-Croatian. Historically, however, Serbo-Croatian was an amalgamated language created by combining the two similar component languages into one by a post-war directive, thereby creating another level of interference with political boundaries.19

The map in Figure 4 shows a breakdown revealing primary dialect areas that result from geographic boundaries. For example, this map shows that the island of Newfoundland has its own significant dialect as it is isolated from its neighbours geographically by water. Historically it also had a political boundary, being the last province to become part of Canada, but after over 50 years, there is still a distinctive speech pattern that is the instigating force behind "Newfie" jokes. We can also find parallel distinctions in jazz sub-styles, particularly before 1950 when travel to different areas within North America was far less common than today. We are familiar with West Coast jazz, or jazz from Kansas City and often refer to these as different styles. Are there tangible differences though between the jazz in New York City and Kansas City in the 1940s, or New York and Los Angeles in the 1950s? To answer that, we could try to look at a very large sampling of recorded music and do a stylistic inventory of features. This approach is severely hampered, however, by remembering that major artists like Charlie Parker worked in both Kansas City and New York, or that recordings by New York musicians were readily available virtually anywhere in North America, and many other reasons of migration, media, and marketing, etc.

Social boundaries are a focal point in dialect study. In Figure 5, the graphic shows a union of social with regional variation in dialects, demonstrating that the so-called high-class dialect will be distinct from dialects in different regions as well as in different social classes. Social factors largely account for differences in dialects within a city; for example, dialect mixture and interlingual transfer can occur in places such as Toronto where large communities of non-native speakers create a modified English with aspects of other languages mixed in. By analogy, some black musicians, in a reaction to racial prejudice in the 40s, 50s and 60s, tried to create new musical styles, including Bebop, Hard bop, and Free Jazz, that were uniquely their own. Other musicians of all races and nationalities, though, soon personalized these styles, integrating their own musical experiences, and creating new forms by way of the dialect mixture process.


While boundaries are important to distinguish marked dialects, they alone cannot account for the numerous variants, since dialects are geographically, socially and temporally fluid. Please see Figure 6. The concept of the dialect continuum is critical to understanding the gradual change in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation between two dialects, as in the previously mentioned case of Dutch and German. This graphic also shows that when one is versed in two different dialects, like our musician playing both Be-Bop and Dixieland, one can dialect-shift along the continuum. Further, one could make an extra effort to speak or play outside of one's social class, changing from low to high or vice versa. If one considers our Consonant-Tonic dialect theory, we could suggest that someone could be comfortable playing with just "sweet" harmonies, but when a Hard-bop gig comes along, the musician makes an extra effort to play in a more harmonically complex manner including using #11ths.

Figure 7 shows this social class dialect-shifting in an extreme case of the "Overt Prestige Factor" in a New York City study where subjects' use of the "r" before consonants are measured. The lines represent lower class, through working classes, up to the middle classes. This is plotted against the X-axis, measuring the percentage of "r"s pronounced, and the Y-axis measuring the style of speech. Everything seems to work as expected in the study except for the lower-middle class reading a word-list. Of all the categories, this style of speech is something a reader can best manipulate. According to this study, the lower-middle class individual is making such an effort to sound higher class that he/she surpasses the upper middle class' manner of speaking. One can also imagine a young jazz musician trying especially hard to sound like, for example, John Coltrane, that he/she overtly over-emphasizes a feature of Coltrane's playing, like his famous "sheets of sound" in order to sound more "prestigious."

We have seen that analogies of sociolinguistic models to jazz theory are wide-ranging. Particularly beneficial to cross-repertorial jazz study is the categorization based on specific musical dialect properties, like consonant tonics. Since commonly accepted style distinctions break down when jazz musicians play in a number of different styles, in different performances, pieces, or even sections within a single composition, I believe we should adopt tools that can account for both social conditions on the music and characteristic properties of the music itself.

James McGowan is a doctoral candidate at the Eastman School of Music, in Ithaca, New York.

Works Cited

Baker, David. 1973. Jazz Improvisation. Chicago: Maher Publications.

Berliner, Paul. 1994. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improviation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clarke, Bruce. 1982. Jazz Studies: A Study Manual for All Instruments vol. 1. Melbourne: Allans Music Australia Pty. Ltd.

Coker, Jerry. 1991. Elements of the Jazz Language for the Developing Improvisor. Miami: CPP/Belwin, Inc.

Collier, James. 1994. "Jazz," The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Edited by Barry Kernfeld. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Coulmas, Florian. 2000. The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

De Veaux, Scott. 1997. The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gridley, Mark. 1985. Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kernfeld, Barry. 1986. "Jazz," The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Ed. by Don Michael Randel. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Labov, William. 1972. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Larson, Steve. 1997. "The Problem of Prolongation in Tonal Music: Terminology, Perception, and Expressive Meaning." Journal of Music Theory, vol. 41.1: 101-36.

Lerdahl, Fred and Ray Jackendoff. 1983. A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Levine, Mark. 1995. The Jazz Theory Book. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music.

Meyer, Leonard B. 1989. Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Moio, Dom. 1997. Be-Bop Phrasing for Drums. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay.

Monelle, Raymond. 1992. Linguistics and Semiotics in Music. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood.

Roach, Hildred. 1992. Black American Music: Past and Present, 2nd Ed. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Russell, George. 1959. The Lydian-Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation. New York: Concept Publishing Corp.

Russell, Ross. 1971. Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stanton, Kenneth. 1976. Introduction to Jazz Theory: A Beginning Text in Harmony in Workbook Form. Boston: Crescendo Publishing.

Terry, Clark and Terry Rizzo. 1977. The Interpretation of the Jazz Language. Bedford, OH: M.A.S. Publishing.

Trudgill, Peter. 2000. Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society, 4th ed. London: Penguin.

Wolfram, Walt. 1991. Dialects and American English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.


1. Leonard B. Meyer, 1989. Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

2. Hildred Roach. 1992. Black American Music: Past and Present, 2nd Ed. Malabar, FL: Krieger, 70.

3. James Collier. 1994. "Jazz," The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Edited by Barry Kernfeld. New York: St. Martin's Press.

4. Barry Kernfeld. 1986. "Jazz," The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Ed. by Don Michael Randel. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 413-6.

5. Clarke, Bruce. 1982. Jazz Studies: A Study Manual for All Instruments, vol. 1. Melbourne: Allans Music Australia Pty. Ltd.

6. The analogy of music to language is widely accepted in scholarly literature even though there is little consensus regarding the specifics of the relationship. Two examples of work along these lines include Lerdahl & Jackendoff's theories that formalize tonal grammar and Monelle's work surveying the connections of semiotics and linguistics to musical structure. There are also several jazz sources that continue the analogy, including those by Baker, Coker, and Berliner showing jazz (specifically tonal jazz) itself is a language. Berliner writes, "(J)ust as children learn to speak their native language by imitating older competent speakers, so young musicians learn to speak jazz by imitating seasoned improvisers" (my emphasis) (95).

7. For example, as seen in the chart in Mark Gridley. 1978. Jazz Styles. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall: 314-5.

8. Florian Coulmas. 2000. The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 3. In this section the author is quoting N. Smith from his 1989 book The Twitter Machine, as a significant counter-example to the importance of the sub-discipline of sociolinguistics within the larger context of linguistics.

9. William Labov. 1972. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

10. Two examples of work beginning along these lines include Clark Terry's The Interpretation of the Jazz Language focusing on the relationship between rhythmic norms and scatting in jazz, and Dom Moio's more commercial Be-Bop Phrasing for Drums listing rhythmic possibilities particularly suited for Bebop.

11. Steve Larson, 1997, "The Problem of Prolongation in Tonal Music," outlines some problems of defining terms like consonance and dissonance, and offers the terms contextually stable and inherently stable instead of consonant for some instances.

12. This view is clearly presented in Kenneth Stanton's Introduction to Jazz Theory.

13. Levine, Mark. 1995. The Jazz Theory Book. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music.

14. Levine, 289.

15. For example, Stanton writes "Sharp Eleven is normally used for special effects and most often only in ending chords," 62.

16. For an excellent deeper perspective of the Be-Bop style, see Scott De Veaux's The Birth of Bebop.

17. Another problem arises when confronted with jazz that is primarily modal, and less tonally conceived. George Russell was one of the first to write about this music as being distinct from tonal jazz, although used an idiosyncratic method of describing it with terms like horizontal harmony.

18. For an excellent overview of the field of dialectology, see Walt Wolfram's Dialects and American English.

19. Peter Trudgill. 2000. Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society, 4th ed. London: Penguin, 46-8.