How to Organize Jazz Licks, Lines, & Concepts – The Jazz Musician’s Journal

In an instant, musical ideas spring to life. Maybe you’re transcribing and stumble upon something you like, or perhaps you suddenly play an idea that seemed to come from nowhere! This probably happens to you all the time. In fact, I’ll bet you come up with something you like nearly every single time you practice. But what do you do when you discover or come up with an idea you like?

For years, I used to just play the idea a bunch, thinking, “Wow…this is a great line!” The next day, needless to say, I’d barely remember the line, and a week later, I’d forgotten the line entirely.

So how do you document, remember, and keep track of all the jazz lines, ideas, and concepts that you discover in the practice room so you can practice and develop them in the future?

You start keeping a line journal – an organized collection of all the “stuff” that jazz musicians learn, realize, and recognize as they’re acquiring jazz language.

Keeping a line journal is not only a great way to remember the lines you pick up from transcribing or create yourself, but it’s an essential tool to keep track of the knowledge that you want to get better at.

Today we’ll look at how to get started keeping a line journal and how it will help you grow into the jazz musician you want to become…

Whatever it is, write it down

When you’re practicing, you’re in the zone. You don’t want to be interrupted for any reason – this is your time and you want to spend it playing, not writing.

But, that attitude kept me from writing down a lot of things that could have been musical gems. For instance, sometimes I’ll play something and think, “Hmmm, that’s kind of nice, but is it nice enough to write down?”

Ditch that attitude – Instead, whatever it is, write it down.

Write it down!

During your practice, make it a habit to keep manuscript-paper and a great pen for writing music handy at all times. Consider this your scratch paper where you’ll jot down anything that comes to mind.

Knowing that this is not your formal line journal, you have no need to keep it neat and organized, allowing you to scribble anything down quickly and get back to your practice.

I write down literally anything that I think is the least bit interesting when I’m practicing. It could be a line, a harmonic concept, a rhythmic idea. Anything!! I keep these ideas on this scratch paper in its own pile and when one page fills up, I put another down.

When I have time, I review the pile, looking for anything that might be of value.

While you’re watching television or have nothing to do, just sift through these loose pages and boldly circle or highlight anything that you might consider putting into your line journal.

Sometimes you’ll wonder what you were thinking…but other times you’ll find gold. Remember, your line journal is where all the keepers will go. Be discriminant and decisive.

How to Stay Organized

The key to a quality line journal is making it organized in a way that you can easily access the material so you can review and practice it.

How many times have you written something down, only to find that a few days later, you can’t seem to find where you wrote it?

Keeping all your ideas on scratch paper and transitioning the best ones to your main journal will help with that, as will keeping your journal ordered in a way that makes sense to you.

There are many ways you can order it…It reminds of the scene in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity where the main character, played by John Cusack in the movie, is sharing with his coworker how he organizes his record collection – autobiographically.

You probably don’t want to keep your line journal ordered autobiographically, but what works for me and what most players I know do is to put the lines into various sections according to chord type.

For example, you can have a section where you write anything that works over dominant. Another section for major. And another for minor.

You can always add more categories or less depending upon the lines you acquire, and how you think about them.

So, keeping the sections fairly basic is a good way to go:

And some people like to have sections for…

As you progress, you’ll most likely find that some lines that you thought you had to create a new category for, could have actually fit into something you already had.

You’ll also find that a single line can often fit into multiple sections of your line journal, so what do you do about that when you’re trying to keep things as orderly as possible? What I do is put the line in the section where where it would seem to be the most obvious place for it.

For instance, if I transcribed a line over a G major chord, but it could also work well over E minor, I’d write it in the major section because that’s where it originally came from.

I’d then make a note next to the line that it works well for E minor as well.

Keeping notes for all lines is a good idea as it allows you to understand the line more deeply when you glance at the line in the future.

For each line in your journal, you might want to include:

  • The written musical example of course, with the chords notated over each measure
  • The album, song, time-mark, and name of the soloist
  • The type of line it is, such as a ii V, or a major line
  • Notes about the line including what makes it great, the concept(s) behind the line, how you believe the soloist was thinking, alternate uses, variations, tunes it works well on…

All of this information will help you better conceptualize the line, develop it, and make it your own.

And if you want some extra guidance on how we personally take transcribed jazz lines, distill the concepts, make exercises, and integrate the ideas into our playing, then make sure to check out our Jazz Language Course – Melodic Power.

Melodic Power

Form this habit and keep it up!

Today, start practicing with a piece of scratch paper near you. Get in the habit of writing down anything that you think is interesting without worrying whether it’s something you truly care about. Then later, transition the best lines you find on this scratch paper to your line journal.

Once you start this process, your line journal will grow quickly. Keep it organized and keep it up to date.

Don’t fall behind by leaving lines you really like in the mess of scratch paper. Get them into your line journal as soon as you know you want them there.

Stop living in a mess of notes and scribbles where your precious musical ideas get lost and disappear! Start a dedicated line journal and keep it up…

Then, use this line journal to structure your daily practice. Essentially, you’re gathering all of your favorite & strong melodic ideas, putting them all in one place, so you can better practice them and assimilate them into your playing.

Remember, a line journal is not just about keeping track of great lines – it’s about creating a physical practice tool that helps you master your best material more quickly and effectively!