The Difference Between Jazz Licks and Language

Jazz musicians and educators constantly discuss the topic of licks. They debate questions such as: Should you learn them? Is it okay to play them over and over? Does it matter where you get these licks from? And a handful of other topics.

If you’re discussing licks, you’ve already missed the boat. You don’t want to know a single lick…

You want to know language.

Jazz Licks

Although many interpretations of a lick exist, I’m going to give you my best definition based upon how I’ve most commonly heard the word used and applied to jazz knowledge.

It’s a melodic line that an improviser has acquired for the means of reproducing it note-for-note in their improvised solo. The line may have been learned from a recording, but most likely it was acquired through printed material, or other secondary sources. The line may have been briefly played in all keys, however, more often than not a lick is limited to one key.

That’s all there is to a lick. You don’t know how to vary it rhythmically or approach it with a group of notes. You can’t alter the line or combine it with other lines you know. The concepts you have practiced cannot be applied to this static entity. Nothing affects it. It fits in one spot and it stays there for it’s measly life. Starting to understand what I mean by a lick?

Here’s an analogy.

Suppose you’re traveling to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. You’ll be there for several weeks and you’d like to explore the culture as much as possible. Obviously to operate within the culture for this short time, you’ll have to know some phrases to get by. You pick up a “common phrase book,” that assures you on it’s cover that it will assist you on your travels…

Continuing the analogy, lets say you spend several weeks at your foreign destination and you love it so much, you decide to move there permanently. Being an avid learner, you wish, in time, to gain fluency with their language. Are you still going to rely on your phrase book to learn the language?

Might there be a better way, a more thorough and lasting way, a way that ensures your learning the true language of the locals? Of course there is, and if you talk to nearly anyone who has gone abroad, they picked up the language in this way. They integrated themselves with the locals and immersed themselves into the culture.

From this analogy, we can draw some parallels between the common phrase book and licks:

phrase book – You don’t understand how the phrase is constructed.

lick – You don’t truly understand how the line is constructed, or why it works.

phrase book – You only know the phrase in one tense.

lick – You only know how know the line for one specific harmonic situation.

phrase book – It helps you just barely  “get by.” It’s a crutch.

lick – It helps you just barely “get by.” It’s a crutch.

phrase book – You cannot freely combine one phrase with another

lick – You cannot freely combine the lick with other lines you know

phrase book – You don’t know how to pronounce the words so you sound like a foreigner.

lick – You don’t know how to articulate the line so you sound like a foreigner to the jazz idiom.

phrase book – You don’t hear the phrase in your head.

lick – You don’t hear the line in your head. It’s mentally produced.

I think you get my drift.

Jazz Language

Now that you have a solid idea what licks are, lets dig into language. Language, just like a lick, is made up of melodic lines. The difference lies in where you learned these lines from, how you learned them, and what you can do with them.

Where you learn language

As opposed to learning them from a book or from the web, you learn language with your ear. You hear it and imitate it until you know it. You don’t sit there ripping one note off, writing it down, ripping the next note off, writing it down…that’s how you learn licks, not language.

You want to take language from your heroes. Not people you’re supposed to like; emulate the people you actually like. If you don’t like John Coltrane or Stan Getz, don’t learn language from them. If that’s the case, I feel sorry for you, but that doesn’t matter. Learn from your personal heroes.

How you learn language

When a toddler starts talking, they have their favorite words. They say them over and over and over…That’s how you learn language. Just like a child, you copy your heroes (in the child’s case, these are their parents), find something they say that you love and play it over and over and over.

You’re of course familiar with the saying, “Don’t discover yourself. Create yourself.” This is what you’re doing. You’re creating yourself from the ground up. You get to choose each and every little influence. Choose wisely. Then put in your time to own each piece of language you select.

Hear it in your head during all this time.

  • Sing it
  • Learn it in all keys
  • Play it slow with a metronome in all keys
  • Play it faster with a metronome in all keys
  • Play it in various root movements. For instance, play the line in descending whole steps, then ascending minor thirds, then major thirds etc.
  • Learn to vary the rhythm of the line at will
  • Learn to approach the line with an eighth note, then two eighth notes, then three etc.
  • In a similar fashion, Learn to add notes to the end of the line
  • Integrate triplets into the line
  • Start the line on different beats
  • Combine the line with other lines you’ve learned
  • Combine half of the line with another half of a line you know
  • Add alterations, such as the #9, b9, #11 (same note as #4 or b5), or b13 (same note as b6 or #5) to the line

You don’t have to do all the variations mentioned. The point is, there are infinite ways to vary the line for the purpose of obtaining complete mastery with it. You goal is to use a piece of language as a springboard for your own creative thought in the moment, not as a copy-and-paste phrase as if it were from a phrase book.

Just as we do not have to think of each letter, word, or grammatical rule when we speak, our aim is to develop a similar fluency with the jazz language.

What you can do with language

This is the most important difference between licks and language. Licks are static. Language is dynamic. Licks are limited. Language is limitless.

Practicing melodic material in the aforementioned way converts lines into language. Many of the things you can do with language are similar to the suggestions of how to practice it.

You can do these things with language While you play a tune in real time:

  • Hear the line perfectly in your head
  • Have the line at your fingertips for any key you encounter
  • Be able to vary the line rhythmically
  • Add notes to the line or remove them at will
  • Combine one piece or part of language with another
  • Apply rhythmic, harmonic, or melodic concepts to pieces of language
  • Use the line as a basis or starting point for your own creativity, in the moment

These are just a few things that you can do with a line if it’s truly language and not a lick. The main difference is the flexibility you’ve attained. If you’re bored with your playing, then you know you have licks, not language, because if you had language, you’d be constantly creating new ideas and combinations. With language, you’re always finding new places where you can use it, or different ways to distort it. It’s constantly evolving, changing , and merging with other things you’re working on.

If you want to truly understand how to construct lines that flow effortlessly over chord changes, have infinite options when you encounter the same changes time and time again, if you want to stop sounding like a foreigner to the jazz idiom but instead a local…Stop learning licks and learn language. You’ll be happy you did.