Turn Classical Music Into Jazz Piano – 4 Steps

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
19:26

Learning Focus
  • Analysis
  • Reharmonization
Music Style
  • Classical
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
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Is it really true that just about any tune can be converted into jazz piano? Pretty much! In fact, when you know all the right techniques, you can change any song’s style like a flip of a switch. Many beginner/intermediate pianists (especially those with a more traditional classical background) aren’t familiar with the concepts that allow them to bring a fresh new take on familiar tunes. That’s why in this lesson, we will discuss how to turn classical music into jazz piano in only 4 steps!

To do this, we will be converting Ludwig van Beethoven’s classic Für Elise into a sweet jazz piano tune. Many pianists are able to play this as it was originally written hundreds of years ago. However, we are going to be able to give it a new interpretation with some jazz influence. This will be super helpful whether you’re a classical musician looking to make the transition into the jazz world or simply someone looking for a cool new way to play your music.

In this lesson, you’ll learn how to:

  • “Jazz up” any melody by adding swing, anticipations, and delays
  • Add jazz harmony and chords to the melody
  • Apply chord shells in the left hand for accompaniment
  • Embellish the right hand melody with jazzy fills called chord pops and counter lines in between the gaps of the melody

Excited? Let’s dive in!

Making The Jump From Classical Music To Jazz Piano: Know The Original Music!

Let’s take a look at the music that Beethoven himself originally wrote. This is a good idea if we want to make informed decisions while making our own versions. We will only be taking from the first section of the piece (the first 8 measures):

The original first 8 measures of Beethoven's Für Elise for piano
The original first 8 measures of Beethoven’s Für Elise for piano

A couple of things to note is the chords and the time signature of the piece. They’ll become relevant as we go through each step of converting it into jazz.

Harmony-We are only seeing 2 chords here, A minor and E major (the I and V chords). For jazz, we’ll need to throw in a few more chords 😎.

Meter-Beethoven originally wrote the piece in a  3/4 time signature. While there are a few notable jazz standards written in 3/4, for the most part, we stick to 4/4. That’s why for now, we’ll convert it from 3/4 to 4/4 in step 1 to save ourselves some headache.

Step 1: Swing The Melody

When most people think of jazz rhythm, they think of swing! What is swing? In most cases, it applies to the music’s 8th notes and whether they land on the beat or off the beat. We always delay the start of the 8th notes that occur off the beat. This also means that 8th notes that are on the beat are held a bit longer than those off the beat (the offbeat 8th note is short). This results in an overall bouncy feeling!

When you have 8th notes in swing, the first 8th on the beat is held longer than the one off the beat
When you have 8th notes in swing, the first 8th on the beat is held longer than the one off the beat

In reality, when swinging the 8ths we are “secretly” breaking up the quarter note into triplets, and removing the middle triplet. However 8th notes are much easier to read than broken up triplets. To communicate this, we write the following marking above swung music:

The sheet music marking indicating swing rhythm, where 2 8th notes equal a triplet with the middle triplet removed
The sheet music marking indicating swing rhythm, where 2 8th notes equal a triplet with the middle triplet removed

Does this mean we can simply swing the 8th notes of Für Elise and call it a day? Not really, as it still wouldn’t sound quite like jazz. There’s still one thing left to do.

Add Anticipations and Delays To The Melody

This means playing some of the notes of the melody a bit earlier(anticipation), or later(delay) than expected. Normally, we don’t anticipate or delay a melody note more than an 8th note if you want to keep the original melody intact.

This means that there are many possibilities when it comes to “jazzing up” a melody. However, that’s where your own artistic taste comes into play. There isn’t much right or wrong here. Check out the following example of how we converted Für Elise’s melody into a jazzy style by adding swing, anticipations, and delays:

When converting a classical melody into jazz, we can use swing, anticipation, and delay techniques
When converting a classical melody into jazz, we can use swing, anticipation, and delay techniques

Also, notice we converted it into 4/4 time by putting the melody in half time and adding gaps in between the melodies’ phrases.

TIP: Try singing the melody in your best jazzy version with a swing feel in mind. Many times, this does the work for you. If not, I’d highly recommend listening and singing along to some popular jazz tunes. You may just need to get the feel in your ear more.

Step 2: Adding Jazz Piano Chords

Certainly, on our journey from classical music to jazz piano, we’ll need some jazz chords. People tend to think of insanely complex chords when they think of jazz. While that’s true sometimes, it’s more about choosing the right chords than it is about making them as complex as possible.

Here’s an example of Für Elise with some jazz chords:

Adding jazz chords to the classical melody of Beethoven's Für Elise
Adding jazz chords to the classical melody of Beethoven’s Für Elise

The first thing to notice is that we are always using 7th chords(never just triad chords). If you aren’t very familiar with all your 7th chords, then be sure to check out Intermediate Piano Foundations(Part 1). 

Expanding The Harmony with Jazz Piano Chord Progressions

For choosing our chord progressions, I put together an analysis for you below:

Analyzing the reharmonization for Für Elise that uses common jazz chord progression techniques
Analyzing the reharmonization for Für Elise that uses common jazz chord progression techniques

Notice there is only about 3 jazz techniques going on that are expanding and creating more movement from the original 2 chords:

  1. The minor turnaround progression
  2. 2-5-1 Progression
  3. Tritone substitution

You can learn about all these techniques and more in the course Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced). 

Step 3: Using Piano Chord Shells In The Left Hand

First off, we rarely play full 7th chords in root position in the left hand as we did in step 2. It simply doesn’t sound very professional!  Instead, we can use a very simple and clean jazz accompaniment device called chord shells in the left hand to accompany our melody.

What are chord shells? They are a voicing that takes just 2 notes from the original chord. Either root and 7th, or root and 3rd. Check it out in the following example:

Using chord shells for the left hand accompaniment instead of root position chords when playing jazz piano
Using chord shells for the left-hand accompaniment instead of root position chords when playing jazz piano

Notice: We’ve also added some rhythm in the left hand. This dotted quarter note followed by an 8th note is a super common jazz rhythmic pattern called the Charleston rhythm (coming from a popular James P. Johnson Tune called “The Charleston,” which led to a popular 20’s dance style of the same name).

If you want to know more about chord shells, then check out Chord Shell & Guide Tone Exercises.

Step 4: Jazz Piano Fills

If you were thinking that using just the melody and chord shells sounded a little hollow, then you’ll appreciate step 4. We can now add right-hand fills in between the gaps at the end of the melodic phrases to complete our jazz and classical fusion.

How can we do this? We can simply add some rhythmic chord pops underneath the melody. We’ll use chord tones from the chord of the moment. It’s even better if we can make a little counter-melody with our fills! Check out the following example of adding jazzy fills to our Für Elise arrangement:

Example of adding different types of jazz piano fills to complete our classical to jazz fusion
Example of adding different types of jazz piano fills to complete our classical to jazz fusion

Notice: Sometimes, as we saw above, we can create fills from the altered versions of Dominant 7th chords. If you aren’t familiar with chord alterations, then check out Piano Chord Alterations.

Lastly, be sure to pay particular attention to all the rhythms used in the melody and accompaniment above. Many times, it’s the rhythm that sets jazz apart from other styles, especially from certain types of classical music. You’ll want to be familiar with these types of rhythms as you make your own jazz arrangements and improvisations.

Summing It All Up

I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson on some of the methods to take classical music and turn it into a jazz piano arrangement. Be sure to play each example slowly and absorb all the techniques used. We encourage you to create and share your own jazz arrangement with us! You can either use Für Elise or any other of your favorite classical pieces. Post it on our Facebook group using #classicalmeetsjazz.

You can also download a PDF below containing all the classical to jazz techniques used in this lesson. We also have smart sheet music available that allows you to transpose the music into any key!

If you want a deeper dive into turning any melody into jazz or related styles of music, then check out just some of the great courses here at Piano With Jonny:

That’s it for this Quick Tip. See you in the next one!

Blog written by Daine Jordan/Quick Tip by Jonny May

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