Most of you probably know Jacob Collier. The guy is a household name in jazz and a peak “musician’s musician”, and that recognition is well deserved.
Yes, his music isn’t for everyone — it can feel gimmicky at points and overtly unrestrained, but his passion for music is infectious. I’m wholeheartedly a fan for reasons that go beyond his records and include his love for teaching.
Sometimes when people are so richly talented, they struggle to explain how they think about music in accessible, helpful ways. It makes me think of a jazz violin teacher at my old music school that was clearly a genius but was notorious for giving awful lessons.
That isn’t the case with Jacob, however. Once you dig in behind his music, you’ll discover a collection of legitimately fascinating music nerdery but also a lot of lessons on playing and practicing music that anyone can take and apply to their own journey.
Here are a few of my favorite things I've learned from Jacob Collier:
#1 View harmony through the lens of emotions
After watching a lot of Jacob, you begin to notice that he thinks of harmony in terms of an emotional palette in which he paints. He often describes harmony as a spectrum between light and dark. This applies to modes, cadences, intervals — any particular mechanism for analyzing music.
This is a beautiful and powerful way in which to think about harmony. If we know in an instant that injecting a #11 into a minor chord will cause a burst of uneasiness (that we know innately) or a 9 on top of a major chord will lend a bit of ethereal brightness, we can better associate feelings with our choices, leading us to make more informed musical decisions.
#2 The more notes you have, the more harmonic responsibility you have
Just because there is a cloud of notes instead of a single one doesn’t mean you can get away with being sloppy. Treat each note you add into a chord with weight. For single-note instruments, you could extend this to the harmony you are implying at any given point.
I’m guilty of just playing notes on a guitar or keyboard without listening to each separate note and thinking about where each of them resolve. Don’t do that. Try to make every line and chord resolve in a smooth and musical fashion (often moving notes 1 to 2 semitones to the next chord).
#3 Don’t underestimate inversions
Inversions are when we take a chord formula and rearrange them. For example, if we take a Bb major triad (Bb-D-F) and move the middle note to the bottom (D-F-Bb), we have Bb in the first inversion. Move the F to the bottom and you have the second.
Jacob adores inversions because they change the harmonic weight of a chord and offer different avenues for exploring their function.
He describes 1st inversions as feeling more ethereal and describes second inversions as feeling like home but a less weighty version of it.
(Inversions are also great for smoother voice leading).
#4 Stacking fifths brightens the sound of a major chord
Jacob has this concept of stacking fifths with major chords. He thinks of this as a simple way to brighten a sound. Starting with a C, for example:
This is an alternate method to the usual stacking of thirds in jazz (e.g. 9, 11, 13, and so on).
Play it — it’s a beautiful sound, and is also all of the notes in the C major pentatonic, which is what he describes as major in its most pure form.
#5 Stacking fourths darkens a sound
You can also do the opposite with minor chords. Jacob thinks of stacking fourths as an easy way to darken a sound.
Starting with an F, it’d be something like:
Which is what he describes as the most opposite sound possible to the C example above.
#6 V7b9add13 is supposedly his favorite chord
In the key of C, the V7b9add13 would be G-B-D-F-Ab-E, or at least some combination thereof. You could also add the 11th as an optional voice. I think he just likes the sound, but there is also a lot of harmonic depth in this chord. You can make a G major triad, the B, D, F, and Ab diminished triads, and an E Major triad from these notes, for example.
#7 You can make any note work over any note if you control them
Sounds that feel wrong are just improperly resolved. If you play something that doesn’t sound good harmonically, see if you can solve it. Jacob loves to pick random chords that don’t sound good at first but then find clever ways to resolve them. It’s all about tension and release.
#8 Plagal cadences are just as important as perfect
Perfect cadences are the stereotypical Western 5 to 1 resolution. Plagal cadences are when a 4 chord resolves to the 1 instead. Jacob thinks that 4ths are much more interesting and have been unfairly overlooked as methods of resolution.
#9 When composing, make sure your melody is stable
This seems a bit basic, but Jacob repeatedly makes the point that if your melody is stable enough, meaning it’s well-written, catchy, and holds up on its own without any harmonic or rhythmic support, it gives you the freedom to do whatever you want with harmony and rhythm. Use the melody as your anchor and just try to mess with it.
#10 Learning to listen is how we learn to create
Or at least an important part. That includes listening to other music with fervor, but it also includes listening to what’s in our own heads and improving our ability to play the music in your head.
In one talk Jacob talks about how he still can’t play some of what is in his head, which is honestly terrifying. But then he segues into how he uses what is in his head as inspiration on what to practice from a technical perspective.
Closing the gap between his fingers and the music in his head is his goal for all technical exercises, and I think that’s a fantastic approach.
This reminds me of the legendary Ira Glass advice where he talks about how with any creative pursuit, we get into it because we have good taste. The thing is, there's a gap at the beginning when you know you aren't creating things that are professional because your taste is better than your skills, and the only way to get over that gap is to create a significant volume of work.
I’m not going to post the whole bit here, but it’s really worth the read.
#11 Use the staircase technique for fun arrangements
This one is for the producer and arrangement nerds, but check out this section of this video.
You’ll recognize this from his music, but he loves to do a series of vocal notes that stagger off of the main melody to create this falling or rising staircase effect. It’s easy to grasp and a good way to inject some Collier into your arrangement.
#12 If you feel stuck, try inverting your most common musical choices.
Jacob is also obsessed with polarity in music, or what happens when we invert our choices. If you’re singing a line that says “happy”, can you make it sound sad? If you are seeing a song about lethargy, can you make it energetic? Whenever you feel creatively stuck, ask yourself: “what is the direct opposite approach musically?”
#13 Playing music is adopting the role of a storyteller.
Music is a language, and when you create you must take the responsibility of leading someone through a journey with responsibility. Good storytelling is just an expanded version of the old musical adage of tension and release. Think about how you can build drama into a climax and lead them down. Think about creating movement that is at once new but clearly related to the overall piece.
That’s some of what I’ve found. Hope you get inspired just as much as I did!