Commercial vs. Jazz Music: the Key Differences You Need to Know

Interview with Ben Woodard

Interview conducted by Mary Galime

Consider the difference between a newspaper and a journal. A newspaper provides a small amount of information on a wide variety of subjects, where a journal provides a wide variety of information surrounding a specific focus. For instance, I can easily follow a newspaper article about a scientific breakthrough, but would be hopelessly lost reading the same story in a scientific journal written for a scientific community. The difference between Commercial and Jazz follows similar parameters. Ben Woodward is a current Commercial Music major at Millikin University, and I met with him to discuss the many differences there are for performers pursuing a Jazz focus vs. a Commercial focus.

“There is a reason commercial music is called commercial music, after all. Commercial music is created with the intention to express one’s self artistically, while attempting to appeal to the widest audience. The dominant priority of Jazz is to express one’s personal expression, and appeals to a much more specific audience.” While both genres require an equally high skill level, the needs of each respective audience dictate how that artistic expression will be communicated. Let’s look at some of the differences.


Both genres hope to tell a musical story with their song, and evoke an emotional response from the audience. Based on the expectations of its audience, commercial music has to accomplish this in a very short time, whether it be a 3 - 4 minute song, or a 30 second jingle. As the audience has no expectation on time, jazz music does not have any time constraints. As a result, performers and composers must take two different roads when approaching rhythmic and chordal structure, and improvisation.

Rhythm, Harmony:

“Commercial musicians intend that their music be easily understood.  The forms are easily followed and there is a new event occurring almost constantly. To accomplish this, simple chord structure and rhythm are necessary. If you hear a band playing swing style, you generally know it’s jazz and not commercial,” says Ben. Where commercial music develops its song through a repetitive simple chord and rhythmic (usually a driving 4/4) structure, Jazz uses multiple complex chordal structures and rhythms, that are slowly developed through unique improvised solos with very little repetition. “Essentially jazz harmony and rhythm is a more elaborate version of commercial harmony seeing as they are different evolutions of blues and folk music.”


“There is a theory in pop music that something new occurs every 7 seconds (be it additional instruments, modulation, new chorus, etc.) to keep the attention of the listener.”  As we’ve mentioned, quick emotional response is key to successful commercial music. While there is improvisation in commercial music, its purpose is to drive the emotional energy that the music has created, and it must do it quickly. The song is developed through its simple chord structure, and the solo is merely a quick accent, or embellishment to drive the theme of the dominant song. As mentioned before, Jazz depends on improvisation for the meat and development of the song. “In effect, to the inexperienced jazz listener, many choruses of a solo where the performer is using complex rhythms and harmonies, and predominantly communicating with the musicians on stage, this can translate to the listener as the same thing going on the whole tune, and kill any emotional response or interest.”


It is easy to look at commercial music as an easier form when we are using descriptive words like simple, repetitive, and short, and Jazz as a much more developed art form. However, as the composer and performer, it takes the same skill to do both. It is just as difficult, if not more difficult, to produce a developed story with memorable emotional response, while expressing yourself in an artistic way in the space of 1-3 minutes, as opposed to having an unlimited time to accomplish this. To be a great commercial musician, you must know your complex jazz harmonies and rhythms so well, that you can use them in a quick attainable way for a large audience. You will also be working in an industry where all styles of jazz, international, classical… every style of music could be requested. If you are in a studio recording, can you on the spot create a 10 second solo that combines elements of salsa, soul, and a little Beethoven? And can you do that same solo that you just created 5 times in a row? If you are touring with a famous rock band, can you mentally and physically handle the rigor of traveling every day, and playing 3 hour shows every night, as well as rehearsals, and the last minute changes that the lead singer may throw your way? How well you hone your skills in the practice room, and the higher level you push yourself to in those skills will make you a successful commercial musician.

Ben Woodard is a Senior Commercial Music major at Millikin University.  He plays his primary instrument, saxophone, in many top Millikin Ensembles.  He is a doubler on clarinet and flute and also plays drums in various rock bands as well as guitars as a hobby. Ben is also a front of house sound engineer for several Millikin ensembles as well as freelance in the Decatur area.  In his free time he plays intramural basketball and watches Wes Anderson films.

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