How Jazz Incorporates Elements of Folk Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,

Jazz music is often seen as being its own distinct genre, but it actually incorporates elements of many different styles of music, including folk. In this blog post, we’ll explore how jazz uses elements of folk music to create its unique sound.


Jazz is a musical art form that originated in the African-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was developed from a blend of African and European music traditions. The main elements of jazz are improvisation, syncopation, and swing.

A key characteristic of jazz is improvisation, or the ability to make up music spontaneously as you play. This is often done by taking a familiar melody or chord progression and embellishing it with your own ideas. Jazz musicians often use “scat singing” to improvise vocal parts.

Syncopation is another important element of jazz. It refers to the way the rhythms are organized, often with accents on unexpected beats. This gives jazz its distinctive “feel” or groove. Swing is a subgenre of jazz that emerged in the 1930s and 1940s. It employs a strong rhythm section (usually made up of a piano, bass, and drums), plus one or more soloists playing improvised melodies over the top.

The Elements of Folk Music That Are Found in Jazz

Jazz incorporates many elements of folk music, including but not limited to the blues, improvisation, and polyrhythm. The blues is a fundamental element of jazz and is often what distinguishes it from other genres. Jazz also makes use of improvisation, which is a key element of folk music. Polyrhythm is another element of jazz that is derived from folk music.

Melodic Elements

One of the most important elements of folk music is melody. A folk song is typically made up of a simple melodic line that is easy to remember and sing. This melodic line is often adapted or borrowed from other folk songs, and it is not uncommon for a folk song to have multiple versions with different melodies.

Jazz incorporates many of the same melodic elements as folk music. A jazz melody will often be based on a simple riff or phrase that is easy to remember and sing. This melody will be embellished with improvised solos from the band members. Like folk songs, jazz tunes will often have multiple versions with different melodies.

Harmonic Elements

One of the most obvious harmonic elements that jazz took from folk music is the use of modal playing. Modal playing is a type of improvisation that uses a scale or mode as its foundation, rather than a chord progression. This gave jazz a very different sound from other types of music that were popular at the time, and it was one of the things that made jazz unique.

Another harmonic element that was borrowed from folk music was the use of blue notes. Blue notes are notes that are played slightly flat, or “bluesy.” This gave jazz a more soulful sound, and it was something that really set it apart from other genres.

Jazz also borrowed from folk music in terms of its rhythm. Folk music often has a very syncopated rhythm, and this is something that was carried over into jazz. This helped to create the characteristic “swing” feel that is so associated with jazz.

Rhythmic Elements

Jazz, like all music, has a rhythmic component. The basic unit of measurement in jazz is the beat. A jazz tune is usually played with a 4/4 time signature, meaning there are four beats in a measure and each quarter note equals one beat. However, jazz musicians often subdivide the quarter note into smaller units of measurement, such as eighth notes or sixteenth notes. This subdivision of the beat is called syncopation and results in a more complex rhythm.

In addition to syncopation, other rhythmic elements found in jazz include swing, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and polyrhythms. Swing is a feel or groove that gives the music a sense of forward motion. It can be achieved by subdividing the beats unevenly or by accenting certain beats. Afro-Cuban rhythms are syncopated patterns that are derived from West African drumming traditions and often used in Latin jazz. Polyrhythms involve playing two or more different rhythms simultaneously.

All of these rhythmic elements contribute to the unique sound of jazz and make it one of the most complex and interesting genres of music.

Formal Elements

Formal elements are those that are cognitivelyleveraged by the music’s creator and which are usually (but not always) discernable by its audience. Singing or playing an improvised solo are both examples of musical performance that engage performers’ formal elements. The former may involve employing compositional techniques such as meter, pitch, melody, and harmony, while the latter will commonly involve some or all of these plus timbre, phrasing, and rhythm.

The Influence of Folk Music on Jazz

Jazz music emerged in the early 20th century as a blend of various musical styles, including folk music. The influence of folk music can be heard in the use of blues and modal harmony in jazz. In this article, we’ll explore how folk music has influenced the development of jazz.

The Influence of Folk Music on Early Jazz

Folk music had a significant influence on early jazz. Jazz developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the southern United States, where there was a strong tradition of folk music. Many of the early jazz musicians came from families who had been playing folk music for generations. They were familiar with the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies of folk music, and they drew on this knowledge when they created jazz.

One of the most important elements of jazz is improvisation. This was also an important element of folk music. Folk musicians often improvised when they played, making up new melodies or adding their own embellishments to familiar tunes. This helped to create a lively and vibrant musical style that was perfect for dancing. Folk music was also known for its catchy rhythms, which helped to give jazz its distinctive swing feel.

The influence of folk music can be heard in many early jazz recordings. One examples is “St Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy, one of the first jazz compositions to be published. This song makes use of some of the same chord progressions as traditional blues songs, but it also includes elements of ragtime, another musical style that was influenced by folk music

The Influence of Folk Music on Modern Jazz

While the element of improvisation is what makes jazz unique, the genre also owes its roots to folk music. Jazz started to take shape at the beginning of the 20th century, and by the 1920s, it had become a distinct style of music. While there are many theories about how jazz developed, most experts agree that the genre was influenced by the music of African slaves and their descendants.

The slaves were brought to America from West Africa, and they brought with them a musical tradition that was based on work songs, spirituals, and folk tales. These musical elements can still be heard in jazz today. For example, many jazz tunes are based on a 12-bar blues format, which is derived from West African music. The use of call-and-response, another African musical tradition, is also common in jazz. In addition, many jazz musicians use polyrhythms, which are common in West African music.

Jazz would not be the same without the influence of folk music. The genre has retained many of the elements that were present in the music of the African slaves. These elements give jazz its unique sound and make it one of the most popular genres of music in America.


In conclusion, jazz incorporates elements of folk music, such as call and response vocals, blues progressions, and syncopated rhythms. These elements give jazz its unique flavor and make it one of the most popular genres of music.

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