Eli5: How does a group of musicians “jam”?

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How does a group of musicians, who may never have played together before, start to play together and make cohesive music? I don’t mean over time, I mean in that first session, good musicians seem to have an intuition of what the others are about to play.

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Music theory is very organized. Good musicians who have studied how music is put together know a whole bunch of common chord progressions. Especially with blues/rock. If you are sitting in with some peeps and someone says “blues in E” everyone knows what the musical structure is going to be. With rhythm, it’s similar. If it’s a rock song everyone just gets into a rock groove. Music repeats. Once someone lays out a pattern the others listen and fall in pretty quick.

It varies completely from player to player. Some people go into it with a pretense of “we must learn this and learn it perfectly” and some just want to play. Experience levels are gonna be different, and I guess the clincher is just communicating where you’re at. I’m a rhythm guitarist and a lot of the folks I play with play lead, and know scales well enough to hear what I’m playing and be able to improvise a lead over it. Or we might pull up tabs for a song we both like or want to learn and make it our own somehow. Some people go in with sheet music.

Having a dynamic that plays to people’s strengths is good so you can compliment each other or compensate where someone else falls short or vice versa. Have a conversation and find out if you’re on the same page or how to get there if you want to.

They play in the same key, respond to different cues from each other, and they know how different styles of music should be structured. Some styles of music are easier to jam with people you don’t know. A blues jam is easy because the structure is common knowledge.

Edit: Adding more context here. A “key” in music is a group of notes that are used as the foundation of a song. The notes in a key sound good together, so knowing the key allows experienced musicians to play cohesively.

Music follows patterns, and if you know how those patterns work, it’s much like forming a sentence. Often times the drummer will start a rhythm pattern that repeats over and over again, and then the bass and guitar might decide based on the style of music what chord pattern they will use. Everything from that point is just fitting words into the sentence.

To use a sports analogy, it’s like baseball. If you know the rules, you can jump in with any team and each position has it’s job, so you know sort of what to expect.

In short, experience. Veteran and naturally gifted musicians have gained, mostly via trial and error, an understanding of musical structure and composition that the casual listener lacks.

Basically, after enough practice, you know that in a given format, the next logical step for “Musician A” will likely be “X”; thus allowing you to plan what you will play next in order to compliment it.

There’s probably a much simpler way to describe all of this but hope this helps