How to memorize harmony of a tune?

(Florian Bauer) #1

right now i am struggling with some issues:

  1. i would like to play tunes i know in a higher tempo
  2. it takes too much time to look up the next chord from the lead sheet
  3. when i learned a tune pretty well and can play it by hart it is not available anymore after a couple of weeks not playing the tune.

=> i already started to think in scale degrees and am learning the cord progressions based on ii/V etc instead of the chord notation but this approach some time misses certain information and does not cover the entire tune.

so my question is:

is there a kind of best practice approach on how to memorize the harmony and the chord progressions for a tune?


(Hayden Hill) #2

Hi Florian :wave:

Really great question here, and I’ll share my advice below.

I have mentioned some of this in other threads, but I will repeat here too.

Firstly, I’d ask yourself how you are thinking of tunes?

Just to mention, I was playing tunes with the lead sheets in front of me for many years. Whilst it seems easier to begin with, I wish I stopped this sooner and instead learnt the tunes by memory.

By all means use the lead sheet as an initial aid, but the sooner we can commit the chord to our memory, the better.

Let’s take a tune we should all be familiar with - “Misty”

When I sit down at the piano to play Misty, I don’t use the lead sheet at all. In my head, I’m thinking 4 block of 8 bars like this:


The form is 32 bars (which most but not all jazz standards follow ) and each 8 bars is one of the sections.

The next thing I ask myself, is what type of form is this?

Misty follows an AABA form, so essentially the first 8 bars make up 75% of the tune. There is an 8 bar bridge which has different chords but notice how now I am visualising the A Sections as the same thing, and then I’m visualising the bridge as a ‘separate thing’:


So once we have memorised the first 8 bars, we already know 3/4 of the tune.

The next thing I do, is visualise the chord in each square:

I see this in my head for the first 8 bars of Misty:

That is the formula for 75% for the tune. The 2nd A section has different last 2 bars. So around 70% of the tune follows this exact chord sequence.

I can then also make this into even less information:

  1. We start with 1 bar of the Imaj7 Chord (Eb Major)

  2. Then a 251 to the IVmaj7 (Bb-7 / Eb7 / Abmaj7) this is why leanring scales numerically is good… becuase now I can memorise bars 2 & 3 simply as “251 to the IV” becuase the IV of EbMajor is Ab.

  3. Then we have a ‘backdoor 251’ progression, Ab-7 to Db7 back to Eb Major. This is very common in jazz standards and the more you learn, the more you will notice this common movement. Right now, just remember it as Ab-7 --> Db7 --> Ebmaj7.

  4. Ebmaj7 goes to relative minor C-7

  5. 25 Progression in Eb (F-7 / Bb7)

  6. Just a normal 3625 turnaround back to the Imaj7 chord… (G7 --> C7 --> F7 --> Bb7)

So with those 6 pieces of information, you know have the ‘formula’ for 75% of the tune.

Check out this lesson on common jazz forms for more information:

This lesson will help you learn and memorise tunes.

We can group tunes together by the form they follow, and this makes it easier to remember them when combined with the above approach.

Next, test yourself whilst away from the piano

Try testing yourself on this away from the piano, can you say to yourself all of the chords in the A Section?

If you can do that, then you will have “freed yourself” from having to look at the lead sheet, and you can really get into what you are playing.

Do you have the iRealPro app on your phone? If so, you could use this to test yourself during the day…

Finally Florian, understand that you will be playing these tunes for many many years, or even for the rest of your life. Learning and memorising tunes is one of the tricky parts of becoming a jazz musician, but the more you memorise, the easier it becomes.

Remember to check out the lesson highlighted above, and you will soon see that the jazz standard tunes share many similarities, often just slight differences in between them.

Hope this helps :sunglasses:

(Florian Bauer) #3

excellent that works for me!

in the meantime i figured out, that ireal-pro also highlites the current cord, which makes it faster to look up the next one.

but one more question:
do you personally visualize the cords based on there names (like 251[ Ab Major ]) or based on the appropriate scale degree (like 251[ IV ]) ?


(Hayden Hill) #4

Great stuff… yes iRealPro is an invaluable tune.

You can just open it when you have a spare few minutes in the day, and quiz yourself on the chord changes of a particular tune.

Sure thing…

I personally do not do this that much. But I know that many of the best musicians do. To be honest, if I had more time to play and practice, I would do this more. So i’d definitely encourage this if you have the time.

The benefit of learning the numeric harmony, is that you can easily transpose the tune into other keys. If you are a gigging musician for example, you will be required to play tunes in alternate keys to the original… particularly when working with singers.

In addition, when you know a tune numerically, it means that you understand the ‘blue-print’ of the harmonic progressions, and then you quickly realise that many tunes share this same ‘blue print’ or similar passages, but written in different keys.

That then makes tunes easier to remember, and also to solo over as you can use similar melodic ideas and improvised material, but of course in different keys.

That is my take on it Florian. If you watch any of Tuomo’s jazz standard lessons, you will see that he places a LOT of importance on this. He always walks through first with the numerics, and then to the arrangement. Most of the lessons in this course are by Tuomo:

So I guess the answer is dependant on your goals and aspirations Florian.

If your goal is to play a few nice arrangements for personal pleasure, then I’d say it isn’t vitally important. However if you want to accompany singers, play with other musicians, or simply to get that deeper understanding of harmony, then I think that learning tunes numerically is a very wise move.

Hope this helps :sunglasses: