How to memorize harmony of a tune?

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?



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:


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 ]) ?


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:


1 Like

Hi Hayden ,

I am clearer now in terms of song form, but lastly, & on the issue of ‘Misty’, can you clarify if you also put into action methods to learn Melody like you do song form?
I presume this helps with 1) remembering the melody without a lead sheet & 2) transposition also.

If so, do you use numerics ,like in Bar’s 2 & 4, where the melody sometimes spreads over an octave, sometimes below middle C ,sometimes above. I want to be double sure of how to appropriately name the notes after the 1st octave? If possible just taking the melody over the fist 4 bars of Misty please? (It would really help so I know I’m on the right path)

(just finished reading these comments on remembering song form, really helpful answers ,I had wanted to ask these questions also(well done Florian!).

many thanks,


Hi Niall,

Yes I analyse everything numerically - particularly if i’m transposing a tune.

Sometimes I’ll just use my ear as I can ‘hear the intervals’ if that makes sense. This is more intuition-based gained from familiarity with the melody after listening to/playing the song so many times.

You do also have a lot of freedom to embellish or rephrase the melody. Often the points of resolution into 1 chords - which are typically held/sustained notes - are the most important ones. Bar 1 and Bar 3 of Misty for example.

As long as you hit those notes, you can add embellishments and rephrase the other sections with chromaticism, enclosures, and approach patterns.

Yes whether the melody is above or below middle C is irrelevant in terms of numeric analysis.

For example, in the 3rd bar of Misty over Abmaj7, the note ‘G’ is the 7th of Ab whether it is above or below middle C.

I always analyse the melody in relation to the underlying harmony.

As mentioned above, I find that after I have taken a melody through a few keys, it will become more instinctual.

My fingers will gravitate towards the right notes because I have an understanding of the ‘contours’ of the melody which will guide my hand without having to think too much.

Here’s how I would analyse the 1st 4 bars of the melody so I could transpose it:

  • Pickup bar: 5th(Bb) and 3rd(G) of the Imaj7 chord.

  • Bar 1: Melody lands on the 7th(D) of the 1maj7 chord, and then 5th(Bb), 6th(C )

  • Bar 2: Harmonically, this is a 25 of IV (Bb-7 / Eb7 … going to the IV of the key Abmaj7) … The melody starts on the b3rd(Db ) of the ii-7 chord and then jumps up a major 7th (an important melodic leap to memorise!) and then walks down the major 6th arpeggio of the V7 chord (C-Bb-G-Eb)

  • Bar 3: The melody rests on the 3rd of the IV chord (this is one of those sustained/held notes i mentioned earlier - typically these will be primary chord tones and often the 3rd of 7th of the chord) and then the melody simply plays the basic arpeggio of the IVmaj7 starting on the 7th (G-Ab-C-Eb-G)

  • Bar 4 Harmonically, Ab-7 / Db7 / Ebmaj7 is known as the ‘backdoor 251 progression’ The melody lands on the 9th(Bb) of the IV-7 and then drops down a whole step and then back up to the same note when the chord changes to Db7.

Notice in my analysis of Bar 4 that I am also thinking in terms of steps and/or intervals. This can help the memorisation process.

Also look for scale based passages, for example, the final bar of the 2nd A Section outlines the pentatonic scale from the Imaj7 chord, and this takes you into the bridge. Remembering these little elements will speed up your transposition.

My Tips For You

  • Try transposing Misty into the key of C major - you will hear that the tune is also commonly played in C major.

  • That will take a fair amount of work and patience - so stick with it.

  • Then try another key if you wish, and you should find the process much easier. This is because to transpose you will now see the tune in a different light, from a numeric standpoint and not just the notes on the page.

Experiment with that and let me know how you get on.

I hope this answers your question and if you would like me to elaborate further just let me know :+1::+1: