1 April 2015

Improv Column: Memorising Tunes by Wayne McConnell

Committed to Committing it to Memory


You would think learning songs would be a relatively simple exercise and in many ways it is.  In jazz however, simply knowing the song is not really enough.  As improvisers, we want to be able to feel completely relaxed with the material that we are improvising on.  Learning the tune and the chords is really not enough.  You need to be 110% comfortable and clued up in what the tune is doing harmonically, structurally and melodically.  We all know in the world of Jazz there is no escaping the dreaded ability to ‘transpose’ into any key.  With this method, you will find it easier to make sense of the harmony and therefore be able to play with more authority and expression. Given the above, learning a standard is a serious investment of time.  Don’t rush the process and aim to master it.  The first stage is about listening.  Here is a guide to the listening stage: 



    •    Listen to 3 or 4 versions of the song and focus in on your favorite version.  To start with, try and focus on a version that isn’t wildly interpreted.  Use the internet to find out as much as you can about the tune and what are considered as some of the definitive versions.

    •    Settle on one version that you really love.  Listen to it over and over again, enjoy all of the nooks and crannies of it, the melody, chords, lyrics, the players.  How is the melody delivered?  Delicate and tender or passionately lively?   

    •    As you listen try and sing along with the melody remembering that this is all prep-work to make your life easier later on. 

    •    Sing through the root moments 5-10 times a day for a week.

    •    Listen to the structure of the tune.  Can you work out what the form is?  


The listening stage can take as much or as little time as you see fit.  If the melody is intricate and complex, expect to spend more time listening. The more time you do this for, the easier it will be to actually execute it in your instrument or voice.  By the time you get to the ‘learning’ stage, you should have a mental-map of what the song does in terms of form.   See if you can write it down, count the numbers of bars if you have to. 




The learning stage is not really about learning the song (you’ve actually done that already in the listening process).  This stage is all about applying it to your instrument and that transfer from brain/soul to instrument/voice is fundamental to how you will retain the information required to play it and eventually transpose it. 


    •    Play the A section over and over again – If you play piano or guitar start with the melody, play it in its barest form without any embellishments or ornamentation.  Then play through the chords, eliminate any issues with voicings.  Keep the voicings simple so the melody is still the stronger sound.  If you don’t play a chordal instrument, fear not, we will get to the same information later on. 

    •    Move on to the B section and subsequently move through the whole tune until you are comfortable with it.  Play with a backing track.  

By this stage you should be able to play or sing the melody (with chords for piano and guitar) all the way though accurately from memory. 


Prep for Improvisation and Transposition


In order to improvise freely and to transpose with ease, you need to fully understand the harmonic implications of the tune.  You need to master this both mentally and physically.  In other words, you need to be able to understand mentally what is happening and also where physically that information happens on your instrument.  


Step 1 – Seek out the II-V and II-V-I (both major and minor) movements .  So rather than thinking of say 3 individual chords, you are actually just think of a ‘key centre’.  


Step 2 – Think of the chords as roman numerals rather than being in a specific key.  


Step 3 – Play and sing through the ‘shells’ of the chords. Shells are the 3rds and 7ths or 7ths and 3rds of the chords.  Play through them, they should sound pleasing.    


Step 4 – Scales/Modes – This is subjective because it is not essential you know all the names of these weird and wonderful modes.  You can get by very well by just using your ear but it requires a huge amount of previous listening to improvisers and naturally very good ears (perfect and relative pitch).  Since most of the population don’t have naturally advanced musical hearing and lots of time to listen, this is a good way to enhance your accuracy of playing the right notes at the right time.  


If you have never learnt tunes in a logical and prolonged period and have trouble memorising tunes, DO not skip any of these steps, each one is an integral part of the learning process.  After a while, you will be able to skip through some of the steps because you will start to memorise things such as II-V-Is in all 12 keys.  


The very final stage is to play hundreds of choruses of the melody/chords and of course improvising.  Once you are comfortable with the usual key, try it in a few related keys.  It is useful to use the Cycle of Fourths to practice 12 keys as it follows a natural harmonic cycle.  


Wayne McConnell

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