At Learn Jazz Standards, we promote learning tunes primarily by ear. This can take longer, especially at first, but when you learn tunes this way, you REALLY learn them as you struggle with the harmonies, melodies, and with the memorization of the tune. Reading is a crucial skill for a jazz musician, BUT it must not be used as a crutch to avoid actually learning the tunes. When I’m learning a new jazz song, I MIGHT look at the sheet music to clarify the tune, but I try to rely primarily on my ear.
I didn’t always ascribe to this school of thought. For my first 7 years of playing jazz I ALWAYS used sheet music. I learned tunes-and played tunes-by looking at the sheet music. I was stuck in the Real Book, which is not ideal. I didn’t know any better until a bass player I was working with told me to leave my fakebook at home next time. Later, while attending the Port Townsend Jazz Festival in Port Townsend, Washington (several hours from Seattle) I realized that John Clayton, the artistic director of the camp, promoted learning tunes from the recordings. He even promoted throwing your fakebook away! His brother, Jeff Clayton, didn’t even bring music into his combo rehearsals for his students. He made his students learn the standards by ear.
Something gradually began to switch for me. I began realizing that many of the tunes are basically the same. Sure, they have different titles, the melodies change, and the harmonies have differences, but basically tunes are often very similar to one another. Most of them move in ii-V-Is moving through different keys. Even a complicated tune like Giant Steps is really just a series of ii-V-Is through three different key centers (B Major, G Major, and Eb Major).
I have had dozens of gigs with a guitarist named Bill Courtial, who used to be Vince Guaraldi’s guitar player from 1978-1980. I still play with Bill on a weekly basis. I remember one time Bill wanted me to learn a tune, and I asked him if it was difficult. Bill’s response was that it was “not harder than any other tune.” That simple moment was eye opening for me.
I began to realize that even what we think of as complex tunes are not nearly as difficult to learn and memorize as a Beethoven Sonata, for instance (as long as you know how to play jazz, that is!) Classical pianists have to learn EVERYTHING from memory, and they can’t fudge notes! All we have to do is memorize a sketch and then fill in the blanks. It’s a beautiful thing! If you are really good, you can get the basic jist of a new tune in minutes by ear.
As a piano player (and with guitar as my secondary instrument), the first thing I do when learning a new tune is listen for the harmonies of a tune. I’ll add the melody and practice improvising later, after I know the form and the harmony. I first identify the root of each chord in sequence, and then I fill in the quality of the chord. If the chord quality is not immediately obvious, I experiment at the piano or the guitar until I find the right chord. I use my knowledge of music theory and my ears to learn the harmony. I’ll check it against a page later if the page is available. Sometimes I’ll look at a page first, BUT in general I learn a tune more thoroughly if I try learning it by ear first, and maybe look at a page later for clarification.
When I can find the root note of a chord, but am not sure about the quality of the chord, I’ll use theory and my ears together. For instance, the bII (tritone sub of V) moving to a I chord is usually either a dominant chord or a major 7 chord. When I hear a bII to a I root movement, I sometimes have difficult distinguishing whether the progression is:
I’ll try both out on either piano or guitar, or even just by singing each chord, until I’m reasonably sure that I know the correct chord quality.
Then I’ll keep going with each subsequent chord until I have the framework of the harmony. Most tunes are 32 bars or shorter. Even a really long-form tune in jazz, like Desafinado, are generally fewer than 70 bars long.
This is Stan Getz classic recording with Charlie Byrd of Desafinado. They begin with a two-chord vamp, followed by the 67 bar form (they cut out a bar at the end to begin the vamp a measure early) at :17. The vamp begins at 1:50 and lasts throughout the solos. They then play the melody again at 4:00 to fade.
First, can you hear the two-chord vamp? The bassist, Keter Betts, generally starts on the 5th of each chord and then plays the root next. After you’ve established what key we are in, can you hear the changes for the AABA form of the tune? The vamp is easier to hear, for sure, although keep in mind that the first note the bass player plays is NOT the root of the first chord. Rather, it’s the 5th. The second note of the song is the root of the first chord, and is also the name of the key of the tune. Go from there.
To learn a tune by ear, I suggest the following three-step process:
- Learn the harmony by ear/form (number of bars)
- Learn the melody by ear
- Practice improvising over the changes
When you are learning the harmony, Step 1 of learning a tune by ear, I recommend this three-step process:
- Find the root of a chord
- Use your ears and music theory to fill in the quality of the chord
- Move on to the next chord
You can write down the progression as you go if that’s helpful to you. Check it against a fakebook later if you must, BUT remember that fakebooks are not always correct. Always check the fakebook against recordings. When in doubt, go with the recordings unless you have a specific reason or reharmonization you are going for.
This method of learning apples the concept of transcribing. Transcribing doesn’t have to be just solos; you can transcribe to learn tunes as well! You can read the article If You Ain’t Stealin’, You Ain’t Tryin’ for more information on transcribing.
How do you learn new tunes? We welcome your comments!