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Don’t Memorize-Play What You Hear!

The concept of “memorizing tunes” seems very daunting to some people.  Memorizing tunes seems like a laborious endeavor, slogging away note by note, phrase by phrase, and chord by chord, alone in a practice room.  That may be the image conjured up by some when they think of “memorizing tunes.”

While the lone-wolf-in-a-practice-room approach to memorizing may work for some, that’s not really how it happened for me.  That approach sounds really awful to me, actually.  I’m not really sure that I can whole-heartedly recommend my early approach to most people, but learning to memorize tunes happened much differently for me.  I’ll start with a little background on how I learned to memorize tunes, and then we’ll come to some conclusions about how to memorize tunes more easily later in the article.

I have a somewhat unique musical background for a jazz musician in that BOTH of my parents are classical piano teachers.  I was brought up an early age to memorize classical pieces for recitals.  Back then I didn’t know much about music theory, and so I basically memorized classical piano pieces by rote, one note at a time.  I had no idea about the theoretical names of the chords I was playing—I just memorized which notes to play.  It took a long time to learn each piece from memory.

I don’t really go out of my way to memorize classical music anymore, but I know it would be much easier now because I know music theory much better now than I did as a youngster.  I have a college degree in music theory. Now I actually know what chords I’m playing when I read classical music, which means I don’t have to memorize the placement of every little note without any kind of theoretical context.  I’m also more comfortable using my ear now, which can help even with classical music.

As a teenager I started to play jazz with various groups.  You know that thing that everyone says not to do?  You know, “Don’t Be a Real Book Player?”  Well, using a fakebook was my modus operandi for my first 7 or 8 years playing small group jazz.  No one told me there was a better way, and so I ALWAYS had the music in front of me until a more experienced bass player told me in college to show up without a book the next time we played together. Our second gig I showed up with no fake book, and that night I realized that I pretty much knew all of the tunes from memory that I had been reading from a fake book over the previous 7 or 8 years.  Overnight I realized that I had picked up dozens of tunes from memory pretty much by osmosis, just by playing them over the years.  I already knew how the tunes sounded, and my ears filled in the gaps for me.

I’m not sure that an overnight transition from reading lead sheets to playing from memory is realistic for everyone, even thought that’s sort of how it happened for me.  I still advise people not to be “Real Book players,” but early on using fake books really helped me to learn the tunes.  That’s just the reality of my experience, and so I’m not one of those people who preaches that sheet music is always bad.  I just happen to think that it’s much better to learn the standards by heart rather than reading them when you are performing, much as a classical pianist would perform from memory after learning songs from the sheet music…but there is more to it than that because listening to the piece is actually more important than even a lead sheet. I would also argue that listening to recordings is very important in classical music, though many classical students may regrettably avoid listening to classical music for the most part. I don’t know why listening isn’t emphasized more in classical music because it should be.

Memorizing a jazz tune is generally easier than memorizing a substantial classical piano piece.  With a jazz tune, you are basically just memorizing a sketch: a short melody, some chords, and a form.  The rest is up to you, and so there is much less information to learn than in, for instance, a classical piano sonata because so much of jazz is improvisation.

When I learn a new tune, I try to hit several different learning styles. I will listen to the song, several versions if possible, but I may also want to view the sheet music to see a visual representation of the tune. Jazz music is an aural tradition, and so the element of listening is more important than a lead sheet, but it’s still nice to see a new tune written out.  I use a fake book as a reference when learning a new tune, but if it’s an important jazz standard, I don’t want to perform while shackled to the sheet music in front of me.  If it’s a specific arrangement or someone’s original tune, that’s different.  Reading music is an important skill, and there are many instances when it’s ok to read music on the band stand.  Playing common standards that you’ve played 5,000 times is NOT one of those instances.

After almost 20 years playing jazz, my approach is much different than when I was first learning.  I learned jazz tunes with a more classical, sheet music approach when I was younger because I didn’t really know any better.  Fortunately, I was also listening to a lot of records, but I wasn’t always trying to listen to specific standards that I was playing. Now I like a mix of an ear-based approach combined with using sheet music as a reference.  This hits two different learning styles which can reinforce each other.  Sometimes the sheet music conflicts with the recordings.  In general, it’s better to go with the recordings when there is a disparity between the sheet music and the recording, but it depends on multiple factors. Use your best judgement.

One of the best ways to memorize music is to listen repeatedly until you really know how it goes, and to play what you hear.  Musicians who have developed the ability to play what they hear have lessened the gap between their ear and fingers, and they can hear how a song goes in their head and then just play what they hear.  Playing by ear sounds like a tall order, but it gets easier with time.


If you want to improve your ability to memorize tunes, make things easier on yourself by learning to play what you hear. Once you get good at playing what’s in your “mind’s ear,” then learning a new song can be as simple as learning how the tune goes in your head.

You can develop your ability to play what you hear.  I’m sure you have lots of melodies boppin’ around in your head.  One way to learn to play what you hear is just to practice playing melodies that you already have in your head.   Then apply the same approach to new tunes you want to learn.  Listen to the song enough times that you know how it is supposed to go, and then play what you hear.  Even complicated jazz tunes can become easy to learn if you develop the skill of playing what you hear.
Once you reach the point where you can play what you hear, it becomes much easier to learn tunes and to create coherent solos over those tunes!

-Camden Hughes

Camden Hughes
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at


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