When learning a jazz standard, you should spend considerable time investigating the composition. If you want to learn it thoroughly, you’ll need to learn the melody and the chord progressions by ear. You’ll want to dissect parts of it to figure out how it functions harmonically. And when it comes to not forgetting it (as I’m sure you’ve experienced) you have to continually revisit it and play it with other musicians.
But here’s a quick tip for you if you want to really learn a jazz standard well: if there are lyrics, learn them.
If you’re a vocalist, this is a no-brainer and you most certainly are doing this already. But if you are an instrumentalist, this may be a less common practice for you.
Whenever I learn a jazz standard, especially if it’s from the Great American Song Book (typically 1920’s-50’s film and broadway shows), I listen to versions by vocalists. Why? Because I believe the lyrics can have a powerful impact on how I understand that piece of music.
“When you know the lyrics to a tune, you have some kind of insight as to it’s composition. If you don’t understand what it’s about, you’re depriving yourself of being really able to communicate this poem”
I’m going to list several reasons why you should consider learning the lyrics to jazz standards, so you can understand why it may be worth your time and energy. Ultimately, learning the lyrics is another great tool for getting a jazz standard into your memory, on to your instrument, and making it yours forever.
1. Helps you understand the original intent.
As Dexter Gordon so eloquently stated in that quote I provided above, when you learn the lyrics to a tune it can help you understand what it’s all about.
As musicians, our job is to interpret stories and emotion through the medium of music. To take that even further, we also want to be able to express a piece of music in a uniquely personal way. When you learn the lyrics to a song, you are educating yourself on the original intent of that piece and therefore understanding the essence of the song. This serves as a springboard for personalizing it.
Take a listen to All The Things You Are. Read the lyrics as you listen. What is the song about, and how might this influence the way you play it?
That makes the lonely winter seem long
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.
You are the angel glow that lights the star,
The dearest things I know are what you are.
Someday my happy arms will hold you,
And someday I’ll know that moment divine
When all the things you are, are mine.
2. Helps with phrasing the melody
The human voice is natural to everybody. The phrasing of a sentence is understood by all, especially if it is in one’s native tongue. Learning the lyrics can help us understand how to phrase the melody on our instruments in an organic way.
If you know the words, this can also influence how you might manipulate it. You could elongate or shorten certain parts of a word. The lyrics give you a solid frame of reference to go off of.
3. Helps you memorize.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of learning the lyrics is it helps you memorize the tune you are learning.
Spoken language and the human voice is memorable. As I said earlier, it’s most natural to us as human beings. Commercial pop culture music capitalizes on this. They spend millions of dollars writing catchy melodies and producing high-quality recordings so that listeners will become addicted.
I find the songs that I never forget usually know the lyrics to. There’s something about the words that stick in the brain. Not only does it help solidify the melody, it can also help you recall the harmony.
If you don’t make learning the lyrics a regular part of your song learning process, give it a shot! The lyrics can be a powerful tool to help you learn jazz standards.
Not all vocalists sing the melody “straight”! For example, Billie Holiday takes lots of liberties with the melody when she sings. If you ever want to learn a melody, regardless if you intend to learn the lyrics or not, check out Frank Sinatra. He tends to sing the melodies “straight” and so he’s a great resource for learning melodies.