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LJS 156: How to Memorize Chord Changes and Not Get Lost

Welcome to episode 156 of the LJS Podcast where today we feature a listener question all about how to memorize chord changes so you don’t start confusing them with others. If you’ve ever gotten lost playing a jazz standard because you accidentally switched into playing a similar one, you’re going to find this episode helpful.

Listen to episode 156

Have you ever been playing a jazz standard at a jam session, gig, or even by yourself and suddenly realized you switched to a different one?

I certainly have. Some jazz standards are similar to each other. In this episode, I use the example of “It Could Happen to You” and “There Will Never Be Another You.”

Both of these tunes are commonly played in the key of Concert Eb major, and they have lots of diatonic cycling in 4ths and movements to the relative minor. It’s easy to start getting those confused.

So in this show, I talk about how to memorize chord progressions in a way that will help us internalize them and know them well in the first place. I also talk about a very simple solution to help prevent you from veering off to another standard.

In this episode:

1. How to memorize chord changes so that you don’t forget them.

2. Using the melody as your pillar to keeping you on track and true to the tune.

3. How to simplify the way you think about the harmony of a jazz standard.

Let me know in the comments:

How do you keep from losing track of which song you are playing and how do you memorize chord progressions?

Important Links

Learn Jazz Standards the Smart Way

How to Learn Chord Progressions by Ear (Video)

LJS 88: Using the LIST Method to Learn Jazz Solos by Ear

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. Nice Brent, good stuff hear. I've been using LIST and found it to be helpful. What I've also found helpful is to sing the root movements, and sometimes learn the harmony as a kind of counterpoint melody using the root movements. Similar to David's comment above. Sometimes I'll sing the root movements as I practice comping or soloing (I play piano). This helps me to further ingrain the tune and form. It's especially helpful for tunes that don't follow traditional functional harmony, where a traditional functional harmonic analysis with Roman numerals doesn't work so well. It also helps me to strengthen my ear-instrument connection. Example of tunes I'm working on right now where this applies are Bolivia, Hindsight, and Highway 14.

    In terms of not memorizing every ii-V-I and thinking more in terms of key centers or targets – I find this especially helpful for tunes where there are many versions of the tune, and different recordings, musicians, and lead sheets will have variations. Most of the time the variations are different ways to get to the various key centers. So if I know the major landmarks, I can listen to hear how my bandmates are getting to that key center, and adjust accordingly.

  2. Hi Brent.. Just wanted to point out that one way (as part of the entire tool kit of ways) to learn the changes to tunes and not get confused/lost, or inadvertently graft into another tune is to learn the roots to the changes as a sort of melody unto themselves. So, when I am learning a new tune I do all the things you recommend, and I also will have a phase where I walk around humming the the roots to the changes as a sequence of notes, just like a sub-melody. I usually do this after learning the actual melody, because the actual melody is also going through my head as I do this. What this does is lock in the actual melody as it relates to the root motion of the chords (the sub-melody), in your memory/brain. With my instrument, I will also just sing the melody as I play the roots. I'm a bass player so I can do that. If you play a horn, you can play the melody into a looper and play along with it playing the chord roots. The idea is to really cement that relationship into your brain as "that" song.

  3. Thanks Brent for the line about not thinking about individual chords. It's been a source of frustration to me for a while now because I can't and never will be able to do that but, I have come to suspect I don't need too. Now I have some confirmation. Another accomplished NY Jazz player and teacher (Jeff Schneider) recently posted a video on the subject about how to simplify chord progressions which is exactly what I had already instinctively learned to do but thought it must be wrong because, how am I to decide. The changes don't happen on every chord like some people elude to. Our ears should reveal this. They happen in sections or groups of chords. Anyhow, thanks for the clear explanation.


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