Memorizing Tunes

Jazz musicians are expected to have a large number of standard tunes committed to memory, and often to be able to transpose these tunes into different keys. Improvisers often find that memorizing the chord changes frees them up to explore different directions in their solos more than reading the progression from the sheet music allows. At “fake gigs” and jam sessions it’s very helpful to have standard tunes memorized as it will save you a lot of time hunting for the right page in the right book.

Admittedly, I started memorizing tunes late. I had been told by many teachers and mentors that it was essential to have standards memorized, but I was usually able to grab a fake book on a gig or jam session and procrastinated committing those tunes to memory. Since making a stronger effort to really learn these tunes, I’ve found that not only has it been beneficial for the reasons I listed above, but it also has made me a better overall improvisor and composer. I wish now that I had started memorizing tunes more seriously back when I was a student. Still, it’s a lot of work memorizing a hundred or more tunes. With so much other things to practice, sometimes memorizing tunes takes a back seat to working on other things. Here are some tricks I’ve picked up that can help you memorize tunes faster.

Learn Tunes By Ear First, Then Go To Sheet Music

Not only will doing this improve aural skills, it will help you retain what you’re memorizing by giving your brain more sensory associations to latch on to. The aural association and effort at picking up the melody and chord changes by ear alone really helps when combine with the visual association of reading the sheet music. Plus, your improved ability to play by ear will not only help your improvisational skills, but it will also let you “earball” on the spot a tune that you don’t know so well.

Learn To Play the Tune On Piano (or another instrument, if you’re a pianist)

Piano is a particularly visual instrument. You can literally see the pitches you’re hearing by looking at where you’re fingers are. I actually find it easier to memorize music on the piano than on the trombone, my primary instrument. It’s particularly faster for me to memorize chord progressions on the piano than it is for me to memorize the changes on the trombone.

However, I find that the memorization doesn’t always immediately transfer over onto the trombone from piano. I must also make an effort to memorize on the trombone after working on the tune on the piano, but I find that it’s faster to do piano first, then trombone. I also seem to retain the tune longer if I do it this way.

Learn the Melody In Fragments

Go by phrases and isolate just the pitches, ignoring the rhythms temporarily. Once you’ve got the first phrase committed to memory, you can then go on to the next and ignore the first temporarily. Once you’ve got the first two phrases memorized individually, practice putting them together before isolating the third phrase, and so on. After you’ve got just the order of the pitches memorized, go back and put it together with the correct rhythms. Rhythms tend to be easier to memorize for most players, so don’t waste your time practicing something that you already know.

Somewhat related, certain tunes repeat phrases over the whole tune, such as in an AABA form tune. Don’t waste your time replaying the A sections three times for every 1 time you practice the bridge by memory. Go back and forth between A and B so that you’re playing the bridge about as many times as you’re playing the A section. Once you’ve got both sections down pat you can go back to playing the tune in the proper form.

Learn To See and Hear the Patterns

Jazz standards have certain harmonic and melodic “language” to them that gives them their identity as “standards.” Don’t just memorize individual pitches and chords in order, memorize the overall patterns. Melodies will tend to move through combinations of scales and chord arpeggios. They will also move along in basic shapes, such as ascending by leaps and then descending by scales. Chords will move in common progressions, such as ii-V-Is. Many tunes use very similar, or even the exact same chord changes. Not only will this conscious recognition of the basic language of jazz standards help you memorize the next tune that uses similar patterns, it will also help you intuitively construct strong melodies and harmonies when you’re improvising or composing.

Learn a Few Tunes Really Well

Related to recognizing the patterns, if you learn a few tunes really well, to the point of being able to play them in any key fairly comfortably, the next tune you want to memorize will come quicker and stick with you longer.

Rememorize Tunes You Already Know

I have an iTunes playlist with play-a-long tracks of tunes I’ve got memorized already. I will often put that playlist on shuffle and make sure that I’m still able to play the tunes by memory. As I memorize new tunes, I add that track to the playlist (I use both Jamey Aebersolds and Band-in-a-Box play-a-longs like this). I find that if I don’t play a tune over a long time, I forget the details. This way I’m keeping those tunes on the back burner so I don’t forget them.

Practice Scales, Arpeggios, Patterns, and Licks In All Twelve Keys

This is useful for your improv chops anyway, but I’ve found it also helps my memorization skills. Again, this goes back to recognizing the melodic language of jazz tunes and gives you other mental associations to help keep the tunes in mind.  Melodies are made of scales, chord arpeggios, and other patterns that form the “words” of the language.  Rather than memorizing the individual notes, you’ll be memorizing phrases.

Stick With It

Having a large number of tunes committed to memory is a long term goal.  The more tunes you memorize, the faster you’ll be able to memorize the next one.

There are, of course, other things you can do to help you learn tunes.  If you’ve got a suggestion you think we should add, please leave your comment below.

Robert Hynes

Hi Mark,

I experimented with pegs some years ago but abandoned it quickly as managing the conversions in real time was too much for me. It would have worked well if I’d wanted to write the chord progression out before playing but this not my goal. Just in case I’m missing something here could you outline how you are using pegs in this context ?

Robert Hynes

I enjoyed reading this thread and indeed the one comment above on memory pegs.
I’m 68 now and have played bass and guitar all my life, and always suffered from a poor memory. This got a lot easier when I started playing jazz bass as a young man as I found I could read chord sequences really well and solo over them too. I found however that this does not work with jazz guitar anywhere near as well as the harmony in particular has to be rock solid in memory before the playing freedom really comes.
This meant that I could typically hold about fifteen standards in memory at any one time which is no where near enough. Worse when new songs were comitted to memory with all the work that rote effort entails, if they were left unplayed for a couple of months then they were forgotten and re memorizing them, with all the needed extra is a nightmare
Not surprising then to hear that I too started to investigate pnemonics, (memory pegs) and God knows what else until just recently I found a way which works for me.
Whilst I am now using this method for my jazz guitar playing it would work for any instrument with modifications.
Before I list the method and explain why it works there are a list of prerequisites for the player.

1. The method is totally unnecessary for players with a gifted memory who literally cannot forget what they learn, e.g. the late Humphrey Littleton and Milt Jackson.
2. The player must be a competent musician in the first place.
3. The player must be able to sing the melody.
4. The player nust have access to a backing track of the song or be able to create his own.

Method. (short)
1. Learn the roots only.
2. Play the roots over the backing track.
3. Be able to visualise the roots in your minds eye without the music playing and without the score in front of you.
4. Understand totally how the harmony or chord progression works.

Method. (Detailed with explanations as to why it works so well.)
1. First remember the goal here, for example you want to learn “Body and Soul” in 30 minutes, then not play it for a year, but be able to play it intantly it is called up in year two. forgetting.

2. Take a major scale shape and use it exclusively for all the work. On a stringed instrument play this major scale in position. On guitar I use C major starting on the A string at fret 3 with the second finger. The scale is so well known it does not need describing othe than to say it encompasses the A, D and G strings from fret 2 to fret 5. To include all accidentals two positions are needed, i.e. second and third positions. With this done you have the full twelve notes, i.e. the major scale with all accidentals between the octaves. i.e. all Root possibilities.

3. Work with the score until you can play the roots only in time along with the song. You’ll find you can dispense with the score in about thirty minutes or less.

4.If you’ve reached this stage you are now playing the roots in time with the backing track from memory.

5. With the roots memorised in this way the song is already yours really but can be further strengthened by adding harmony once the roots shape of the song is clear. e.g. guitar play chords with the same roots. e.g. trombone play arpeggios.

6. When the roots are in memory, you will also have total understanding of how the song works. i.e. II, V, I etc.

7. Go straight to improvisation, as you will no longer have memory slips, you will literally “see” thee the harmony as you improvise, or perhaps better expressed it will be as if someone is shouting out the chords to you as they change.

Why it works.
1. Remembering the roots is a small memory task, so it’s achieved easily.

2. Remembering the roots in the way outlined allows you to see the composition in terms of I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII allowing you to make sense of the harmony.

3. Transposition becomes easier because of 2. above.

4. Whether the individual chords are majors, minors, sevenths, minor sevenths, major sevenths or any other variant becomes clear in knowing the context of the song.

5. Finally it works so well because it is highly visual.


When you learn a new tune do you initially memorize all the tunes in key of C or do you use the key the tune is most often played in?

Bob Hynes

it’s so long since I left a note on this thread I had largely forgot about it and indeed what I wrote above
Instead of answering your question directly, I can instead tell you that I have finally solved the problem for myself totally with smal modifications to the above as follows:. It’s a little too late as I’m 71 years old now, but by hell am I learning tunes, at last !

The short answer is Roots, Roots, Roots, Roots.. The longer answer is as follows:

Musicians who never forget harmonies do not understand the problem and cannot help. They are just lucky.
Many musicians do have this memory problem, the modern proof of this is the use of IPADS on the stand.
The truth however is that the problem is seriously limiting and stops competent players from developing.
I’ve suffered from the problem for so long that I even had a set of bench mark songs of considerable difficulty that I would use as checks to see if the methods I designed to overcome the problem would work, they are:
1. Stella by Starlight.
2. Time after Time.
3. I’m Old Fashoned.
4. Cherokee.

All my methods failed totally over time until I tried thinking of roots only, then finally the magic, bingo.
I now have have 1. 2., and 4. above rock solid. Can’t forget ’em. Will begin work on 3. soon.

If anybody reading this knows the songs above, then by definition they will know the songs all have complex harmonies. It is this factor that makes them difficult to remember for the musician that does not have a naturally retentive memory.

To use the system, which as far as I know is new, the musician must have a good knowledge of harmony. For example, he must expect Cminor7th. to be typically followed by F7thaug., and lead to B flat minor. He must know it and have such harmonies secure in understanding.

With this in place, remembering a song by its Roots becomes quick and easy and totally secure.
For example Stella, (really complex), is approached liked this:

The Harmony:

The Roots:

Providing the harmony makes sense to the musician, a big pre requisite, then once the Roots can be quoted, (played,) in rhythm, followed by being able to quote, (play), Roots and harmony in rhythm, the song is known.
A few times through and the song is secure enough to improvise over without forgetting.

This is working for me totally, nothing else did.

I always use the written key, but remembering it in another key would be no problem.

I hpe this helps somebody else and wish like hell somebody had told me forty years ago. It’s a game changer.

Finn seccombe

Thankyou Bob, I’m 30 years behind you and I wish I’d learned this 30 years ago. So simple but effective. The harmony patterns are so drilled that they fall in after the roots no problem.

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