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.