Knowing The Tune

Committing Tunes to Memory

In the past, I have always had music in front of me, whether practicing or playing gigs.  Because of an article, I read on, Why You Shouldn’t Be a Real Book Player, I have been trying to learn tunes in new ways. I have begun to analyze chord progressions and memorize them. That is something I had never done before. And then I also memorize the head/melody, something else I had never done in the past. By going these extra steps I have found that I actually play the tunes better. Imagine that.

If you are a musician reading this, I don’t know how you memorize melodies, but I’ll tell you what I’m doing now. And I am talking about jazz tunes from the real book. In the past I have played a bunch of tunes, but, always with the book in front of me. As it turns out I remember the 30 to 40 melodies I played on a regular basis. So, now that I have band-in-a-box on my computer, I use it as a backdrop to a melody I want to commit to memory.

My Method

Say I want to commit All Of Me to memory. I can recall the tune, the entire melody in my mind. However, as I have found out, my hands don’t necessarily remember the tune. I guess technically this falls under training the ear. However, I think of it as a disconnect between the hands and the mind (or ear if you will). All Of Me has an easy chord progression. So, improvising over the changes is easy for me. You would think that if I find it an easy tune to improvise over I could play the melody with no problem. That wasn’t the case.

The background music starts and I begin. And I’m missing notes all over the place. The tempo is not fast; ♩=150. I know exactly what the melody sounds like. I can hear it in my head, but I can’t play it. So, I use a self-imposed sanction. I don’t get to improvise over a chorus until I play the melody correctly.  I have band-in-a-box set to play through the chorus seven times. That usually means I play the melody on the first chorus. I get to practice my improvisation on choruses 2-6. Then I play the melody on the 7th and finish the tune. However, if I don’t make it through the melody without mistakes I have to try again on the next chorus.

Several times I have had to use all 7 choruses trying to play the melody. Of course, I’m paying close attention to where I’m making mistakes. Eventually, I make it through a chorus playing the melody correctly, and I get to improvise on the next one if there is one left. Once I finish my improvised chorus I immediately have to play the melody again on the next chorus. If I make it through the melody without mistakes then I get to improvise again on the next chorus.


By doing this I thoroughly learn the tune, or at least become intimately familiar. Another discovery in doing this is that the melody provides some great clues to the kinds of things you can play over the chord changes. It’s like finding hidden messages in the tune. They are extremely helpful and expand my understanding of the song. When I’m done practicing this way I really feel like I am truly knowing the tune with some intimacy. It is much more enjoyable than reading from a book.



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