1st annual Casa Valdez DVD contest!!!!

Check it out, Alexa Weber Morales had this comment/question about learning tunes:

"I picked up an Aebersold book at the last IAJE called "How to Learn Tunes". Frankly, I wished there was more meat to it, but the basic gist is, memorize repertoire via categorization. In other words, make lists of tunes you know (or want to learn) grouped by characteristics such as key, meter, tempo, form, type of melody and harmony, rhythm/groove. This is something you can do while traveling or away from your instrument.Another good technique is to work with a metronome and practice the rhythms of a piece. My question lately is, what sort of mnemonic aids do other musicians use? I generally write lyrics over and over by hand to learn them (I'm a singer). But since I don't accompany myself on stage, I find that when I learn a tune on the piano, after the initial process of reading it and learning it, I forget the names of many of the chord changes. In other words, I have the muscle memory in my fingers but intellectually I'm not retaining the names of the chord changes. Any suggestions on improving this, or on learning tunes in general? "

Since all of my readers seem to be such smarty-pants, I figured that one of them would have some great ideas for Alexa. I'm going to award the reader who responds with the most helpful and thorough answer a DVD chock full of incredible Jazz materials. That's right, over four gigs of Jazz books in PFD format, as well as, get this, 110 saxophone solo transcriptions, including MP3s of the original recordings!!!! These transcriptions are available for free if you follow the links here on Casa Valdez, but I have included all the audio files for you to play along with. There are over 72 Cannonball solos on this DVD alone! I can't even list all the harmony and improvisation books, why? Because it's TOTALLY ILLEGAL!!!!!

So let's hear your ideas for learning tunes.

I'll ship the DVD to the winner via Priority Mail.

Now get busy!


Dan said...

I have two suggestions. First, when you get to a point where you can play the voicings for a song but are forgetting the names of the chords, start over in a different key. This will bring you back into an analytical frame of mind. Second, drill yourself on the chords you have memorized. Either recite them away from the piano, or write out a chart from memory. When you've done that, you can correct your chart and try again later.

Don't get too hung up on any one lead sheets version of the changes to a standard tune. Look for different sources. You can get an idea of the structure of the tune, as well as different helpful ways to get from point A to point Bb.

MonksDream said...

I'll give this one a stab, even though I don't consider myself to be a very fast chord change memorizer. A lot of these are stolen from different people who gave me tips over the years. I will credit Hal Stein, Jerry Bergonzi, Kenny Dorham, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Simmons and Hafez Modirzadeh. They are all spun through my own twisted system.

1) Rewrite the tune, laid out on the page, in 4-bar sections. This might seem trivial to some, but in my mind, it is very helpful, as it makes it easier to visualize the tune in blocks.

(2) If you're having even remote troubles with the changes, simplify, simplify, simplify.

(3) The first step is to determine the form, is it a 12-bar blues or any of the many variations of this form?? (Cycle blues, minor blues, major blues, etc.) Is it a typical tin pan alley 32-bar AABA, like "I Got Rhythm?" If so, it's as simple as the blues, as you really only have 2 8-bar sections to memorize. Is it modal? Again, this might make it simple, particularly if the quality of the chords remain the same. Some of Wayne Shorter's tunes, such as "House of Jade," can seem quite complex until you recognize a modal slant to them. Similarly, a composer like Thelonius Monk may not have the tonic chord appear until half way through the A-section, or even the end of the tune. Often, recognizing the tonic will make the harmony make sense. Obviously, there are many forms, ABAA', etc. What I'm suggesting is to first familiarize yourself with the structure of the tune (the "big picture") and figure out how to break it down into 4-bar phrases if possible. Some tunes might need 2 and 8-bar phrases.

(4) Now, if like myself, you play a single-line instrument, such as the saxophone, you will want to find ways to hear the harmony. I'm a big fan of using numbers for the chords, but I've met people who use moveable solfege (Do-Re-Mi,) fixed solfege (like the French, Do = C, Mi = D, etc.) and even the Hindi Saregam system (see W.A. Mathieu, "Harmonic Experience")

(5) I'm assuming that you've learned the melody fairly well. To start, the simplest thing to do might be to just play the root of each chord. Now, try playing (singing) the root and the third, and successively adding the fifth, seventh, etc. This step can be done in many different ways depending on your personal preference. You might play 1-2-3-5 of major and dominant chords, 1-b3-4-5 on the minor, 1-b2-3-5 on dominant (b9) chords and 1-b3-4-b5 on minor 7 (b5) chords. (I credit this helpful approach to Jerry Bergonzi.)

6. This is a continuation of the last paragraph. Just different single-note approaches to the changes. Hafez Modirzadeh taught me Sonny Rollins and Sonny Simmons old method of learning changes which was to run down the basic triads in quarter note triplets through the harmony of a tune. This like the preceding approach can be extended in several ways, through variation of the order of notes and, on a tune with 2 to 4 measures of, say DMaj, one could alternate with either AbMaj (tritone) or maybe use the EMaj, F#Maj or BMaj. once you have the changes fairly "wired."

7. Try to run a guide-tone line through the tune. As I learned, the typical guide tone will either start on the third or the seventh and you try and move chromatically or in major sevenths depending on how far the tune travels harmonically.

8. An example of this with an elegant song form such as "Ladybird:"
It's 16-bars, and it easily divides into fairly symmetric 4-bar sections. One could probably get in some arguments about how to think about the form, but the main thing is to own your particular method. I personally think about it as AA'BC. Each section being only 4 bars long instead of the normal 8, but you could think about it as AB in 2 8-bar phrases, or a couple of other ways. A guide-tone line starting on the third would go
Because of the turnaround, a smoother line results from using the tonic of the EbMaj chord towards the end. In any event this can be repeated starting on B, the 7th of the C chord
B/B/A/Ab, etc. etc.

9. There are probably an infinite number of ways to "play through" the changes which will force you to hear them. It's also important to hear how they relate to the melody of a tune, and another approach is to play a phrase of the melody, and then respond with the next couple of chord changes, articulated in a melodic fashion. Really, the important thing is to figure out what works for YOU, which will probably change over time. The Sonny Rollins/Sonny Simmons approach can be heard on "Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders," on an alternate take of "How High The Moon" when someone left the tape rolling during a run-through.

10. Think about the changes visually in your head or recite them while trying to hear them in your head. I use "Ladybird" as an example, as you have a number of harmonic moments that happen in any number of other tunes. The first change up a fourth (or down a fifth,) to a minor chord. Listen to the sound. We now have a II-V in Eb, but go back to the CMaj. You then go down a Maj. 2nd to a II-V in Ab. The AbMaj moves up a 1/2 step to an A minor, which becomes a II-V. Now the V chord changes quality to a minor chord, with the D7 becoming a D- which makes a II-V with the G7 giving us a full cadence to the CMaj, which begins a turnaround (up a minor third, up a 4th, up a 4th.) The final DbMaj drops down chromatically to the CMaj. These are all very distinctive and easy to hear changes.

11. In a more diatonically oriented tune, for me personally, I find chord charts harder to memorize. For approaching these types of tunes, just using some basic harmonic ideas can be very helpful. Any seventh chord that does not contain the (4) or the (7) of the parent key, is a tonic chord. In G Maj, you have (1-3-5-7) (G-B-D-F#), GMaj7, the I chord, (3-5-7-2)(B-D-F#-A),
B-7, the iii chord, and (6-8-3-5) (E-G-B-D),E-7, the vi chord. Any chord containing the (4)is a subdominant chord. So in
GMaj, you have (2-4-6-8), (A-C-E-G), A-7, the ii chord, and (4-6-8-3), CMaj7, the IV chord. The dominant chords contain the (4) and the (7), which produce the tension of the unique tritone present in said major key creating a dominant tonality. So in GMaj, you have (5-7-2-4)(D-F#-A-C), D7, the V chord and (7-2-4-6)
(F#-A-C-E,) F#-7b5, the vii chord. If you work your way through a diatonic tune such as "There Will Never Be Another You," (not my favorite tune, but it will have to do until the real thing comes along) playing the chords from the tonal center, that is focusing on playing them from the (1) or the (7) in the tune, you can pretty quickly train your ear to hear how the harmony of these types of tunes deviates from the tonal center of the song. I suggest that with many of these types of tunes, you can train your ear to work through the tune much faster than you should waste the time of memorizing the changes.

12. In the final analysis, one wants to eventually try and just "know" the tune without even thinking about the changes. You might try learning guitar or another chordal instrument, as for myself personally, despite years of struggling with the piano, I've always been able to find my way around a guitar a lot easier, even though most music educators seem to like the piano because of its visual aspect. I prefer the guitar because it's easier to forget the notes and simply focus on the sound. But finally you just have to use a large multiplicity of approaches and choose whichever one(s) work for you "in the moment." Sometimes the bright moments will only happen when you feel like you're falling through some harmonic elevator shaft.

cheers, Billy

dario said...

here my suggestion:
1)do an harmonic analysis of the tune in degrees(roman numbers)and learn it
2)try to see what is the deep structure of the song, if it modulates, where the main cadence are, and try to semplify the harmony leaving out secondary dominants(including tritone substitution).
3)try to transpose the tune in a confortable key for you, maybe C or F.
4)sing the roots of the chords
5)when you listen to a song try to understand the chord functions.
So the key word is think in functions don t try to memorize the changes as if they are numbers try to get the musical sense of them. hope this helps.

David Valdez said...

OK Bill, that's going to be pretty hard to beat. You're the winner of the 1st annual Casa Valdez DVD contest! Send me you address and I'll drop a DVD in the mail for you.


Geoff said...

My suggestion is to never learn chord changes! Play totally by ear until it sounds good. I swear that I played better before I learned what a minor seventh flat five is. Now when I solo I can't get the chords out of mind, and what would sound good with them, etc. When I can forget the chords and just play melodies over the chords is when I don't sound like everyone else. In fact, it sounds kind of weird, but seems more honest and real to me.

Alexa Weber Morales said...

Wow, really great suggestions from all! I am going to print these out and keep them by the piano. I do play piano, not at a performance level, but enough to accompany myself. I'll try to apply some of this.

As for Geoff's suggestion to learn exclusively by ear, while that is reassuring, I'm reminded of what Kenny Werner (Effortless Mastery) said at the last IAJE: Some people have taken his philosophy of self-acceptance to mean they should love where they are and not worry much about practicing. He says, "No, practice to the point of mastery, to the point where you can forget it all." I agree with Geoff that emotion and melody trump harmonic complexity, but in the interests of being a more complete musician, I'm going to try some of these suggestions!

Thanks, guys!

Hucbald said...

I currently have about 2.5 hours of solo guitar music memorized. My set is organized into suites that are in the same keys, and they progress around the cycle of thirds: A minor, C major, E minor, G major &c.

I find that my set will get ragged and start to fall apart if I do not do metronome work, so once or twice a year I rebuild the set from the ground up. The way I do this is to play the piece with a metronome at about the tempo I perform it at, and then I slow the metronome down five to ten BPM each time through until I have the piece to half the speed I started out at. Then, reverse the process and get it back up to tempo.

You would not believe how hard this is to do at first, but when you have it, the piece is deeply memorized and your finger coreography is worked out in great detail.

Not sure how this would translate to other instruments, but it sure works for solo guitar arrangements.

The only other technical practicing I ever do is exactly the same process with scale/mode patterns.