Knowing The Tune

Committing Tunes to Memory

I have always had music in front of me in the past, whether practicing or playing gigs. Because of an article I read on JazzAdvice.comWhy 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, which I had never done before. And then, I also memorized the head/melody, something else I had never done in the past. I have found that I play the tunes better by going these extra steps. 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. I have played a bunch of songs in the past, but always with the music in front of me. As it turns out, I remember the 30 to 40 melodies I played regularly. So, now that I have band-in-a-box on my computer, I use it as a backdrop to a melody/song 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 song. Technically, I suppose 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 have the melody 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 the 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 it on the 7th and finish the tune. However, if I don’t make it through the melody without mistakes, I must try again on the next chorus.

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


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


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