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How I Learn Tunes

February 27th 2008 - Road Signs and Rock Songs
Image by Stephen Poff via Flickr

While I was in graduate school, I had to develop a method of learning all the tunes that were thrown at me at a daily basis.  In an earlier post, I outlined a method I learned from Jody Fisher on learning the chords to a tune.  In this post, I am focusing my attention now to the melodic side of working through the raw harmonic material found in many jazz tunes.

Remember, this is only one way to do this.  If anyone has other ideas, please share them in the comments.

  1. Roots – It is essential that you learn the root movement of the tune you are working on.  This will aid in memory retention of the chords and ear training.  If you can internalize the sound of the roots of all the chords, the melody will make more sense.
  2. Guide Tones – Guide tones are the essence of any chord progression.  There are usually two main versions of a guide tone line.  The first one begins on the 3rd of the chord and the second one begins on the 7th.  Learn to connect these notes in a variety of ways both melodically and rhythmically.  Voice Leading is an important aspect in the improvisations of the jazz masters.
  3. Arpeggios from the Root – In this step we are branching out to cover all the notes in a given chord.  Essentially if you stick to these you won’t hit any wrong notes, but I find it more challenging to make interesting phrases from these.  Experiment with different rhythms and inversions with these arpeggios.
  4. Guide Tone Arpeggios – Once you internalize a few different guide tone lines in addition to the arpeggios from the roots, you can begin to connect these in a melodic way.  This is the first step in gaining some facility over a particular progression.  I practiced this A LOT.
  5. Construct a Bassline – This step is the first that requires some improvisation.  In college I would write out several of these over a tune and then mix and match them to find one I liked.  The whole idea here is to create a melody using only quarter notes that works with the harmony.
  6. Continous Motion – I first heard about this exercise from a David Baker book.  The general idea is to play as slow as necessary in order to play continuous eighth notes over a progression. This exercise develops fluidity and helps you develop the sense of keeping your place in a progression.
  7. Little Scale Exercise – David Berkman’s Book “The Jazz Musicians Guide to Creative Practicing” was a great help with this step.  Start on any note within the scale or arpeggio of the first chord and go up and down the span of a 5th by only chaning the qualities of the notes as needed.
  8. 3579 Digital Exercise – This concept I worked on from a book by the saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi.  This is partial to the guide tone arpeggios we looked at earlier, but now involving extensions.  It works great over altered dominant chords.
  9. Alternate Triads – For each chord, I chose another basic triad that would work harmonically and composed a line using only those notes.  It is a great way to breath new life into a progression that you feel stuck with.  You can also include upper structure triads as well.
  10. Diatonic 4th Arpeggios – These will add a distinctly modern sound to your lines.  For guitarists and pianists, I would develop quartal voicings based on these lines.

As with any exercise, you want to mix up the approaches to keep the listener guessing.

I look forward to hearing your approaches.

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12 Comments

  • lyle robinson |

    This is wonderful Jason. Would you mind if I included it in the Jazz Guitar Life’s Players Corner next update? With full credit to you of course?

    Lyle

  • lyle robinson |

    This is wonderful Jason. Would you mind if I included it in the Jazz Guitar Life’s Players Corner next update? With full credit to you of course?

    Lyle

  • John Horne |

    Hey Jason,

    I'm going to use this post as a guide for some of my improv students, and noticed that the link to the pdf worksheet is broken. Just lettin' you know.

    John

  • John Horne |

    Hey Jason,

    I'm going to use this post as a guide for some of my improv students, and noticed that the link to the pdf worksheet is broken. Just lettin' you know.

    John

  • davelockwood |

    Hi Jason-

    I've used many of the approaches you've used here, some great stuff. Here's my approach, similarities and all:

    1) I'll start with getting a few versions of the tune I'm working on. For instance, recently I was working on “If I Should Lose You”, and I had Bird's version, and Joe Diorio's version off of “Bonita” (I think…).

    2) I'll listen to the tunes many times, until I can hear the head IN my head, and sing it unaccompanied. To be honest, I don't have the discipline to do that ALL the time, but I do it most of the time. Then, I'll start to play the tune (melody) from memory.
    – Now, as long as the tune isn't too fast, I'll use this stage to train my ear a bit. I'll play the head from any note, with any finger, and wander up and down
    the fingerboard playing the melody – in as many ways as possible. That's fun to do.
    3) As for the chords, I'll figure them out as I work with the recording. Come to think of it, I should try to sing the entire bass line, and figure out the changes totally by ear. Will I screw up? Sure, but what's the worst that can happen? Not sure, but the best case is that I get monster ears :) !

    4) What I do at this stage is different than what I've done in the past. I'll convert the chords to functional harmony – I, V/ii, ii etc. Then every day, I'll play it in a different key.

    5) In addition to some of the things that you mention, I'll sing everything without the guitar to get it in my head. I'll sing the roots, arpeggios, and melody, etc.

    6) Another thing to try is to alternate playing chords/singing melody, and playing melody/singing roots.

    This is the basic idea to get the tune off the ground, so to speak.
    Then, I'll practice the head 4 ways:

    1) I'll play it as a single note line – which I've already done at this point.

    2) I'll play it in octaves – if it's not too fast

    3) I'll play it as if I were playing in a trio. In other words, a combination of #1 and #2, but with an occasional syncopated 3-4 note chord supporting the melody.

    4) Chord melody. If it's a bop tune, I may skip this part :).

    The rest of what I do, isn't exactly “learning the tune” per se, but more of how I work on improvisation.
    I'll take out an index card, and write out various qualities that I think great players have in their playing – or some other beneficial exercise. For every couple of choruses, I'll focus exclusively on one item, and then I'll switch and focus on that one. Some of the things that I write down are:

    Dynamics
    Accents
    Swing
    Space
    Syncopations
    Articulations
    start line on 3, or 5, 7, etc…
    pickup notes – in other words, start line on the and of 4, and play a 2 bar phrase..
    2 bar phrase
    4 bar phrase
    Range – I'll alternate high and low phrases to simulate 2 players answering each other.
    alternate chords/single notes/octaves/double stops
    Intensity
    Sequencing
    Play a phrase – take out notes (Diminution)
    Play a phrase – put more notes in (Augmentation)
    etc.

    My experience with this approach is that it leads to a more organic integration of all these musical elements. That's instead of going, “Oh, look out – now I'm going to play something with a really wide dynamic range!” :).

    From a strictly guitar point of view, there are many limitations that you can put on yourself to help you explore the guitar further.
    Here are a few I've used:

    1) Play the tune completely in one position, then do that for all areas of the neck.
    2) Play the tune up and down 1 string
    3) Play the tune using 2 strings, try non adjacent strings too! That's interesting…
    4) Start high/low on the guitar, and steadily go in the opposite direction, until you get to the other end of the guitar.
    5) If the harmony goes up, have your line go down the neck, and vice versa. For example, in “You Stepped Out of A Dream”, the first 2 chords are C and Db.
    Instead of playing through the C chord in the 7th position (1st finger on the B, 6th string), and then moving to the 8th position for Db (1st finger on the C now), move down to the 6th position (1st finger on the Bb, 6th string) and play through the Db Maj chord. Sort of like counterpoint, no?

    Actually, everything except the 5th idea I got from Mick Goodrick's great book, “The Advancing Guitarist”.
    So, I think that's it – looking forward to your thoughts. Oh, and don't forget to practice all the tunes with an actual intro and ending, just like you would on the gig!

    Sincerely,
    Dave Lockwood
    atlantaguitarteacher.wordpress.com
    http://www.atlantajazzguitar.com

  • davelockwood |

    Hi Jason-

    I've used many of the approaches you've used here, some great stuff. Here's my approach, similarities and all:

    1) I'll start with getting a few versions of the tune I'm working on. For instance, recently I was working on “If I Should Lose You”, and I had Bird's version, and Joe Diorio's version off of “Bonita” (I think…).

    2) I'll listen to the tunes many times, until I can hear the head IN my head, and sing it unaccompanied. To be honest, I don't have the discipline to do that ALL the time, but I do it most of the time. Then, I'll start to play the tune (melody) from memory.
    – Now, as long as the tune isn't too fast, I'll use this stage to train my ear a bit. I'll play the head from any note, with any finger, and wander up and down
    the fingerboard playing the melody – in as many ways as possible. That's fun to do.
    3) As for the chords, I'll figure them out as I work with the recording. Come to think of it, I should try to sing the entire bass line, and figure out the changes totally by ear. Will I screw up? Sure, but what's the worst that can happen? Not sure, but the best case is that I get monster ears :) !

    4) What I do at this stage is different than what I've done in the past. I'll convert the chords to functional harmony – I, V/ii, ii etc. Then every day, I'll play it in a different key.

    5) In addition to some of the things that you mention, I'll sing everything without the guitar to get it in my head. I'll sing the roots, arpeggios, and melody, etc.

    6) Another thing to try is to alternate playing chords/singing melody, and playing melody/singing roots.

    This is the basic idea to get the tune off the ground, so to speak.
    Then, I'll practice the head 4 ways:

    1) I'll play it as a single note line – which I've already done at this point.

    2) I'll play it in octaves – if it's not too fast

    3) I'll play it as if I were playing in a trio. In other words, a combination of #1 and #2, but with an occasional syncopated 3-4 note chord supporting the melody.

    4) Chord melody. If it's a bop tune, I may skip this part :).

    The rest of what I do, isn't exactly “learning the tune” per se, but more of how I work on improvisation.
    I'll take out an index card, and write out various qualities that I think great players have in their playing – or some other beneficial exercise. For every couple of choruses, I'll focus exclusively on one item, and then I'll switch and focus on that one. Some of the things that I write down are:

    Dynamics
    Accents
    Swing
    Space
    Syncopations
    Articulations
    start line on 3, or 5, 7, etc…
    pickup notes – in other words, start line on the and of 4, and play a 2 bar phrase..
    2 bar phrase
    4 bar phrase
    Range – I'll alternate high and low phrases to simulate 2 players answering each other.
    alternate chords/single notes/octaves/double stops
    Intensity
    Sequencing
    Play a phrase – take out notes (Diminution)
    Play a phrase – put more notes in (Augmentation)
    etc.

    My experience with this approach is that it leads to a more organic integration of all these musical elements. That's instead of going, “Oh, look out – now I'm going to play something with a really wide dynamic range!” :).

    From a strictly guitar point of view, there are many limitations that you can put on yourself to help you explore the guitar further.
    Here are a few I've used:

    1) Play the tune completely in one position, then do that for all areas of the neck.
    2) Play the tune up and down 1 string
    3) Play the tune using 2 strings, try non adjacent strings too! That's interesting…
    4) Start high/low on the guitar, and steadily go in the opposite direction, until you get to the other end of the guitar.
    5) If the harmony goes up, have your line go down the neck, and vice versa. For example, in “You Stepped Out of A Dream”, the first 2 chords are C and Db.
    Instead of playing through the C chord in the 7th position (1st finger on the B, 6th string), and then moving to the 8th position for Db (1st finger on the C now), move down to the 6th position (1st finger on the Bb, 6th string) and play through the Db Maj chord. Sort of like counterpoint, no?

    Actually, everything except the 5th idea I got from Mick Goodrick's great book, “The Advancing Guitarist”.
    So, I think that's it – looking forward to your thoughts. Oh, and don't forget to practice all the tunes with an actual intro and ending, just like you would on the gig!

    Sincerely,
    Dave Lockwood
    atlantaguitarteacher.wordpress.com
    http://www.atlantajazzguitar.com

So, what do you think ?