How to Learn Tunes Quickly

One of my Facebook friends raised the subject of remembering tunes, which led me to another thought: how do we learn tunes quickly?

A seasoned bass player might not even know the tune you’re hearing him play. I used to go watch Bob Cranshaw play obscure tunes all night with Jimmy Rowles – nobody, I mean NOBODY knew all these tunes, except longtime singers’ accompanist/musical maestro Rowles. The thing about watching Bob Cranshaw was, you couldn’t tell if he knew a tune or not.

Many years ago I had a gig with the pianist Sy Johnson, playing for the great Helen Humes. I was really green at the time, and didn’t know anything to speak of; as Michael Moore said once. “a bassist is supposed to know all the tunes, but never gets to call any of them.” Yep, that’s my experience. You’re lucky if they even tell you the key… Lately, though, I’ve been running into friendlier types and more collegial atmospheres, but in the old days, look out. On this gig with Sy, he was friendly enough and “cleared” the tunes with me before we did our 2 warmup songs before Helen came out for those sets at Gulliver’s in West Patterson, NJ, “back in the day,” as they say…. Friendly, that is, until I thanked him for doing so. Suddenly, I guess, he perceived the opportunity to teach the green kid a lesson…

The next set he played tunes I never heard before, in front of a roomful of patrons on a busy weekend, back in the days before the internet when people used to go out. I choked.

Enter the lesson. After the set, in response to my visible discomfort, he suggested:

“If you don’t know the root, play something in an upper register. You’re never more than a step away from a chord tone. As soon as you “hear” the chord tone (identify the chord!), resolve the note you played, whatever it was, and see if you can’t get a low-register root in there before the end of the bar. Then, remember it. Think of the tune in sections, like a puzzle, and remember what goes where.” Now, this is great advice, and exactly how you do it. Sometimes there’s a hint in the melody or in some leading thing the pianist might hint at that will get you to the root on time, but—this is the most important part of the lesson—it can be done. You can do it. Many progressions appear again and again in tunes from all eras, and ultimately the question becomes “what goes where?”

On the subject of remembering, and instant analysis, here’s another little story I witnessed:

Eddie Gomez was playing duo with some pianist (how’s that for a change? Instead of “I forget who the bass player was,” I’m saying “I forget who the piano player was!”) who put an original tune in front of him on the 2 AM set at Bradley’s. Eddie picked up the sheet, studied it intently for maybe 20 seconds, then turned it over and played the song as if he had written it. Now THAT’s memorizing!

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  1. pbassstroke

    Now that 's the Stuff!!

  2. pbassstroke

    Now that 's the Stuff!!

  3. Carlos G

    OMG been doing this for years on my own…LOL!

  4. Will Cardinal

    So true about knowing endless songs, but never call any! I did a yr., with an old time 10 piece dance band, most were at least 10-15 yrs., my senior. They handed me a list each gig, then substituted other songs as the leader felt was appropriate. I sat beside the piano player and watched his left hand. After a few gigs, I seldom looked at his hand, just closed my eyes and listened to the melody over the piano. That usually gave me enough info! Old time music is very unusual, mainly because you never hear it except during war movies!

  5. Larry

    If I don’t have music, I just can’t play … and it seems that there’s a nugget in here that would help me get past this. But I’d love any other tips that can get me past the fear factor.

  6. When I first got out of school I used to play in a jazz/swing septet with a bunch of older cats that knew tons of tunes and would call tunes on the fly, give a key and start the song. My ear training came in handy (eventually) as I could fumble through the first chorus and have the basic song down after one time around. So listening and understanding how music functions seems to be the kernel of wisdom in this lesson. Experience helps and the older guys were really patient with me as I gained valuable experience. I remember the pianist (who had been an arranger at MGM for 40 years) said to me once, “kid, you’re a good bass player – all you lack is experience.”

    These same guys would routinely do a “ballad medley” on that gig. The hand would go up with fingers up or down indicating the key, then a count off, and the song would start. Later the hand would go up indicating a new key and we would do a turnaround to the new song and continue on like that for one or two more tunes.

    At some point, listening to and pulling off tunes I had never played or heard before on the bandstand became easier as I learned to think less, play to what I was hearing, and use my experience to anticipate harmonic structure. Those 4 years I played weekly with them gave me an education that you can’t really learn in school.

    I do remember being green with all of the discomfort it brings. It was not fun at first. If this discomfort is happening to you, try to have fun with it and not let your comfort level take you out of the music. Playing and listening to a lot of tunes will help greatly as it will give you those puzzle pieces described above to use in the song of the moment. It’s all about experience.

    I remember a Lee Konitz saying in a master class once (and I paraphrase) about the life progression of becoming a musician:

    “First you learn to play by ear, then go to school and learn about music (instrument, theory, etc.), then you play by ear.”

    Great article! It brought back memories!

  7. “Remember the tune in sections.” That’s how they taught ear-traing at New England Conservatory. Teacher would come into class and take attendence by hitting a note on the piano for each student, which the student would have to identify. The way we got good at it was by learning and singing scales in segments. Eventually – by breaking scales into sections or segments – we all were quite good at it. It’s a matter of ‘pitch memory.’ Some people, like perhaps Eddie Gomez, have great facility with pitch memory, and of course familiarity with written notation and knowing what it means in performance, (real life), helps, too. Good article.

  8. One of te techniques I’ve used for years is to simply jot down the root and resolution note at the beginning and end of phrases in the form: ABA, AABA, etc. There is a symetr tones y, even in offset progressions, it triggers my memory on the fly. Its no wonder why passing tones leading to turn arounds are the most used markers to trigger memory for grasping the structure of a new tune on the fly.

  9. Priceless jewels! Thanks.

  10. […] Jon Burr’s column on memorizing tunes quickly […]