Learning a Tune “On the Spot”
Last week I received a question about how to memorize a tune fast:
“…For example, [bassist] playing a jazz tune you’ve never played before with a pianist as they shout out the changes for one chorus, then stop for the second. How can we develop skills to memorize these changes instantly?”
No doubt the situation you describe can be stressful, but there are ways we can improve our ability to survive the tune with most of our dignity intact. The suggestions below are geared toward jazz, but work equally well for any music genre.
Work on your ear.
Sometimes no one will be yelling the changes at you, you will just need to hear it as it goes by and remember it for the next go-round. Being able to recognize individual chord quality and harmonic movement will help you immensely in such situations. I suggest learning tunes by ear from recordings, as well as traditional ear training programs like you might find in an academic setting. There are numerous online resources as well. The more we improve our ears, the better things will go for us.
Know common song forms in the genre.
There are always outliers, of course, but many tunes within a musical genres use similar forms. To address the question asked above, some of the more common song forms for jazz standards are A A B A, A B A C, A-A1, and 12 bar blues. There are many others, of course, but these four appear often. If you are lucky, right before they count you off, the piano player will tell you what the form is, especially if it is unusual. Otherwise, listen intently as you make your way through.
Know common cadences/progressions.
Be familiar with the common ways in which chords move in your chosen genre. By familiar, I mean that you should be able to recognize the harmonic movement and name the individual chords “by ear” while listening. Jazz tends to be more complex harmonically than other genres, but the harmonic movement is not impenetrable.
If you are just starting out, begin by becoming familiar with a few different Blues progressions and a few sets of “Rhythm Changes.” Don’t just stick to B? major, familiarity with these progressions in every key is important. Once you can do this, you will start hearing these changes, or parts of them, everywhere.
Know a lot of tunes.
The more tunes in your chosen genre you are familiar with, the more patterns you will notice. It’s easier for someone who knows 100 tunes by heart to learn a new tune than someone who knows only 2. The more tunes you learn, the easier learning a tune will become.
Practice learning tunes as you play them.
The best way (or at least the one with the minimum potential for public embarrassment) is to practice this skill with a radio station, or the modern day equivalent. Cue up the satellite radio or youtube playlist to a jazz channel and go. When a tune you don’t know comes on, pretend you are on the gig and start playing. Make this a regular part of your practicing and you may be surprised at how quickly your skill at learning a tune “on the fly” improves.
Finally, never stop working and refining your ear. It only pays dividends.