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.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Simon Ciaccio

    Hey man, I really appreciate you thoroughly answering this question of mine. This is fantastically helpful, and will help me (as well as hopefully several others) take my playing up a notch.

  2. Mike

    Learn musical fundamentals, know the chords in a key, song forms, chord tones, rhythms. Even having a base knowledge of music will enable you to get through a tune on a gig. This knowledge can enable you to get through a song you may not know or just heard and need to know…NOW. Knowing this will definitely help get you through reading a chord chart. And even though ear training is imperative, learn musical principles. It is our language. It will help you to hear and speak our language. My2cents

  3. BC Anagnostis

    Sometimes if you’re lucky, you can be situated on the bandstand in a way where you can see the guitarist’s chording hand or the keyboard player’s left hand. Often times out of habit, even if they’re not actually playing a left hand part, keyboardists and pianists will rest their left hand on the (or a)bass note that, if not the root always, will be a relative note. Learning where notes are on a keyboard helps a lot with this. Of course, not having to look at your fretboard simultaneously will also be a valuable skill at this point.

  4. Bret

    All great tips, especially the last one. As BC Anagnostis says its always a help if you can see the guitarists hand as well. Although ya gotta love it when you get thrown in the deep end at the last minute thinking as long as I can see the chords I’ll be fine……….only to find out once you are on the stage that the guitarist uses some unusual tuning lol ;-) Close your eyes, strain the ears and pray heheh :-)

  5. Some great suggestions, Donovan .I might add ,the more on the spot playing you do,and the more you have opportunities to play with a variety of bands/artists,the better you become picking up tunes.As Donovan stated ,build up your catalogue of tunes.I think you will also find that genres have like, or similar patterns that you can use as a resource when you need to pull them from your bass bag of tricks…..BASS ON ??

  6. Carlos Loor

    DR! Are there any bass weight – bodyweight relations? Or what ind of exercises are good to keep up the bass on our shoulders with less damage?

    • Practice your bass while standing. Too many people practice while sitting down and when a gig comes they tire easily.