5 Secrets to Learning Tunes

Everyone knows they should learn tunes straight from recordings and not from a lead sheet, but it’s not that simple. Figuring out what’s happening melodically and harmonically is super challenging for most people, and it’s so convenient just to print out a lead sheet.

Forget the lead sheet…

Anything you learn with your mind and not your ear will not stay with you unless you constantly review it. Anything you truly learn with your ear will stay with you for a lifetime. Here are some things that if put into practice, will make you wonder why you hadn’t been learning tunes from recordings all along.

First impressions matter

In terms of the way you relate to a tune, first impressions are everything. Many people today think All the Things You Are, Just Friends, and Stella By Starlight are lame boring songs. Even though these are some of my favorites, surprisingly, I can relate to this attitude because many tunes still sound far from exciting in my mind. But why? Why do certain tunes have no spark, no energy, no life? Why do some tunes feel impossible to solo over?

It’s all about first impressions: how you were first introduced to the tune. Was it an assignment? The first time you heard it, was it from a play-along track? Or had you never heard it, and just played it from a lead sheet?

As you first conceptualize a tune, it becomes an entity with a certain vibe to it in your mind. Those tunes you first heard from a play-along record begin to burn themselves into your brain and before you know it, that’s how you hear it. Sound familiar?

I still have several tunes that when I think of them, instead of a beautiful Miles, Parker, or Trane rendition, I get the lifeless sound and dull energy of a play-along track because when I first learned them, I went straight to the play-along, completely ignoring the wealth of knowledge available to me from my heroes. In recent years, I’m getting closer to reprogramming the way I hear on these tunes, but I’m still not there on many.

To be clear, I’m not talking about some new-age energy-field nonsense. I’m talking about a very simple concept: what you listen to affects you in a unique way. No matter how good the players are on some back-up-track, they’re not going to compare to one of your heroes playing the tune. It’s actually not even a comparison, they’re just two different entities entirely.

One is a genuine performance created for the purposes of artistry and music, while the other is a quick run through of a lead sheet for the purposes of a mass produced practice aid. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of ways to make great use of play-alongs, but for conceptualizing the feel and vibe of a tune, the essence of it that will permanently be stored in your consciousness, you may want to rethink how you introduce yourself to a tune.

Everyone can play two-note voicings

Phil Woods

When I was seventeen, I sat in a masterclass with legendary saxophonist Phill Woods. When everyone was done asking him what mouthpiece he played, we could finally get to the things that mattered. When asked about how he learns tunes, he responded, “If you can’t play it on the piano, you don’t know it.”

People’s immediate responses erupted in, “But I don’t play piano,” or, “I don’t have a piano.” Phill Woods did not see these as valid excuses, and he’s right. You can grab a midi controller for dirt cheap today and for not playing piano…Phill exclaimed, “Anyone can sit down at the piano, and plunk out two-note voicings.”

Try it right now. Pick a tune you know, sit at the piano, and play two-note voicings. To play two-note voicings, play the root of the chord in the left hand, and the 3rd and 7th of the chord in the right hand. That’s it.

Once you do this, you can add notes that help clarify each particular chord, for instance, on a half-diminished chord, add the b5, or on a dominant b9 chord, add the b9. You don’t even have to do this in time, just plunk out the voicings as Phil said.

As you do this, you’ll actually hear the chords, which is an ear-opening experience for most horn players, and you’ll begin to understand how the chords fit together to create the overall harmony.

Use everything on the recording

A lot of people write in to JazzAdvice, explaining that they don’t have any problem learning the melody from a recording, but they can’t for the life  of them learn the chord changes from the record. In fact, many people find it damn near impossible.

You’re not alone. At first it seems like a daunting task. I have to listen to the piano player and hear every chord?

And here in lies the problem. It seems logical to learn the melody from the melodic instrument, like the horn player, and then learn the chords from the bass and piano player. In actuality, there are many more hints on a recording to learning the changes that make it much easier than you may have initially thought.

You need to use everything on the recording to figure out, well…everything. When you’re learning the melody, don’t just learn the melody. Try to hear how each note lays against what the piano player is playing. Try to hear where the bass movement is going.

If, for example, you learn the first part of a melody and it feels and sounds like it’s over a major chord, try to figure out what chord-tones you’re playing. Does it sound like you’re playing the 3rd of a major chord or the 5th? Or, did you just hear the bass line just shift suddenly when the melody took a slight turn? Again, use the notes in the melody to help determine what you might be playing over.

You can do the same thing with part of a solo. Transcribe an ‘A’ section of the tune and you’ll have a ton of hints to what the chord progression is. Always be thinking that there are multiple ways of figuring out your musical problems. When you can’t determine quite what the piano and bass player are playing, turn to the soloist. When you can’t get anywhere with any of them, go to the next chorus in the same spot. When you can’t get anywhere there, go to the next soloist…

There are so many chances to hear what’s going on. It is challenging, but it’s much easier if you use everything you’re hearing on the recording.

One tune, one project

Approach any tune you want to learn as a project. Today, figure out what’s going on in the first four measures. That’s it. Just the first four measures. You can listen to the whole tune, you can use the whole recording, but your goal is to just figure out what’s going on in the first four measures. With some focused time and attention to what you’re hearing, you can learn the melody and changes straight from the recording in those first four measures.

The next day, focus on the second four measures. Continue in this manner until you’ve learned the entire tune.

This is just a suggestion. You can break it up how ever you see fit. The point is, attempting to tackle the entire tune all at once is quite challenging. As you learn tunes in this manner, you’ll be able to pick up tunes from recordings much more quickly and easily.

Come full circle

As you first learn tunes from recordings, it’s natural to learn it in piecemeal: you learn the melody, then you learn the chords, then you learn the form. The eventual goal is to learn tunes more as a holistic unit as described in ‘Use everything on the recording’.

Whether you pieced it up or learned the chords as you learned the melody, you want to go back and hear how everything is functioning simultaneously. Start out by playing the melody and consciously knowing what every single note of the melody is in relation to the chord it’s played over; understand the bigger picture of how the melody functions with the harmony.

Supposing you transcribed a chorus or an ‘A’ section of a solo to assist you in figuring out the chord changes. Now, take this section you transcribed and play it slowly, knowing exactly how each line functions with the harmony.

In both of these exercises, you’re strengthening your knowledge of how the chords sound and how lines, whether it be the melody or a solo section, flow over them. Everything you learn about a tune, bring it back full circle into one conceptual unit.

5 not-so-secret-anymore secrets to learning tunes

Believe me, I call these secrets because they took me years to figure out. In retrospect, they seem like obvious and borderline no-brainers, and you’re probably thinking, how can these be secrets?

Well, honestly can you say you’ve ever given any thought to how you introduce yourself to a tune? When’s the last time you played two-note voicings or made sure you were using everything from a recording to aid in figuring it out? Have you ever thought about maybe it’s difficult for everyone to approach an entire tune from a recording, and that breaking it apart into super small chunks could make it manageable? And how about connecting the melody with the harmony…which tunes feel like one cohesive unit in your mind?

Perhaps they are (were) secrets. And now you know them. Learning tunes from recordings just went from ridiculously-super-challenging to just pretty-challenging.