June 1st, 2017

How to Learn a Tune’s Chord Changes in 5 Minutes or Less

By Forrest

Learn a tunes in 5 minutes or less

What if I told you there’s a simple little trick to learn chord changes to a tune in a just a few minutes?

That the countless hours you’ve spent reading tunes out of the Real Book can finally come to a close and you can begin to have chord changes live in your head, where they belong.

And the truth is, this little trick’s been staring you in the face. It’s not new, complex, or even something that takes time to learn. You can start using it TODAY.

So is this thing called love?

Take the tune What is This Thing Called Love?:

What is this thing called love chord changes

For years, you’ve probably opened up the Real Book to “W,” flipped around, to the tune— or grabbed your iPad —and read the chord changes as you solo.

This is a fine place to start, but wouldn’t you think that after years of doing this, the chord changes would finally get into your head and you could stop being a Real Book player?

The thing is, simply playing a tune from the Real Book or even trying to memorize the chord changes in a drill-and-kill fashion won’t get you that far.

So many people try this every single day. They recite in their head over and over…

”G half diminished, C7 alt, F minor…”

Thinking that if they just do it enough that the changes will somehow stick.

But, it’s like cramming for a school test. You may have the information the next day, but it’s gone shortly after that because there’s nothing memorable about the information.

So how do you make something memorable?

You give it context and meaning, and associate it with the information already in your head.

Make short memorable sentences

A dead-simple trick to giving chord changes context, meaning, and association is creating short memorable sentences that summarize the changes in a meaningful way.

Rather than thinking of each change as an individual unit, begin to understand how each chord functions within the key center.

Classic music theory would have you believe that chord changes must be analyzed a single way, but when you’re analyzing chords for your own purposes, you can do it however you want!

And to me, the simpler the better. Taking What is This Thing Called Love?…

This is how I would analyze how each chord functions in the A section of the tune because it allows me to sum up all these chord relationships in a simple memorable sentence:

Minor ii V to iV minor. Minor ii V to I major.

What Is This Thing Called A Section

This trick gives the chords context in terms of how they function in relation to the other chords, the context gives meaning, and all the while, you’re associating the chords to chord patterns that should be in your mind, things like ii Vs and minor ii Vs in all keys —if these building blocks aren’t in your mind, then start spending some time visualizing these essential progressions so you can easily think in terms of logical chunks of chords.

That’s the entire A section of the tune! And, because the tune is of the form AABA, meaning it repeats the A section twice, then has a “Bridge” section, and then repeats the A section again, with that short memorable sentence, you’ve just memorized 75% of the changes!

Simple powerful stuff…

Think of the target chords

Ok, so now you have your short memorable sentence, and you have the prerequisite chordal knowledge from practicing visualization of common progressions…now, the key to using these things is thinking of the target chords–where each part of the progression “leads” to.

Using our example, the target chords are the the iV minor chord in measure 3 and the I major chord in measure 7.

Target Chords

The thought process goes like this…

I major is C Major

iV minor is F minor

Now my sentence is, “Minor ii V to F minor. Minor ii V to C major. ”

And my brain fills in the rest because I’ve previously drilled minor ii Vs in my mind over and over, so I automatically know a minor ii V in F and C.

By crafting a simple sentence and thinking of target chords, I can think of 2 chords rather than 8, and have a solid grasp on where the chords are going before I get there.

Look for simple relationships and alternate pathways

Let’s take a quick look at the bridge and how using multiple views on chord function can help you learn the changes even faster.

Here’s the bridge to What is This Thing Called Love? with the chord functions of how I’d analyze it. Notice I often leave out upper extensions like “7” or “b9 or alt” instead favoring the most simplified version of the chord for the sentences. I prefer to have a wide range of upper structure options available based upon what I’m hearing in the moment, but feel free to add in any extensions you like…

The short memorable sentence I’d use is:

ii V I I starting on the parallel minor. bVI7 V7 2 bars each.

What Is This Thing Called B Section

Easy right?

Well, it’s easy if you know what to look for. Remember, try to find relationships that are easy to recall. There may be 10 different way to think about a group of chords. Find a way that lets you simplify the relationships as much as possible.

If your sentence isn’t short, concise, and memorable, keep working at it.

The first 4 chords I could have analyzed differently. I could have said a ii V to the key a whole step below the tonic (Bb major), but it’s definitely more difficult than thinking of the parallel minor, C major to C minor.

Still, it’s useful to have alternate pathways to conjuring chord changes. Not only does it give you a good mental workout, but it provides a mental check to make sure you’re doing everything correctly, and it helps you recognize relationships that you otherwise may have not noticed.

So, even if you come up with a simple sentence, keep looking for more ways to describe the progression, even if just for the mental exercise.

Make a “Tune Index Card”

For any tune you learn, you may find it useful to create a “Tune Index Card” that you can carry around with you and occasionally glance at until the information is in your head for good. When you don’t need the card anymore, you can archive it for review.

Sometimes I like to put basic info on the card as well, like the form. Something like this:

Tune Index Card

It’s really easy and can help you, especially when you’re starting out.

Added “all key” benefits…

Have you ever wondered how pros can call a tune in any key and can instantly think of the changes with ease?

This skill comes from thinking of and understanding the underlying relationships as you’ve learned how to do today. Go ahead and try it out for yourself…

I want you to play What is This Thing Called Love? in the key of F#.


Step 1: Get your target chords for the A Sections

I major is F# Major and iv minor is B minor

Step 2: Fill in these chords to your short memorable sentences

Minor ii V to B minor

Minor ii V to F# Major

Step 3: Get the bridge

The parallel minor of F# Major (I Major) is F# minor, so…

ii V I I starting on F# minor (you could use your alternate relationship as well, a ii V to E Major, the major chord a whole step below the I)

D7 (bVI7) Db7 (V7) 2 bars each


You never have to open the Real Book for the changes to this tune ever again.

Next, make a Tune Index Card, and mentally go through the changes in all keys as you go about your day. If you need help getting the basic chord progressions into your mind—as I mentioned before, this info needs to be automatic, literally no thought for all of this to work in real-time—make sure to check out the Jazz Visualization Course.


So now you know the chord changes

With the method outlined in this lesson, you’ll no doubt be memorizing the changes to tunes much faster and more permanently, but remember, just because you know the changes to a tune doesn’t mean you’re done with a tune or can hear the changes.

In fact, think of tunes as life-long vehicles that you’ll work on progressively. Your goal is to solo in a lyrical way over the tune, and as you learn and transcribe more, you’ll practice using these new concepts over the tunes you’re working on.

Having the chords function in your mind in a meaningful way, where you don’t have to think about them at all will set you free to focus on the important things, like making music the way you want to.

So now that you know how to learn chord changes quickly in all keys, go try it out on a tune you’ve always wanted learn!!!

Print This Post Print This Post

Check Out Our Courses!

If you enjoy our articles, then you'll really enjoy our courses. No matter where you're at, they'll guide you step-by-step toward becoming a better musician.

The Melodic Power Course - Learn to improvise strong lyrical melodies

The Ear Training Method - Get the ears you've always imagined

Reprogramming The Musical Mind - Unlock your musical potential

Jazz visualization eBook with bonus audio - Learn everything 10x faster

Transcribe! - Amazing software to slow down and learn the songs you love

See All Courses and Recommended Products...

Sign up below to receive exclusive content, updates, and more. You'll immediately get a free copy of our eBook 10 Essential Tips Every Improvisor Needs to Know just for signing up!

Subscribe and get free stuff!