Jazz Form and Structure: Never Get Lost in the Chord Changes Again

One of the most overlooked and useful elements of learning a tune is the way it’s put together on a macro level, the jazz form that the tune uses. Without this vital information operating in your brain on a deep level, you’re bound to get lost easily during your solo…

You know how it goes…you’re feeling super confident as you solo creatively over one of your favorite jazz standards and everything’s going well…

But then, just for a split-second you lose focus. All of a sudden, you find yourself completely lost in the chord changes and searching for right notes, wondering what chord you’re on and just scrambling to stay alive.

This situation happens to everyone, especially in the first few years of learning how to improvise jazz. It’s a part of the game and everyone goes through it.

Just as you build your understanding of how chord changes function and how they sound, learning to keep track of where you are within the chord changes takes time and skill.

Today we’ll share with you several effective techniques all having to do with jazz form that will lay the foundation for you to keep your place no matter what tune or jazz standard you’re improvising over.

And we’ll show you how to use these tricks to quickly get back to the right place if you do happen to get lost because let’s be honest…

Even as you progress, you may still get lost from time to time. It happens. What’s important is that you have the skill set to deal with it quickly and find your place in the chord changes before anyone notices!

Developing this necessary skill set starts with understanding a part of a jazz standard that most people know about theoretically, but can’t actually hear…

Jazz Form: The vital part of a standard you need to hear

Learning jazz standards is a major part of every jazz musician’s practice routine, and for good reason…the whole point of practicing is to actually perform the tunes you love!

But many times, when people begin a tune, they forget about the big picture…

When it comes to tunes, Think BIG FIRST, then small.

This should be your mantra when you’re learning jazz standards – Start with the big things, then move on to the medium things, and finally get to those little things…

For the BIG things…Ask yourself, “How many sections does this tune have? How long is each section? Which sections repeat and how many times? What’s the total number of bars in the tune?”

These important questions determine the overall structure of the tune, which in music theory terms is called the FORM.

Knowing and hearing the form of a jazz standard is what helps you navigate through the tune and understand it from a high level.

And this ability to hear what’s happening at a high-level is what gives you the foundation to always keep your place.

Lucky for us, jazz forms tend to get reused over and over from standard to standard, and the most common of these form is called AABA

  • The letter “A” is used for the first section
  • When a section is repeated, the letter is repeated in the form. So AABA means you repeat the A section twice, then play the B section once, and then play the A section one more time to complete the entire form of the tune.
  • The letter “B” is used for the section that differs from the A section
  • Many jazz standards use sections that are 8 bars long, so if a tune uses AABA form, it has four sections, each is 8 bars long, for a total of 32 bars.
  • If there are more than two different sections in the form, more letters are used to represent sections, for example, if you have 3 different sections, you might have the common form ABAC which we’ll get to later.

Learning to hear these “sections” of information and how they’re repeating over and over throughout the tune is the starting point for never getting lost within the chord changes.

It’s as if you’re creating a mental and aural roadmap that will guide you through the tune with ease…

Without a solid grasp on the form of a tune, you’ll always be one distraction away from losing your place…so BEFORE you do anything else, make sure you learn the form of any tune you’re working on – Internalize it!!

You should know and be able to hear:

  • The complete form of the tune
  • The length of each section within the form of the tune
  • The total number of bars in the tune

Let’s practice hearing form and walk through exactly how to do it…

To hear form, all you have to do is LISTEN.

You don’t need the ability to pick out every chord change, but it certainly helps to be able to hear basic chord qualities and root movements so you can easily determine if a section is the same as the previous one or different.

If you want to boost this area of your musicianship fast, make sure to check out our Ear Training Method to help you with these abilities…

The Ear Training Method

Go ahead and listen to Charlie Parker play the jazz standard, I Remember You…

As always, Bird plays with perfection, clarity, and confidence, so it’s easy to hear the various pieces of the tune that make up the overall form…

Now we’ll listen to him close and go through the process of hearing each piece of the form and how they fit together.

Step #1: Hear the first A Section – Follow along with the melody and listen to where it repeats or if it moves on to a new section. And, pay attention to how long the section is.

If you listen closely, you’ll hear that after 8 measures, the melody and chord changes from the first 8 bars begin to repeat again, telling us that the first A section is over.

This aural information tells us that the first A section is 8 bars long and that it’s probably going to be repeated.

Step #2: Hear the second A Section – Next, listen to the where the first A section ended and what happens after. In I Remember You, and most tunes for that matter, you don’t even need to know the chord changes to hear that the the next 8 bars sound the same as the first 8.

This tells us that the form so far is AA.

Step 3: Hear the Bridge – At the end of the second A section, you can hear that it’s going somewhere new. Remember, at this point in your understanding of the tune you don’t need to know exactly where it’s going, you just need to know that it’s going somewhere different than it already went.

Listen and you’ll hear that after the 2nd A, the melody and chords go to a new harmonic destination to create the B section…

So our form so far is AAB…but it’s not complete yet…

Step 4: Hear the Last A Section – And finally, you need to listen closely and determine how the last A section of the form varies from the previous A sections. In many tunes, the last A will start out the same, but then cadence in a slightly different way than before, creating a more “end of the tune” feel…

In general, you’ll still call this “A” even though it’s not exactly the same as the previous As.

What’s different with the last A section in this tune? Can you hear it?

The first thing that should stand out to you is that the last A section in I Remember You is slightly longer than the previous A sections. Can you hear how much longer?

It’s actually four bars longer…and some people might consider this different enough to label it as A’ (A Prime) instead of A because it’s a modified version of A.

Personally, I think of it just as another A section that’s slightly embellished – I still call it A, but I know that the the last A of this tune is just a little different. But it’s completely up to you how you think about the details of form…

You could call it A’ (A Prime), or just A and know that it’s a little different, but the point is, you need to know that it’s slightly different and think about it in a way that works for you.

Step 5: Internalize the whole form – So now that you know all of its parts, you want to put them together to understand and internalize the entire form.

We had an 8 bar A section that was repeated, and then went to 8 bars of a B section, followed by an embellished last A section which was 12 bars long.

So our form is AABA, or AABA’ if you want to differentiate between the first A and the last A, all sections are 8 bars long except the last which is 12 bars long, and the total number of bars in the tune is 36 bars.

As you can see, getting the form of the tune in your head can be done BEFORE you know every chord of the tune. BEFORE you know every little detail. And BEFORE you even try to take a solo on it!!

Remember, to hear form, all you need to be able to do is hear each section, whether it repeats or not, the length of it, and whether a new section is completely new or a variation of a previous section. Try to get ALL of this purely from LISTENING.

It’s not difficult to get the form and it’s a great place to start as you’re listening to a tune…And don’t underestimate the importance of learning a tune’s form and where it fits into your overall tune learning process.

Practice building this mental and aural framework in your mind as an early or first step in your tune learning process, aim to get it completely by ear, and you’ll make everything much easier as you progress with the tune.

Big Signposts in Jazz Form: Hearing differences and transitions between sections

So now that you can hear the form of a jazz standard and understand why it’s so important, it’s time to jump into other big things related to jazz form…

These big things include hearing things like when a tune…

  • Moves to the bridge or a new section different from the A section
  • Changes from a major key to a minor key
  • Modulates to a different key for a moment
  • Goes into a totally different rhythmic feel

All of these big things are easy to hear, which is why we mentioned that when you’re starting to learn a tune, think big first, then small…

In general, these big things occur from one section to another…in other words, what you’re listening for is specifically how two sections DIFFER from each other and how they TRANSITION from one to the next.

Think about it like this…If the form of a tune is a high-level roadmap that guides you through it, these aural features that stand out are signposts along the way. These signposts call out to you every time you arrive at them, “Heyyy!! We’re HERE now!!”

If you ever get lost, you simply have to listen for these signposts and you’ll quickly know exactly where you are in the form.

But, by defining features like this on your aural roadmap, it’s much more difficult to get lost in the first place because you can actually hear where you are!!

Tune Form and Signposts

Let’s take a look at a few of the big common signposts that you can learn to easily hear in many jazz standards even without knowing each and every chord…

The arrival of a bridge or a new section

This is the easiest signpost to hear because when a tune moves to the Bridge, it sounds completely different than what came before it…

Any time a tune has an AABA form, the B is called The Bridge, and it’s super easy to hear because it’s the only different section in the entire tune! The other three sections are all As.

Listen to Miles Davis over the tune Oleo and you can easily hear when the bridge comes in…

And in this example, it’s even easier to hear the bridge than normal because every time the bridge arrives, you’ll hear the piano come in.

Next listen to Stan Getz blow over Have You Met Miss Jones.

Can you hear how the bridge sounds totally different in relation to the A sections?

And notice that when a tune moves to the bridge at the end of the second A section, the bar or two right before the bridge will often be modified to propel and prepare the listener’s ear for the new key it’s headed to in the Bridge…

This is something you can easily hear.

You don’t need a chart or even need to know what the chords are. If you really listen, you can hear that at the end of the second A in Have You Met Miss Jones, the chords are moving to a new harmonic place.

Make sure you listen to a tune so much that you can easily hear the transition to the bridge and don’t ever get tripped up thinking, “Wait, am I on an A section or the bridge?!?!?”

Make it a point to clearly hear the difference between the A and B sections, and to hear any transition that takes place right before moving to the Bridge.

A lot of people can tell you when these things happen, but being able to HEAR them is what’s important. Put your ego aside and ask yourself honestly, “Can I REALLY hear them?”

Now, not all tunes have a Bridge – That special term is reserved for the B section of tunes that have a form like AABA, or something very similar, where only ONE section differs dramatically from the others.

Another common jazz form ABAC does not have a bridge, however, it’s just as easy to hear whether you’re on one of the A sections, or on the B or C section.

A great jazz standard that uses the form ABAC is the classic tune On Green Dolphin Street.

As you listen can you easily hear that the tune uses the ABAC form??

Remember, it’s not about knowing the form because you’ve looked at a chart or someone told you what it was…it’s about hearing it.

If you can’t effortlessly hear the form, you don’t actually know it.

Listen to the A section…

Next, listen to the B section…

And now, listen to the A section and B section together and try to hear when the A section moves to the B section…

It’s pretty easy to hear the difference in character between the A section and B section in On Green Dolphin Street, and it’s not to difficult to hear when the transition from one to the next takes place as well.

The more aurally defined each section is in your mind and ear, the more easily you’ll just know where you’re at in the form.

A key change from the Tonic Major to The Relative Minor

A lot of tunes will move from a section in the tonic major key, to a new section that uses the key of the relative minor.

The great tune My Shining Hour does this after the first 8 bars and if you learn to hear this, it’s a great signpost to know where you are in the form.

Listen to Trane play over My Shining Hour and try to hear what’s happening from measure 8 to measure 9…

Again, you don’t need to be able to pick out every chord. All you have to be able to do is hear that the general quality is changing from major to minor.

Listen to the first 8 bars and you can hear this major tonality…

And then listen to the next 8 bars for the minor quality…

And finally, try to hear when the first 8 bars (major) moves to the second 8 bars (minor) and the contrast between the two sections…

A modulation to a new key for a moment

Just like a lot of tunes move to the Relative Minor, many tunes will modulate to a new key for a moment.

Being able to hear exactly where this modulation occurs in the jazz form is essential to keeping your place in the tune.

Now, unless you’ve done a ton of ear training, you’re not always going to be able to pick out the exact key a tune modulates to just be hearing it, but you will be able to hear that it doesn’t sound like the Tonic key…

And when you’re first finding signposts in the chord changes, this is what matters the most.

Remember, you have to be able to hear these things – It’s not what theoretically makes sense to you, it’s what you can instantly pick up on in real-time when you’re listening.

Go ahead and listen to the tune If I were bell.

The form of this tune is ABAC which you should now be able to figure out on your own, just by listening to it.

Near the end of the B section, can you hear that the tune modulates to a new key center for a moment?

Again, when you’re first learning a standard, just aim to hear that it’s modulating somewhere. Later, you can figure out exactly where.

Think BIG first (Where in the form is there a modulation that takes places?)….then later, think small (what key is it modulating to?)

This point in the chord changes is a big signpost if you learn to recognize it and hear it every time in the form.

A change in time-feel from one section to another

Another big signpost you’ll encounter a lot is a change in rhythmic feel. Many tunes use a Bossa feel during one section and a swing feel for another…

For instance, the classic Benny Golson tune Stablemates typically changes feel during four measures of the tune. Check out this Blue Mitchell recording…

The first 10 bars use a swing feel…

And then the next 4 bars use a Latin feel…

Listen to how the 10 bars of swing flow into the 4 bars of Latin…

These four bars are hard to miss!!

Knowing exactly where a change in time-feel like this happens within the form will always help you keep your place, or find it if you’re lost.

A change in root movement or harmonic rhythm from one section to another

Another easy thing to hear is when there is great contrast in root movement or harmonic rhythm between two sections of a tune.

For instance, the classic jazz standard Night and Day has very different sounding A and B sections because of root movement. The B section uses downward chromatic movement that’s totally different from the A section.

This difference in root movement is super easy to hear when Bill Evans and Getz are playing it…

Here’s the A section…

And here’s the B section. Listen for the chromatic “walk-down”

Now listen to the A and B sections together and you’ll easily hear how different they are…

Again, this is easy to hear even if you don’t know the changes, which is exactly the kind of huge signpost you need if you’re lost or need to find your place in the changes quickly.

Anything that stands out to YOU!!

Everyone hears differently.

If you’re not hearing the things I’m talking about, that’s okay. Find things you DO hear and use them as your own signposts.

Maybe there are other things that stick out to you like…

  • The sound of a specific chord in the form
  • A unique sequence of chords
  • An unexpected or different root movement
  • A chord quality or alteration

It’s all about asking yourself, “What are the defining features of this tune?” And then learning to hear them.

It’s these cues that will keep you on track and help you find your place if you ever lose it.

Remember, by defining signposts on your aural roadmap, you’re deepening your understanding of where you’re at in the form, making it much more difficult to lose your place in the chord changes.

Rather than trying to mentally understand where you’re at, you’ll actually be able to hear where you are.

With a solid understanding of the jazz form and major sign posts, you’re beginning to build the necessary mental and aural roadmap to never get lost in the chord changes.

Learning to hear and think ahead: The Chord Anticipation Technique

Now that we’ve covered how to create an aural and mental framework for a tune by internalizing the form & developing signposts, it’s time to dive into something totally different that compliments these fundamentals…

You’re now going to learn how to speed up your brain using a powerful chord anticipation technique.

This mental technique will eliminate those mental fumbles that inevitably happen when you’re soloing over a tune…you know those moments when you’re like…Wait, what chord am I on? What chord is next? Where am I going?!?!?

Yeah, those moments…

And knowing the form and some great signposts will help, but they won’t totally get rid of these mental lapses.

Which is why you need to learn how to mentally anticipate chords.

The basic idea is this…

You’re going to practice constantly thinking of the next chord in the progression, while you’re playing over the current chord.

It’s really that simple, but most people don’t ever even attempt to do this!! They’re so focused on where they ARE, that it never occurs to them to think about where they’re GOING!!

You see, most people only think about the chord they’re on…so 100% of their attention is focused on one measure, like this…

Today, we’re going to show you how to get beyond this and learn to split your attention between where you are and where you’re going.

When you practice this way, the first chord will become a trigger for the next, making you constantly AWARE of the next upcoming chord.

Check out this diagram to understand how your attention splits between the chord you’re on and the chord you’re moving to.

Chord anticipation technique

In this example, you’re putting 70% of your attention on the chord you’re playing over and 30% of your attention on the upcoming chord. Obviously, it doesn’t have to be these specific numbers – the point is, your attention is split between these chords.

And at any given moment in time, you have 2 things in mind…

  1. The chord you’re playing over (Your primary attention)
  2. The upcoming chord (Your secondary attention)

And as you can see, your attention keeps shifting…when you arrive at the next chord, your attention shifts to the chord after that and so on.

Let’s take this anticipation technique for a test-drive and see how you might use this practice technique over the tune I Remember You

Taking the first 8 bars of the tune…

Using the chord anticipation practice technique would go something like this…

  • While I’m playing over F major, my attention is split between F major and B-, knowing that I’m headed to B- E7
  • When I’m playing over B-, I’m thinking partially about heading to E7 and maybe even that I’m going to soon return to F major
  • When I’m playing over E7, I’m thinking about resolving back to F major
  • When I’m playing over F major, I’m thinking of C minor and possibly C- F7, while getting ready for a ii V that’s going to move me to the IV chord (Bb major)
  • When I’m playing over C-, I’m thinking about moving to F7
  • When I’m playing over F7, I’m thinking about moving to Bb major

Ok, you get the idea…

You’re always thinking FORWARD and AHEAD!!

You’re never just thinking about the chord you’re on. Never. You need to make it a habit to always keep some attention on where you’re going and what’s coming up next. This is a huge key in not getting lost in the chord changes.

Next, let’s practice this technique with actual music playing…

Listen to the example below of the first 8 bars of I Remember You and I want you to mentally think of the chord that is playing, while simultaneously putting some of your attention and awareness on the upcoming chord, so it will feel a lot like this…

I’ve slowed down the audio for you. Now, try to replicate the idea you see in the above diagram in your mind as you listen to the example…

Can you do it, or is it kind of tricky??

At first it won’t be easy, especially with no sheet music to look at – in this case you’re probably looking at the example to follow along, but your real goal is to think through the chords in your mind without looking at music.

Once you’ve attempted this with the first 8 bars of I Remember You, take this chord anticipation technique and apply it to a tune you’re currently working on, or something you know pretty well.

Then, go through any tunes you know and practice thinking a chord ahead and you’ll quickly see just how much better you cement the chord changes in your mind.

With practice, the mental lapses and moments when you forgot chords or what’s coming up next will be long gone.

Master Jazz Form and Never get lost in the chord changes again

When you really think about it, professionals rarely get lost because a jazz standard to them is like a familiar city…

They know how to get from one place to another. They know what stands out. And they have a mental map of how everything fits together that they can effortlessly and intuitively access.

Learning to hear jazz form and adding meaningful signposts that you can easily pick out aurally without relying on sheet music will help you create this mental and aural map.

And when you add the skill of thinking ahead and anticipating the upcoming chords by shifting your attention forward, you’re well on your way to developing a complete skill set to navigate through a tune like a pro.

The most important thing to remember is that you must HEAR everything we’re talking about today…jazz form, signposts, anticipated chords…they mean nothing if you can’t hear them.

The next jazz standard you learn, figure out the form of the tune and the major signposts purely by ear before you even pick up your instrument. Then, once you learn the changes, mentally rehearse them in your mind using the chord anticipation technique we discussed today. With diligent work using these practice techniques, you’re sure to never get lost in the chord changes again.

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