Looking at a solid book of standards—like a Real Book—you may find it tricky to remember the changes for a tune, or maybe you get it confused with another tune.
What if you could memorize the chord changes instantly?
While it’s not a skill you can do immediately (it does take practice), it is something you can develop, and you don’t need to have perfect pitch or a really advanced ear. But it will be something to help you out when you hear a band play through a tune or when you hear a recording. You’ll know what the changes are after a chorus or two, then be able to play along and know every chord change that’s coming up.
We’re going to walk through three different steps to help you develop this skill. Before we get started, make sure to check out the video for this blog, as well as our special mentorship program—which gives you access to live masterclasses from some of the top players in jazz, as well as access to unlimited restreaming. Plus, be sure to check out our PDF package Standards Analysis—which gives Roman numeral analysis, chord tone arpeggiation, and chord-scale relationships on 50 jazz standards. Understanding what’s happening under the surface of these tunes will go a long way for memorizing the changes.
Understand the harmonic devices
In functional harmony, there are really only so many chord progressions that sound pleasing. You’ve probably seen those videos where people play 20 songs using the same pop chord progression. What’s more, in jazz and in jazz standards, there are many chord progressions that come up often. So as you learn more standards, you’ll come to recognize some of these typical progressions.
A key thing we can do is understand the harmonic devices being used in a song. This way, you don’t have to know the names of the chords being used, you just have to know how they’re moving functionally.
Let’s check out an example comparing the tunes “Confirmation” and “There Will Never Be Another You.” Now these first few bars may not look similar, but in fact, they’re using the same harmonic device.
In “Confirmation,” you’ll see that the first few chords are Fmaj7, Eø7, A7b9, and Dm7. This would be a I - ii/vi - V/vi - vi (said one major to minor two-five to six). All this means is that we’re in the key of F major, then the next three chords form a minor iiº - V - i to D minor.
Taking a look at “There Will Never Be Another You,” the chords are different. We have an Ebmaj7, Dø7, G7b9, and Cm7. But these chord names are less helpful than knowing that it’s really a I - ii/vi - V/vi - vi in E-flat major. It’s just a different key with a different rhythmic pacing, but the chords are functioning in the same way, which gives it a similar sound.
In fact, if we transpose “There Will Never Be Another You” up a whole step, the chords would look exactly the same as “Confirmation.”
The benefit of learning the harmonic device is that now we can take this same sound and use it and recognize it in any key. Here it is again in the standard “My Shining Hour,” following a I - vi - ii- V.
In reality, there are not too many different harmonic devices we need to learn in jazz. Just learning the sound of a ii - V - I will get you far.
And once you understand these harmonic devices, it’s easier to memorize the changes of any tune, because you aren’t memorizing specific names of chords, you can remember entire cadences and turnarounds as a whole.
This next technique is all about that bass!
Well…not quite like that.
You can understand a lot about a chord progression from the bass notes. A good way we can use this, even if you’re an advanced player, is to play what we’ll call root rhythms. What we’re going to do is take one consistent rhythm for a full measure and use that with the roots on each chord. We can have a secondary rhythm for when there are two chords per measure. Here’s what that looks like on “Confirmation.”
This exercise is going to get the root motion of the chords in your ears, and by memorizing the bass notes, you’ll internalize the chords much faster. Once you’re familiar with this concept, you’ll be able to infer what a progression may be just based on the bass motion.
For instance, when you hear the notes C, B, E, and A in a jazz context with each note on beat one, then logically there’s a good chance that it is the same progression we talked about above!
We can infer from these bass notes Cmaj7, Bø7, E7b9, and Am.
Once you get comfortable with jamming on the root, you can start to mix up the rhythm and start improvising with it—changing up the rhythm of the roots and maybe suspending or anticipating the next bar.
Beyond that, you’ll want to start adding in chord tones. Here’s what that will look like. Make sure to check out our video to hear how Chad plays it, too!
Once you’ve got the hang of improvising with root rhythms and chord tone rhythms, you can get into moving around full shapes over the chord changes. When we say shape, we mean the melodic contour of a line—basically does the melody go up or down?
To start off, let’s take an ascending line of just quarter notes, so it’s easy and melodic. We’ll play the first, second, third and fifth degrees of the scale (we’ve talked about this figure before in our blog on “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane).
Let’s take this figure over “There Will Never Be Another You.”
Then if you want to get super hip, you can try adding melodic chromaticism with approach notes and enclosures!
We get pretty deep into topics like this in our masterclasses with our mentorship series, as well as in our PDF package Standards Analysis—which gives Roman numeral analysis, chord tone arpeggiation, and chord-scale relationships on 50 jazz standards. This will be helpful for identifying harmonic devices that recur in standards.
That’s all for today, see you next time!