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Learn Any Jazz Standard in 7 Steps

In his time teaching, Nathan has been asked several times by students, “what’s the best way to learn a jazz standard?”

Well while there’s no one answer to that question, there are a few strategies that you can use to help you internalize progressions and full tunes. We’re going to run through seven steps today from Nathan’s Jazz Standards Course with JLV, which includes 2 hours of content, a downloadable PDF course workbook, and step-by-step guidance through learning jazz standards faster.

It’s helpful to go in depth with one tune at a time, since this will help boost your improvisation and musicianship so that you can immediately apply it to any tune you learn from there on out. It’s important to remember there’s no one “right” process, but this can be a good way for you to see what works for you and help develop your own process.


1. Getting to know the melody

2. Get with the bass

3. Learning the arpeggios of the progression

4. Improvising with chord tones

5. Learning the chord scales

6. Play chord scales through the changes

7. Improvising with rhythm

1. Getting to know the melody

The melody is the guiding star for any song—it directs where the song is going and helps impart the emotion into the song. But the melody also has a role to play with the harmony as well, it can either dictate the harmony or work against it to create tension, so it’s good to know what the melody is doing.

The tune we’re going to be looking at today is by Jerome Kern, and it’s “All the Things You Are.” This is a beautiful 36-bar standard, which follows a pretty logical pattern. Being 36 bars instead of 32 is unusual, but feels natural for this tune.

So let’s go ahead and look at this melody to get started.

All the things you are jazz progression
All the Things You Are

Jazz chord progression for all the things you are

2. Get with the bass

The next step to internalizing a progression after you understand the melody is to look at the bass line. The bass notes can tell you a lot about the direction of the harmony, and that can give you the shape of the tune.

If you haven’t already, it can be really helpful to learn your circle of fourths ascending.

The circle of fourths circle of fifths jazz music
Circle of fourths (left) or circle of fifths (right)

You’ll see a very logical pattern using these fourths within the bassline of “All the Things You Are.”

All the things you are jazz bass line
Bass line for all the things you are jazz standard

So the first five chords are all fourths, then from there we go up a half step and play a ii-V-I (which is also fourths).

Roots of all the things you are bassline

Then we’ll take our root and turn into a minor chord, then go with the same pattern of fourths, then going up a half step and fourth, fourth, ii-V-I.

Bass part in all the things you are jazz standard

Right after our F, we went up a half step to play a ii-V-I.

3. Learning the arpeggios of the progression

This next one may seem tedious, but it’s going to be very helpful in the long run. We’re going to learn all the arpeggios for the chords in the tune, which is going to give you all the chord tones aligned with the harmonic rhythm of the piece, which gives you a basic template to improvise from.

The first five chords are all diatonic to one another, meaning they’re in the same scale. In this case, that scale is F major. If we were to take each scale degree of F major and stack them in thirds until you got a four-note chord, you’d get your seven chords of the major scale.


I - Fmaj7

ii - Gm7

iii - Am7

IV - Bbmaj7

V - C7

vi - Dm7

viiº - Em7b5 (or half diminished 7)

This is a formula that works across all major keys (and if you start from the vi, it also works for the minor/aeolian scale). This means we have predictable arpeggios for each scale degree—the first and fourth degrees are major; the second, third, and sixth degrees are minor; the fifth degree is dominant; and the seventh is diminished.

In this tune, our first five chords are vi - ii - V- I - IV. Here’s what those arpeggios would look like:

All the things you are jazz standard arpeggios
Arpeggios for all the things you are jazz standard for jazz musicians

4. Improvising with chord tones

This next exercise is deceptively easy in theory, but in practice it’s tougher than it seems. The objective of a good solo is to land on the right chord tones at the right time. Using only chord tones gives you limitations to help drive the concept home.

Using chord tones on jazz standard all the things you are

At first it may feel confining to just be able to use chord tones, and you may feel tempted to use other scale tones, but after a while, you’ll start forcing yourself to be more creative with rhythm and intervals to make interesting figures.

All the things you are solo on jazz standard chord tones

5. Learning the chord scales

The next step beyond soloing with the key’s scale is to solo with the scales of each chord. These scales can also be referred to as modes, and modes are basically a way to focus the major scale sound around the sounds of individual chords.

Let’s look again at that vi - ii - V - I - IV progression.

D aeolian scale over d minor chord

Our vi chord is also our parallel minor chord, so we can use the D natural minor (or aeolian) scale over this chord—that’s 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7.

G dorian scale over G minor chord

The ii chord has its own minor scale, the dorian mode. This scale is like the minor scale with a raised 6, so that’s 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7. You can either think of this as G Dorian or you can also think of this as F major starting on the second.

C mixolydian scale mode over c7 dominant chord

The next chord is our V chord, which aligns with the mixolydian mode. This is similar to the major scale, it just has a b7 to mirror the dominant chord. Mixolydian is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7.

F major scale over F major 7 chord

Then, we have our tonic major chord, which uses the major scale.

B flat Lydian mode scale over Bb major 7 chord

Finally, we go to our IV chord, which uses the lydian scale. Lydian is also similar to major, and it uses the scale 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7.

two five one jazz progression with dorian mixolydian and major mode scales

In our next chord, we’re going up a half step from Bb to Bm7, placing us in the A major family, instead of F. Since we’re using the ii of A, you’ll want to play B dorian, E mixolydian, and A major.

6. Play chord scales through the changes

A good way to get these chord scales and modes into your playing is to practice linear improvisation using only scalar motion. That means we’re just going to go up and down the full range of the horn, and when the harmonic rhythm changes, we shift to notes that fit inside of that chord by playing the corresponding chord scale at the right time.

Using chord scales through jazz changes
Modal scale uses over jazz chord progression

7. Improvising with rhythm

In this last step, we’re going to take one rhythm and apply everything we talked about but improvise freely with notes.

Jazz rhythm improvisation on all the things you are standard

The restraint is just keeping within the one rhythmic figure. We’re going to use one rhythm to demonstrate—make sure to check out our accompanying YouTube video to see how Nathan does it.

Rhythm exercise for jazz musicians on All The Things You Are jazz standard by Jerome Kern