How to Learn Songs

Is there a more effective, efficient method for learning and retaining a large repertoire of jazz standards?

At a recent jam session, the virtuoso trumpeter Ed Donohue asked me, “How many songs have you memorized?” I thought about it and responded, “I don’t memorize any of them…I compute them in real time, “on the fly,” as we play.

Last week, Jeff Rzepiela, a fine saxophonist and arranger, asked how we represent standard songs using the language of “New Ears Resolution.” (See Jeff’s email below.)  Try this method, and see how much clearer the song becomes, and how your memory improves.

A tune often played at jam sessions is Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are.” The Real Book shows it as being in the key of Ab.  In reality though, this song modulates five times in its 36 bar form.  Here are the first 8 bars, along with the first 2 modulations, conceptualized the way Al Learned taught me.

SOLFEGIO NOTATION all the things

In the figure above, we see 2 bars per line, separated by bar lines. Each syllable indicated represents 1 beat. A note with a 4-beat duration is indicated by a syllable followed by 3 dots (●).

In measure 5, beat 4, you see the following notation: LA=>FA.  This means “the old LA becomes the new FA.”  This is an extremely useful notational shorthand, which instantly conveys a lot of information. The melody continues on the same note (concert F), but its function has changed.  Perhaps a useful way of picturing this function change is to view a U.S. citizen as she crosses the Canadian border.  On the U.S. side, she is a citizen.  On the other, she is a visitor.

In this case, we have modulated from Ab to C.  The note “F” was heard as LA in the old key, but now it is heard as FA in the new key.  The G7 dominant chord causes this paradigm shift (see “New Ears Resolution” for details).

The chord changes are also shown in boxes on the figure (in their simplest form), and I have added the optional indication of how the key change impacts the chords, i.e. TI=>SO.

Rather than “memorizing” each note, you can use this method to analyze what is actually occurring.  I believe the understanding which you get by doing this mirrors the logic Jerome Kern instilled in the tune while he was composing it.

Another advantage to this approach is that the second 8 bars are analogous to the first (although in the new key of Eb).  In bar 9, the C major chord changes to a C minor (DO=>LA), and the new melody note, Eb, is now DO, instead of Me (Me=>DO).


Here is Jeff’s letter:

Dear Craig,
I bought ‘New Ears Resolution’ a few days ago. It’s more like a new ears revolution for me. Absolutely brilliant!
Just one suggestion / request: It would be great to see sol-fa renditions of some jazz standards, so that your readers could see how you might sketch the key modulations in sol-fa.
For now, I’m carrying on with the book and with your latest article on dominant 7(b9) chords.
Thanks for all your work and generous articles.

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