Why Is This Tune So Hard To Memorize?

Have you ever had difficulty playing a tune, even though it presented no obvious technical hurdles? Perhaps the problem lies in a hidden harmonic riddle, which, when solved, will unlock your understanding of the song and make it easier to play and to remember.

At a recent gig, pianist Mark Schecter called off Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High.” Although Storyville used to play the song, it still made me stumble.  However, after deciphering its harmonic implications, playing it became simple.

     Here’s how to solve a riddle like that.

“Groovin’ High” is based on the old chestnut “Whispering.” Its first 4 bars are shown below. (Click HERE for an explanation of the notation I use.)


You may well react the way I did when Al Learned first taught me to interpret songs this way.   I said, “That looks weird! Why not just call bars 3 and 4 a TI – LA melody” over a TI 7 chord?”

Al’s answer revolutionized my ability to improvise and play by ear.

 Al said, “When you improvise over this song, you will want to use the Mixolydian scale  built on the seventh degree of the original key.  That’s a lot to process when you’re playing at 200 beats per minute!  By contrast, the shorthand “TI=>SO” gets you to that place in a fraction of the time.” (See “New Ears Resolution” for more details.)

Dizzy was thinking along these lines when he composed “Groovin’ High.”  So, in order to understand the tune, you need to orient yourself in the same way.  Here is a diagram of bars 1-8:


The first 2 bars are identical, each starting with 2 eighth notes (indicated by an unerline). Bars 3 & 4, which previously were a maze of gnarly accidentals, now appear as almost entirely diatonic (with only 1 accidental, “Di”).

Notice also that bars 7 & 8 are now identical to bars 3 & 4, (although the key changes.)   In addition, were we to continue, you would see that bar 9 does not require a key change and that bars 11 & 12 are once again identical to bars 3 & 4, (although now played in the home key.)

     Does this analysis make the song easier to learn and remember? Absolutely!

For one thing, grasping the relationship between the 3 keys used in the song and understanding how Dizzy cycles through them gives you a “bird’s eye view” (pun intended) of the song’s structure.   Furthermore, you can now see that bars 3 & 4 form the main motif of the song.  So, if you practice that “lick” in all 12 keys, you’ve mastered the song.  Here is the original lick:


Notice that this lick is in the key of concert G, even though the SONG is in concert Eb.    Under each note, i have indicated its syllable.  If you print a page with the 12 major scales,  you can write the syllable names under each degree of the scale:  DO RE MI FA SO LA TI. DO.   Or simply write:  D R M F S L T D.  Now you will be able to play this lick in all 12 keys!

It will sound best, if you go counter-clockwise around the circle of fifths.  (Key of G major, C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb or F#, B, E, A, D)  Notice that the chords describe a ii-V progression, so that the V7 chord in your first lick (D7) becomes a iim (Dm7) in the second pass.  Hope this helps!

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