In my quest to become a general jazz pianist I practice jazz standards. Having several years experience with violin, a melody instrument, I have no trouble learning and remembering melodies but the harmonies won’t stick.

I hear when they are wrong and I absolutely love them, but my dependency on fake books remains. Similarly, I have trouble playing a walking base for a standard.

Any ideas how to address this? Perhaps suggestions for how/what to practice?

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    Do you have similar problems with easier songs? London bridge is falling down, Happy Birthday, Mary had a little lamb, can you play the chords to those without looking anywhere? Generally you should get easy stuff working first, and progress step by step towards jazz standards. Commented May 29, 2020 at 17:31
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    Hm, no, I would say that simple songs like that, typically consisting of I, IV and V, I manage somewhat all right. In contrast, for instance I Loves You Porgy I don't get. I know the melody, but fail to "perceive" what chords that goes with what. But maybe this means there's hope. I should maybe continue to grind, but at songs that are not too difficult? How do you suggest I approach it?
    – Frans
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 19:13
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    There's some kind of difficulty hierarchy of things. For example, if you can hear I, IV, V, how about distinguishing IV and ii, which are often interchangeable and both are on the "subdominant side". Even more subtle, IV6 and iim7, which have all the same notes, but a different bass. Start from something simple and gradually proceed towards more and more complicated things. Only add one small trick or skill at a time, and practice each trick in different keys. Playing by ear is crucial to remembering. Commented May 29, 2020 at 19:28
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    Do you understand key harmony patterns like ii7 V7 I, secondary dominants, and the tritone substitution? Commented May 29, 2020 at 19:47
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    II-V-I yes, and I've now read on Wikipedia about secondary dominants and tritone substitution. I've been wondering about this some time: how does harmonic analysis aid in jazz? I've mostly seen the analysis as fun-fact, not much more. I guess if one memorised the harmonic analysis of a song it would make playing the song in an arbitrary key easy, but I’d rather see if it was done in a musical manner, not that theoretical and memory-based approach. How does the concepts you mention help playing chords?
    – Frans
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 20:53

4 Answers 4


I had the exact same problem until I learnt functional harmony, i.e. how different groups of chords are usually put together and why. The "bigger picture" if you like. I now practice several different cadences as part of my routine.

Also it is very effective to learn how these sound like. For a given tune, rather than practicing over a backing track, I practice over the very tune, and that's after having listened to it for hours.

I am a trumpet player, BTW.

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    In what way does functional harmony help you? Do you memorise sequences? I kinda see your point though, I sometimes go "Oh right, now comes the II-V-I."
    – Frans
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 19:01
  • @Frans, functional harmony will give you a framework for understanding chord progressions. If you have this sort of understanding about the chords (and can make connections between new songs you learn and what you already know about functional harmony), then you're more likely to remember the chord progressions. It's just like any other type of learning--the more we connect new knowledge to existing knowledge, the better our memory is. And the more large frameworks we have for organizing information, the better we remember it.
    – jdjazz
    Commented May 30, 2020 at 3:44

@Alex_Lopez has given you good advice regarding functional harmony and the “big picture”. If you think of songs as a series of individual chords or small relationships here and there (there’s a ii V I on bars 7 and 8) it will be much harder to memorize. Think of a song as a journey from the first to the last bar with hills, turns and detours and you have to learn how to plot your course to get from point A to point B.

Another important aspect is take your strength and use it to address your weakness. If you learn melodies easier learn the relationship between the melody and the chords. Think of them as a unit instead of two different things. For example the first few notes of “All the things you are”: Ab Db Ab G G G G G C.

Ab is the 3rd of Fm7 or vi

Db,Ab are the 3rd and 7th of Bbm7 or ii

G,G,G,G is the 3rd of Eb7 or V

G,C are the 7th and 3rd of Ab or I

The advantage chording instruments have is they learn combining melody and harmony from the beginning but all of us can get there too.


Ideally, you shouldn't have to "memorize", and playing the changes to jazz standards should come just as naturally as playing the changes to Happy Birthday.

This kind of skill is achieved by playing songs by ear, finding the chords by ear - or "by heart". If you can play I, IV, V type songs by just sensing and feeling how the harmony swings to either side of the tonic (I like to think that V is on the left side, IV is on the right side and I is in the middle), you extend that capability by feeling the other direction as well - swinging to the "dark side", the minor side. I has vi as its corresponding dark version, IV has ii and V has iii ... and then there's III which takes you very strongly to the dark side. You learn to feel these swings by finding chords to songs by ear, and practicing to feel difference between things. This is done by playing more and more difficult songs by ear.

The difficulty hierarchy of distinguishing harmony swings (changes) could something like this, in order of increasing difficulty: (YMMV and feel free to have a different opinion)

  • left/center/right (V - I - IV)
  • major/minor side, i.e. whether it's a IV or ii ("dark side")
  • seventh chords - is it maj7 or dominant seventh
  • diminished and augmented chords
  • common special tricks like minor iv instead of IV (I think there's a name for this)
  • common modal alterations like Dorian and Mixolydian mode
  • inversions - the basic swing is e.g. left/right, but there's some additional twist mixed in. For example C/G - G7 - C is a common pattern. Can you identify that C/G when you hear it, and reproduce it? How about first inversion, C/E?
  • "mixed" chords like F/G (like G11) and G/F (or G7/F)
  • common modulations like half-step up, or to parallel minor/major
  • other jazz tricks like tritone substitutions
  • special uncommon modal feelings and chords like the Steely Dan chord, e.g. G/C, highest note B
  • playing completely outside, layering an "alternative harmony progression" on top of other chords

These are learned one by one, and as you learn to identify and reproduce each new difficulty level, it becomes a part of your own vocabulary. After that, playing a song becomes more like telling a story or a joke - you remember the big picture and the point of the joke, and if needed, you can improvise the details if needed, it doesn't have to be "memorized".

(Btw, if someone has lists of songs ordered by difficulty along steps like those listed above, each song introducing only one new harmony trick, please post a link.)

However, even after you've learned all this, there's still one added challenge, namely actually remembering the tune. ;) Some songs are just so entirely forgettable, un-melodic, or weird that you have to write them down. Song structures are often like that too - is this the second or third chorus now? Were we supposed to do one or two rounds of the bridge here? But if you can hear and reproduce harmony, it helps tremendously, because even if you don't really remember the song, you can listen to what others do and float over it. ;)

  • When I play music by ear, I often end up reharmonizing it (or at the very least using an accompaniment fairly different from the original), especially if I'm not careful. (Almost all my transcriptions are of pieces with prominent basslines as a result--I have limited confidence that I can transcribe chords correctly, and often have to try to pick out individual notes from them given a YouTube recording I can slow down.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented May 30, 2020 at 14:30

Walking bass lines are easily found in Bach’s concertos for violin, harpsichord or in the Brandenburgischen concertos, also in the concerti grossi by Handel, Corelli, Vivaldi:

  • download the scores from IMSLP
  • play along the cembalo part listening to the orchestra
  • notate the chord abbreviations, analyze and harmonize the pieces with embellished and extended jazz chords.

After this practice you will find quite easy to play I love you, Porgy and understand that these are simple major 7 9 and minor 7 9 chords that can be interpreted as V above I, iii above vi etc.

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