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I want to get into jazz but I have a small (?) problem: most of the jazz music sounds same to me. How do I learn to distinguish different songs? With salsa it was easier as songs had some lyrics there. But how do I remember and distinguish songs that have only sax and piano? I’ve read that one of the ways to memorize music is to play it. Unfortunately, I don’t play any instruments nor I can sing along. I don’t even know the notes. Is there any way for me how I could memorize jazz songs and learn to distinguish them?

For example, there is playing a jazz song and I am like: “oh, that’s Pennies From Heaven by Count Basie”. I hope you got what I mean.

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  • 1
    It's like everything else: practise
    – PiedPiper
    Jul 27, 2023 at 8:53
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    If all jazz sounds the same to you, why would you want to “get into” it?
    – 11684
    Jul 27, 2023 at 16:55
  • 1
    Give yourself time. Shop around the subgenres. May be start with jazz arrangements of classical, Beatles, whatnot? Plenty of such material in Youtube. Jul 27, 2023 at 19:26
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    What do you mean you can't sing along? Jul 27, 2023 at 19:48
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    I’m voting to close this question because it is not about music practice or theory as outlined in the help center. Questions about listening to and enjoying music can be asked at the Music Fans Stack Exchange site. Jul 28, 2023 at 9:15

4 Answers 4

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First, a short, simple answer, then a longer, more helpful one.

Short/simple: It will get easier as you spend more time with the genre. There's a joke among many folk musicians, applicable to various instruments: "Q: How do you tell [banjo/fiddle/polka] tunes appart? A: By their titles." Really this joke is about cultural acclimation. It's similar to the phenomenon in which someone looks at people of an ethnicity that they have little experience with and says "all you people look the same to me." Any time there's a culture gap, that difference between the observer's own culture and the culture being observed obscures internal differences between cultural artifacts. In other words, if a Martian musicologist landed and started making a study of Earth's music, they'd have trouble perceiving the difference between rock, jazz, and classical because it's all so different from Martian music. So the longer you spend with jazz songs, the more you'll start to notice how they're different from each other.

The longer answer is simply steps that any non-musician can take to learn to recognize a melody. First, for jazz, make sure to distinguish the "core" tune; this will often be at the beginning, and in instrumental performances, might be followed by a long period of improvisation (perhaps ending with the main tune again). If the song has lyrics, there might be an introduction which is more or less disposable before the "main verse." It might help to get a "fake book," a big book of very basic sheet music for lots of popular numbers.

Once you've zeroed in on the main melody that you're trying to learn, listen for two variables: pitch and rhythm. In other words, the notes go up and down, and some notes might last longer than others. In a song with lyrics, try speaking the lyrics along with the singer. Try clapping your hands on each note, and notice the differing length of the claps. In your example, "Pennies from heaven," of those five syllables, you'll notice "-nies" is the shortest. Or for a more dramatic example, in the opening of "Summertime," notice the length of "-time," and how in "and the livin' is easy," there's a pattern of longer-shorter-longer-shorter.

Next listen for pitch. Even if you're not a trained singer, try singing along. Even if you don't know how to read music, look at a copy of the sheet music and notice how some dots are higher on the lines and some are lower. Now listen to the opening of "Summertime" and notice how, of those three notes, the middle one is lower, and the rest of the line goes down. (Btw, this idea of "up vs down" is an arbitrary idea, constructed by our human imagination, so don't feel bad if it takes some getting used to.) Try to notice the difference between small distances and bigger ones; for instance, in "Puttin' On the Ritz," in the lines "If you're blue and you don't know where...", hear the big drop in pitch between "blue" and "and," or between "know" and "where."

There are many other variables that one can hear in music, but many of the others can be changed from one performer to another and it can still be "the same song." One song can be performed at different speeds, with different moods or tones, in different vocal ranges, with different instrumentation. And in jazz, even the basic rhythm and pitch are open to small changes from one performer to another. But it's these patterns that you'll recognize among all the performances of a given number.

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I'm not sure this is on-topic but I don't know where to shunt the question to, so here goes.

There's a lot of jazz, and it's went in a lot of directions. You will not like some of the things that are called jazz. Listen to a lot of it and find what you like.

If I was to say "jazz band", you would probably imagine one or more horn players, piano, upright bass and a drummer with a fairly small kit. Pat Metheny's Bright Size Life band looked like a rock power trio (electric guitar, electric bass, drums) but played jazz. Oregon had a tabla player and classical guitar but played jazz. 70s Miles Davis had electric piano, many electric guitars and trumpet through wah pedal and played jazz.

Structurally, you may want to think of jazz like parkour/free-runners on an obstacle course. The first chorus, they run it straight, like that is what is expected by the course. We call this the "head". Then each player gets to run through the course, showing off what they can do with it. This is improvisation. And then, to signal that things are coming to an end, they play the head again. As a listener, you listen to that first part and then recognize when the structure goes up or goes down, so that you know what to expect when the player improvises over that part, where they follow the course and where they go off wildly.

The most extreme version of the "obstacle course" take is "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane. Vox has a good explainer here, but shortly, in jazz, you play the chord changes, which means that there isn't an overriding key for the song, so you play chord notes, and jazz harmony gives you extended chords that give you a lot of choices. (Rock has a lot of "power chords", typically just roots, fifths and octaves, which allow for a different set of choices.) There is no overriding reason for jazz chords to be connected to each other, so you might find yourself playing a note that sounds good over this chord but is dissonant to the next. "Giant Steps" is about chords that are minimally connected, played fast, so playing melodically over them is a challenge. Tommy Flanagan was the pianist for the session, and practiced the piece at a much slower tempo, so you can hear him fall off.

Because you're often trying to show off your melodic playing over particular structures, it is common to play a new "head" over an existing set of chords. For example, "Ko-Ko" by Charlie Parker is adapted from Ray Noble's "Cherokee", and so many songs are based on "I've Got Rhythm" by George Gershwin that they're called the "rhythm changes" and are as common as the 12-bar structure for blues bands.

That's a lot about what's going on in these things, but you don't have to understand them to listen to jazz and like what you hear. You just have to listen and appreciate it. The swinging drums make me nod my head in time. The saxophone reminds me of a rainy city in a noir movie. Whatever. However you learn to love music is right. And if it all sounds the same to you, that's fine, if you like how it all sounds.

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Can you tell songs apart, without vocals, when they AREN'T in jazz style and the melody is being clearly stated? If not, there's probably no hope!

But otherwise, I know exactly what you mean and it's not your fault. Jazz players sometimes forget that a song is not just a chord sequence for them to improvise over, there's also a melody. OK, it's their prerogative to work this way, stating the melody just once (or even not at all!) and getting straight into the improvising. But there's a dimension lacking when they reference only the chord structure, ignoring melodic features of the original tune.

But that's what they do. And chord sequences aren't as distinctive as melodies. It's often impossible to detect WHICH tune they're improvising on, even if you listen from the beginning!

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It's generally accepted that the first verse states the actual melody for jazzers. So knowing how that goes will help, as you'll recognise it, without words. After that, the jazz starts, where the chord base continues, but the players 'play over the changes' - with an occasional nod back to the melody, note or timing wise.

But, as stated in the previous paragraph, the chord structure of a given song stays mainly the same. I say mainly, but there's often embellishments to those chords - 6ths, 9ths, 13♭9s etc, but it's still possible to recognise the 'geography' of a song through that. 12 bar tunes apart! So, even if you don't know what a chord sequence is, technically, its 'feel' will help. Pennies From Heaven' - main chord, then up a step, up another step, etc. Most songs will have their own trade mark chord sequence.

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  • Eventually, we'll get screwed over by all those pieces that use the rhythm changes, all those versions of the 12-bar blues, and all those contrafacts.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 27, 2023 at 7:35
  • @Dekkadeci - not sure what you allude to here?
    – Tim
    Jul 27, 2023 at 8:08
  • I think @Dekkadeci might be suggesting that one thing that can make a lot of jazz sound the same is the fact that a lot of jazz is the same, at least in terms of the changes. It’s mainly the melody of the head that we should listen to in order to recognize a tune, not the chords. I disagree that "most songs will have their own trade mark chord sequence". Two different jazz standards can easily have almost the same or even identical changes - and that’s not even a copyright issue since chord progressions can’t be copyrighted. Jul 28, 2023 at 9:08
  • @ToddWilcox - fair point. There's an awful lot of ii>V>I found in jazz - but also in a lot of other music. It's sort of 'the way home'. So, if OP hears the head, most tunes should be recognisable from that. Have to admit - without that, I find it difficult to recognise some stuff - and I play jazz (apart from other music). However, there are many jazz standards which do have specific chord sequences, which is another way in which to follow a piece, and possibly even recognise it. But worse - looking at real/fake books, many 'standards' have alternate sequences, so for a non-muso...
    – Tim
    Jul 28, 2023 at 9:34

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