Let's say that the tune is mostly in Aeolian mode. I found that I keep forgetting the changes because when I think V it is not a chord I used to associate with this number and I find myself 'translating' it to Ionian-based numbering (so I mind-map it as III chord; Phrygian collection).

In literature you can find explicit numberings for each possible mode, so that I may mean Aeolian, Phrygian collection etc. depending on mode. I'm an amateur and I have never seen an explanation why they are using so much space to show stuff that can be easily derived or what should I do with it (except memorizing). I always assumed it there is to help in sight reading.

Having run into this problem, should I unlearn to auto-associate say, V with Mixolydian collection or Dominant function? Is it customary to think of II-V-I changes as anything else if they are diatonic to given mode and not harmonic cadences with obvious dominant function of V?

How can I memorize tunes if I don't see obvious patterns, cadences, not many key changes etc.?

  • Do you have to memorize the progression? Most musicians use some kind of notation (sheet music, lead sheets, tabs, ect) to aid in playing so it is not necessary to memorize the whole piece.
    – Dom
    Feb 4, 2014 at 2:06
  • 2
    @Dom Most musicians? It's acceptable for classical musicians to have notation on stage but it's frowned upon or laughed at in all other genres.
    – Fergus
    Feb 4, 2014 at 3:25
  • @Fergus Every choir has notation when they preform, any type of ensemble uses notation when they preform, any brass or string group uses notation when they preform, any pianist uses notation when they preform, jazz groups use notation when they preform, musicians hired as extras by band use notation when they preform. The only two groups that don't use notation when they preform are musicians acting (not the musicians in the pit they use notation) in musicals and musicians who "write there own songs".
    – Dom
    Feb 4, 2014 at 13:57
  • @Dom The OP mentions the II V I, which is mostly used in jazz although it is a staple of all popular, contemporary music. A competent Jazz player (including Pianists) will have at least 100 standards committed to memory. A professional jazz player will know many more. It is a integral part of both formal and informal jazz education. I'm sure some jazz musicians have fake books on stage but it is an exception to the rule and is definitely frowned upon.
    – Fergus
    Feb 4, 2014 at 21:48
  • @Fergus It's not though. Many Jazz players especially horn players have sheet music or have lead sheets for preforming. When they play 100 different songs maybe they can remember them all, but what about 1000? Any performer can't be expected to know every note at any second for that many songs especially when almost every working musician has to constantly learn new songs. It's nothing to be ashamed of it's there for a reason.
    – Dom
    Feb 4, 2014 at 21:57

1 Answer 1


Your problem is a little unusual, I'll just give general tips on memorizing progressions.

First of all, all progressions will have obvious and familiar patterns, If you're listening to something really obscure you may have to look a little harder but they will be there. The more music you learn and listen to the more obvious they become.

  • Many chord progressions are not diatonic so don't rely your method to memories prog's.

  • Look (on your instrument, or the notation) at the movement of the chord tones. listen to the movement of the chord tones.

  • Sing the top note while playing through it, repeat for the the second highest notes and on to the lowest. repeat this with the chord tones (they will have different movements unless all chords are identical voicings) sing the third of every chord, then sing the 5th etc

  • Play the progression in other keys and with other voicings, how does this affect it's sound? Does it lose it's essence? Has the the chord tone movements lost their distinctive characteristics or is it still clearly recognizable? Why?

  • Take note of stylistic idioms of each genre you play e.g. bVII, bVI and bIII in major keys are common in rock and pop. Remember how they sound, experiment to see how they sound in different progressions. Listen out for them when listening to the radio etc

  • Loop the prog. and improvise over it, having to follow and anticipate the changes and hit chord tones will cement the prog. in your mind.

  • Learn the melody, how does it fit with the harmony? what chord tones are played? Which chord extensions could be added without detracting from the melody? reharmonize the song.

  • Write it down in roman numeral form and analyse it, what other songs use it? what movements are familiar which are more unusual? Why are they unusual?

  • You are most likely to memorize a prog. if you learn it by ear. The focus and time required will almost guarantee you remember it.

  • Read others analysis of songs. If you have any interest in popular music this is an amazing resource: http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/AWP/awp-notes_on.shtml

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