[As a bassist] when I learn a new jazz song, I try to learn the melody as well as the harmony. That way [I believe] I can improvise better and sound that I improvise on the song and not just on the harmony [that can be applied to other songs as well].

But recently, I met another guy who is learning jazz and he told me that that was pointless and that there was no point in everyone in the band to know the melody.

So my question is this: Do all jazz musicians need to know the melody of the song they are performing?

  • No they don't. But neither is it pointless.
    – wim
    Oct 23, 2014 at 13:51
  • @wim can you expand your comment into an answer? Oct 23, 2014 at 14:19
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    I think the more you know about any song, the better you can play it. If you have time to learn the melody, do so. Somebody may throw you a solo, and starting with the melody is always a good idea. If you have time to learn the lyrics, it could not hurt.
    – user1044
    Oct 23, 2014 at 16:58
  • @WheatWilliams why did you post this as a comment? That is a good answer Oct 23, 2014 at 20:34

1 Answer 1


It's not necessarily needed, but it don't half help! Some players tend to use the harmonic structure of a number to 'play over the changes'. So they will follow the chords that make up the tune, and put different melodies to that sequence. If that is done properly, then any improv. will work well.

If the melody is known, then another sort of improv. can be used - working with the rhythmic motifs of the piece. For instance, the tune can be turned around, and maybe played using the same notes, but in a different order. (No reference here to Morecome and Wise !) Obviously, this is pretty difficult if the tune isn't known.

Some tunes have stops and starts in them, which really get dictated by the melody, so knowing them, even the drummer can be with the rest of the band.

In jazz improv., it's often 'in the moment', and it's good to be able to just play a brand new number, and improv over it. If it's brand new - how can anyone know it?

So - yes and no. Some musos will improv without that knowledge; some will 'learn' the tune by the time they're on the third verse; some only need the chord structure. Knowing a song cannot be detrimental, but for some, it may not make their playing better - I'm probably talking about the upper echelons here.

Having said all that, often lead sheets are used, which will have the basic melody and chords, so it could depend on how quickly an individual can 'learn' the melody, if that's what you allude to. Semantics here - what might 'learn'or 'know' mean in a live play situation?

Generally speaking, the melody will match the chords for any given song, so are the two not joined anyway?

  • I'd say if a musician refuses to learn the melody he has forfeited the right to claim him/herself as a 'jazz' musician, and should probably stick to 'elevator music' (but give up dreams of ever appearing on the Muzak playlists) Oct 23, 2014 at 12:50
  • @DarrenRinger - no-one is saying anything about 'refusing' to learn a melody. There are many, many players who will read and interpret a new melody immediately. Would they sit on the naughty chair as well?
    – Tim
    Oct 23, 2014 at 12:59
  • Tim: "But recently, I met another guy who is learning jazz and he told me that that was pointless and that there was no point in everyone in the band to know the melody." No-one is saying anything about refusing to learn a melody? I thought that was the whole point of the OP. Didn't mean to offend. Also, I don't quite understand your objection. If they read and interpret a new melody immediately, then they already 'learned it' as soon as they saw it. Oct 23, 2014 at 13:01
  • Sorry tried to edit this in to my other comment but just missed the time cutoff: If one DOES read and interpret a melody in the manner so described, but does not claim to 'know' the melody as a result, I would argue that their interpretation would be necessarily shallow - the melody influences chord voicings immensely for most practicing non-lead jazz players that I know. Oct 23, 2014 at 13:08
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    Some of the guys I play/ed with would change your views about that, I'm sure ! No offence taken !
    – Tim
    Oct 23, 2014 at 13:17

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