I am learning jazz standards, and wonder if anyone could offer advice on maintaining awareness of location within the form of the song, especially while improvising.

I have been trying to envision both the melody while comping chords and to "hear" the chord tones while playing the melody, essentially visualizing the lead sheet and imaging the chord structure.

It's just very slow going, and I'm looking for tips.


This is really just practice and practice. What you need to do is to play the melody so many times that you'll hear it in your head nonstop. The same with the chord changes. Just play them over and over again. What might also help you is to listen to the song again again.

Keep in mind that this might take some time. Especially for inexperienced musicians, it might be hard to stay focused when they try to think the melody in their heads. But don't give up; we've all been there.

  • Although I keep hoping there's a shortcut, I think I'm resigned to the fact that the answer is just to play more. There are certainly worse remedies! Thank you for your answer. – user24766 Feb 17 '16 at 11:30

There's the oft-quoted II-V-I, or ii-V-I sequence that occurs frequently in jazz (and lots of other music). Try to find those parts in each song, and once you do, at least the next couple of chords will be in a familiar pattern for you.

Another thing to try, in the initial stages (and for a bit of fun later) is to keep to one key. This way, you'll see the same little sequences far more easily. And it'll make your transposition better, too, both on instrument and on paper.

As Shev says, keep the melody and chord sequence in your head, because at the end of it all, that's what the song is, and both will merge in different ways as you improvise. Again, keeping to one key might give you chance to use specific sets of notes - provided you choose songs that don't modulate much, and so stay in a key longer.

Try just changing the timing of the melody line in some, so the same notes are used - maybe swapping some notes round in given bars. It's pretty safe, and will usually work.

  • Thank you for your thoughts, and I think these are good suggestions for improvising over the song. I like the idea of changing the melody rhythmically, and the ii-V-I is certainly a sequence to have lodged in one's ears. While excellent thoughts on improvisation, I think I am looking more for tips on how to keep track of where I am as the songs moves along. I very much appreciate your consideration. – user24766 Feb 17 '16 at 11:35
  • @user24766 - generally songs will rather like poems - they can be portrayed as lines, usually 4 bars long. This means that if a song is written out in poetry style, there'll be lines of 4 bars, so a 12 bar long song will have 3 lines. The beginning of each line will be fairly obvious musically. Visualising this should help keep you on track. – Tim Feb 17 '16 at 12:26

When playing over changes, the two most important notes of the chord are the 3rd & the 7th. If your instrument doesn't require your feet, try tapping out playing the 3rd &/or 7th (any combo) when tapping your left foot on beats 1 & 3. When you practice soloing try landing on one of those chord notes on the 1st/3rd beat throughout the form. Begin by just playing any 2 notes (as long as the 1st/3rd beat is the 3rd/7th chord note.Work your way up to playing scales/chords/patterns over the changes then try playing what you hear in your head still aiming to hit those notes on the 1st/3rd beat. As a bonus, you will find yourself playing more 'sweet' notes during your solos. I have found no better or faster way to hear & learn a tune. Well thought-out practice is the price we all must pay in order to express ourselves through our horns...good luck to you.

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