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When performing an improvised solo, it's desirable not to keep our minds busy with all the theoretical stuff we study. One of the ultimate goals is to make the hands go where they are supposed to go with least amount of effort. However, I believe there's one thing that must somehow be in our conscious mind all the time: the chords. Take for example the beginning of All the things you are. There are several ways one could memorize the sequence of chords.

  1. | Fm7 | B♭m7 | E♭7 | A♭7M | D♭7M | G7 | C7M

Here, the musician has the name of the chords in mind (he is not literally thinking: "I'm on Bbm7 and I'll soon be playing over Eb7", but there's a feeling of the chord name, maybe even the image of the symbol. The important thing is that each chord is a new entity, with a new name.) This is the first thing someone would try to do.

  1. | Fm7 | ii -> V -> I (A♭7M) | D♭7 | V -> I (C7M)

Another option is to add some harmonic analysis and treat some blocks of chords as one single entity. Here, the mind can be a little bit more free, because it focus mostly on target chords. After Fm7, the person would think "I'll go to the ii of the target chord A♭7M", then "I'll play over the V of A♭7M and then the target chord comes". It's different from disconnected names of chords, although disconnected names of chords are easier to see on the instrument.

  1. | i | iv | ♭VII | ♭III | ♭VI || V -> I

Another option would be to imagine not the names but the degrees of every chord. This is useful for transposition, but it imposes an extra step to the musician: the degree must become a chord. For example "iv" must become "B♭m7", either theoretically (the person knows the 4th of F) or with some kind of shapes (on the fretboard/keyboard).

  1. | i | ii -> V -> "I" (♭III) | ♭VI || V -> I

A mixture of the last two options. The musician has the relative degrees in mind and also blocks of patterns.

  1. The whole progression is made of descending 5ths.

Although this summarizes a lot of the information, the musician still must: transform the information into chords (shapes of descending fifths on the fretboard/keyboard); know the type of each chord; be aware of the ♭5.

  1. The ear can anticipate the sound of the next chord.

This is really hard, but certainly there are people with this skill.

The chord notes can be considered as one of the most importante building blocks of a solo. A nice musical use of arpeggios, scales, approach notes, motives, etc... depends on being able to effortlessly visualize chord notes on the instrument. The visualization of chord notes depends on the visualization of the chord progression. Thus, in this kind of mindset, the internalization of the progression would be one of the main tasks of the jazz musician. In this sense, I see similarites between piano and guitar (the chord notes can be visualized all at once and the scales can be seen as existing "on top" of them). My instrument is the guitar, but answers from pianists and other jazz musicians can also be valuable, of course.

Sorry for my digression, but it gives some context. My question deals mainly with the memorization process. How do you approach the problem of efficiently stick a sequence of chords of a jazz standard in the brain (so that it can be used in real time as a foundation for other structures)? Are there some tricks/methods?

[Ps: There are some related questions, but it seems they are usually concerned with the memorization of chords on the instrument and not the memorization of the abstract concept of chords which will be used for improvisation]

  • See also: music.stackexchange.com/questions/15201/… – Todd Wilcox Feb 25 '17 at 22:08
  • Todd has it absolutely right. I fall in the 6 camp for most things, as my grasp of theory is not complete enough. I learn a song and I feel where the chords go next. – Doktor Mayhem Feb 25 '17 at 22:17
  • It has been my experience that most non-classical musicians do not think in terms of Roman Numeral analysis, but rather simply in terms of the names of the chords. In fact I have met a LOT of non-classical musicians who don't even KNOW about Roman Numeral analysis. I think as Todd's answer below says, the key to memorization is repetition, and I don't think the way one conceptualizes a sequence is important to the effort. – L3B Feb 26 '17 at 3:46
  • Knowing the cycle of fourths helps a lot - so many pieces of popular music contain at least 3 or 4 consecutive II-V-I parts. Ear training is also very helpful. – Tim Feb 26 '17 at 8:59
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    Nice question & examples! +1. @AllanFelipe, the A section of All The Things You Are is typically analyzed as: vi-ii-V-I-IV(♯11) in A♭ then V-I in C. @L3B, every time we conceptualize the information or link it to other knowledge, we create another synaptic pathway in our brain that leads to the chord progression. The more synaptic pathways there are, the easier it is to retrieve the information from our memory. I'm a jazz musician, & I think about a song in terms of Roman Numeral analysis as often as I think about actuals chords. This isn't too uncommon in jazz given the need to transpose. – jdjazz Dec 20 '17 at 19:43
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Repetition is a time-honored way to memorize anything, and its effectiveness is supported by both anecdote and cognitive search. Likewise with mnemonic devices. Finally, as you note with your "harmonic analysis" aspect, using non-memorized facts to slowly synthesize new understanding aids with memorization of those facts.

Generally, no one strategy alone will work as well as a combination of strategies, although repetition is the king and if only one strategy were to be used, that should be the one.


I want to add an aside that as one memorizes through any of the above or other processes, something called (by cognitive scientists) chunking occurs, where individual basic facts are connected with other basic facts to form larger structures that are then recalled from memory in chunks.

Conclusions drawn from those facts and creative re-use and re-arrangement of facts can all be chunked together with the facts themselves, and basic facts can be chunked more than once with multiple sets of facts and other knowledge. As chunking takes off, the synthesis of new understanding accelerates. All this is to explain my use of the word "slowly" above.

The synthesis of new understanding is slowest when the memorization process has just begun, but as the brain begins to retain the basic elements and form chunks, synthesis becomes easier and memorization and chunking accelerate. Eventually we experience the sense of "muscle memory" as well as being able to improvise and create variations and transpose and play more effectively with basic elements like keys, scales, chord shapes, and common chord progressions, what we might collectively call "intuition".

Further reading:

Why Don't Students Like School?

The title is meant to sell the book, so don't get hung up on that. It's a well written, accessible digestion of research into how human minds learn.

Wikipedia page - "Procedural Memory"

This section suggests practicing/memorizing right before a full night of quality sleep can help speed the learning process.

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    Before reading your answer, I was writing a short comment referencing Willingham and chunking!! Great answer. The more information we try to cram into a single "chunk," the more likely we are break up the information into smaller groups that can be successfully recollected together at once. When we do a harmonic analysis, we connect the chord progression to other information in our brain, and in so doing, we construct more synaptic pathways leading to the memory of the chord progression. More pathways leading to the information → the information is easier to retrieve from memory. – jdjazz Dec 20 '17 at 19:38
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Just stumbled onto this question, after 3+yrs, and surprised there's only the one answer, which, being from Todd, is good.

Firstly, I feel there is a potential problem with learning a song. As in committing that particular song to a particular set of chords, inevitably in a particular key. Reasoning is that by then, it's often so entrenched that the only way it's going t get played by an individual in that state is in that key. Yes, they've learned it, but it can become like a child barking at print - not truly reading what's there. It's a way lots of folk learn lots of songs. It works, but unfortunately, it doesn't really transfer to the next song, or the next one after.

Instead, there's the alternative of understanding what's going on - what chord is leading to what next. But not as actual chords in a key. More like the theoretical ii>V>I, or the NNS 2>5>1. And using that knowledge to move from chord to chord. I tend to map out chord sequences in this way, knowing how often the ii>V>I pattern works in so many songs. Working through the circle of fourths. So that, wherever we are in a song, I have a good idea what may well be next, regardless of key.

Of course, there are songs which just do not follow those sort of patterns! Check out 'Have You Met Miss Jones' middle 8! With something like that, there are snippets of V>I, it's just that the joints between them are skewed. So, again, a mental map, which flags up 'diversions' becomes necessary. It's like 'here, there's a temporary change of key, which then changes in a couple of bars', but, there's still that same V>I going on, just need to remember how far the chromatic changes jump.

So, two distinct, different ways to 'learn' the changes in a song. I guess the more songs we play (not necessarily learn), the more we see that certain patterns keep recurring - albeit in different keys. And, maybe, that's part of it. Knowing that E>Am is the same as F♯>Bm is the same as G>Cm. Once we know what relationship a chord has to its potentially many following chords, learning a sequence becomes far easier. It's also a good idea to go busking with others, and having to play songs you don't know. That same skill set comes straight into play - literally.

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A very subjective topic as I'm sure that different people will favour different levels of "indirect addressing" so to say.

Really nice summary of the different options.

To me, you don't know a song until you have successfully dissociated it from the key you normally play it in.

Let me provide context. Say a particular jazz standard is typically called in B♭ in jam sessions. It's only sensible that you will learn the tune head and chords in B♭. Now, in no way I want to imply that you don't know the tune unless you can play the changes in all 12 keys just fine.

But a very important purpose of learning a tune is being able to recognise its harmonic devices and features later down the line, hence my statement. Of course another very important purpose is being able to get on stage and perform it, but if you're in a process of learning, that's can't be the sole purpose.

How many further levels you introduce is not as important to me. With regards to that, I guess it's always best to look at different things (like chords, for example, or tones) from as may different perspectives as possible, being aware of the different contexts involved (chord, tonal centre, key...) So level 0 is that tone D is just a given pitch with a fingering associated to it, level 1 is that tone D is the third of a Bm7 minor chord, but then... that chord is a subdominant that takes you to a Am dorian tonal centre by way of a major II-V, that's probably part of a turnaround that takes you to G which is the key, so the Bm7 chord is both a IIIm (key) and a IIm (tonal centre); tone D is the 5th degree of the (key) parent scale, 4th degree of the tonal centre parent scale (some A minor)... the more of this you know BY EAR (and vision), the better off you are during a performance.

As for my personal experience with this, over the years I have focused on different levels of such indirect addressing, learning tunes and practicing drills in ways that would emphasize the particular context (chord, tonal centre, key) I'm interested in.

Right now I'm kind of key centered... so for example, I visualize some "B" section in a jazz standard as "Vm-I7-IV" instead of just a II-V. The aural hint I get from the tone ♭7 of the key as the chords take me to IV is strong, so I want to ingrain it. Etc. Also it helps me a lot to get back to I without much thinking, as the IV is probably followed by a IVm or ♭VII7... all of it easy to link together visually and aurally... once you survive to putting all this tones in your head in all those contexts... not a small challenge, it takes many years of focused work.

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