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How To Memorize a Jazz Standard

Many of my jazz guitar students ask me how to learn jazz. Most will say it all seems overwhelming and that there's a lot to learn. Still, most of the time my answer is the same. My advice is to learn a jazz standard. It seems obvious but there are many benefits including a deeper understanding of melody and chord progression.

After knowing this, sometimes we may still have a hard time learning the song. I too have stuggled to memorize songs and over many years of trying, asking and learning from different mentors - here are some of the key elements that helped me. 

Here are 4 steps to memorize a jazz standard:

1. Study the song form

Songs use repetition to create familiarity and variation to create interest. In jazz, typical songforms are AABA, ABAC, ABCD and sometimes ABA. Most jazz standards are 32-bar forms or in the case of blues, typically 12-bar forms.

Write the song form and details such as:

  • an analysis of the chords and key areas  
  • when a particular riff or melodic phrase appears and reappears

PRO-TIP: Create multiple copies of the lead sheet of a song you’re working on and analyze the form in different ways. There might be more than one way of looking at it!

2. Study the harmony

  • Does the song stay in one key? Does it moves through many keys?
  • Is it in a major key or minor key or both? Is it modal?
  • Is it pretty static or does it change chords every two beats?
  • What is similar between two chords that seem so different?

By thinking about the harmony and figuring ways to voice-lead and connect chords - the song will be more a part of you.

PRO-TIP: Memorize the chord progression in phrases, usually 2 or 4-bars at a time. Then, connect these fragments into longer sections of 8-bars and then 16-bars until you've memorized the chords for entire piece.

3. Study the melody

Same thing like the way we looked at the harmony. In fact, we should probably study the melody and memorize it first before looking at the harmony!

Study how the phrases are constructed:

  • Are they long? Are they short?
  • Do they have a call and response type of idea?
  • Are the phrases balanced or not?

PRO-TIP: Here's something I learned from master jazz educator Hal Crook: memorize the pitches of the melody first so you can understand the contour of the melody. Then, work on the rhythm. After that, try it the other way around, i.e. learn the rhythm first and the pitches second.

4. Study the rhythms

  • Are there repeating rhythmic ideas?
  • Is is very heavy on the downbeat?
  • Is there a lot of syncopation?
  • Where are these syncopations?

PRO-TIP: Some songs are driven more by the rhythm and groove. When this is the case, learn the groove first and be one with it. This will make everything else come together easier.

Hope these steps help you in your journey learning jazz. Remember to have fun and enjoy the process!

I’ll be starting a new series of free online guitar tips for jazz, beginner & fingerstyle guitarists this year. It’s 2013 and it’s the year of epic guitar.

Stay tuned! =)

Related Posts: 
[BLOG POST] 7 Things For Jazz Guitarists To Practice 
[BLOG POST] The B.O.P. of Learning
[VIDEO LESSON] How Do I Understand Modes?


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