However, now the Real Book becomes a crutch. I'm carrying three books to every jam session, or lately -- just opening up my iPad app and reading along. It's time to really learn how to commit tunes to memory. I've heard lore of jam sessions where they don't even let you on the bandstand if you try and bring up the sheet music.
There are two basic methods I've received on how to memorize tunes
1) Learn a chord melody for the head -- or at least play the root of each bar with the notes in that bar to associate each passage. Identify what interval the first note in the measure is in relation to that chord's root.
2) Break the tune down into the formula and transpose it to several different keys.
The first idea is a little advanced, and also requires the guitar in your hand. The second method is something you can do on the bus, in a waiting room, on a coffee break, etc. Get a note book or fold used pieces of printed paper in half like a book and have a copy of the circle of fifths/fouths diagram handy.
Here is what I've been doing to memorize tunes on paper:
1) Break down the tune
- What is the structure? A-A-B-A? Make sure you can lay down all the empty bar marks first
- Figure out the key of the song and mark any place where it modulates to another key, like in a bridge.
- Take each chord and give it a relative roman numeral formula name. The roman numeral is the interval. Uppercase indicates a Major (I or IV) or a dominant (V7). Lowercase is minor (ii, iii, vi).
- Find all the ii-V's and iii-VI-ii-V's. How do you spot them? Look at your circle. You should be committing the the progression of fourths -- the circle going clockwise -- to memory. Any time you see chords matching the counter-clockwise sequence, you probably have a ii-V-I, ii-V or iii-VI-ii-V.
- Most modulations in standards go in fourths as well. If the new key center is one clockwise from the root, it is the IV chord (or a iv if it is minor).
- If your circle diagram has the major triads and relative minor, you can also suss out the iii chord and the vi chords in the progression. Sometimes these are not minor, but dominants, so write them as III7 or VI7 if that is the case.
- Sometimes there is a ii-V that is not resolving to the root. If it is resolving to the IV, you write ii/IV (two of four) and V/IV (five of four). If it is resolving to the III7, write ii/III, V/III. If it is resolving to the V, it might actually be a iii/VI/ii/V (three-six-two-five), which is easier shorthand to remember.
- If you get stuck creating the formula or are unsure how to notate a bar, consult the internet or a good music teacher.
2) Once you have the tune broken down into a formula, write just the formula of all the bars on a new blank sheet.
3) Now just have your formula visible for reference and recreate the chords on another blank sheet. Check your work with the original sheet music when you are done.
4) Now hide your formula and recreate the formula from the sheet of chords you just wrote in step 3 on a new sheet. Check your work against you original formula.
5) Repeat going back and forth between the roman numerals and the chords. You need to learn both. Check your work each time.
6) Once you are getting confident going back and forth like this, take the formula and write the chords in a new key, based on the formula values. Take out your circle diagram if you need help at the beginning. Try with a key a fair distance apart, especially one you don't play in often. You can check your transposition in software like iReal, which allows you transpose any song you have instantly. If your transposition is not coming out right, consult your music teacher.
7) At this point you should be able to hide all references and tranpose the song to any key. Don't worry how fast it takes you to transpose at first. Just make sure you are getting the right chords and saying the formula in your head as you write each chord.
8) Transpose the song back into the original key. Put all you notes away, pull out your instrument and see if you can play it without looking.
9) You should have a reasonable grasp on the song right now, but you have to come back to it tomorrow and the day after that, etc. Keep writing out the changes in the original key, formula and one other transposition each day from scratch. If you can do that from scratch for 10 days you should be getting comfortable with the progression. Try adding a song a day or every few days as your schedule allows.
Once you are getting the chords memorized, definitely try learning a chord melody or at least playing the roots along with the head.
When you pick up your guitar, make sure you are not saying the note names of the chord (like Eb7) in you head -- make sure you are saying 'iii' and 'VI' and 'ii' and 'V' and 'III dominant' and 'five flat-nine' and 'one six' and 'two of four', etc., as you search for each chord with your fingers. See the root of each chords as an intervals from the root (or modulated root) of the song's key.
These are the things you'll gain by memorizing the tune in this manner:
- You'll reinforce your understanding the functions of each chord.
- You'll start seeing and thinking about groups of bars to deal with (e.g., iii-VI-ii-V, major to minor, ii-V to the four chord) instead of trying to come up with something for each bar. There will eventually be a transformation where you are not just concentrating on every bar, but will be able to create longer lines over multi-bar passages. Your phrases will start speaking to the functions that the chords are outlining, with their tensions and releases. You'll start to appreciate the whole 'conversation' the progression of the song is making.
- You'll know where key modulations hit in a tune, allowing you to anticipate and flow into them more confidently.
- You'll start to see these progressions repeated and mutated in other standards, allowing you to break down and pick up on new songs quicker.
- You'll realize other tunes are contrafacts -- the same progression with a new head -- and you just need to learn the new head.
- You'll reinforce your knowledge of diatonic and subdominant note names in every key.
- You'll start getting facile with transposing.
- Most important -- you'll have tunes memorized! You don't have to fumble through the real book or application on the bandstand.