How I Learn Tunes


I grew up a classical player. Although I played paying jazz gigs beginning in 8th grade, I still thought I was going to be a classical musician pretty much until I dropped out of college half way through my third year. I always took jazz band, did big band gigs, took all the improv and jazz theory classes in college… but it took me a long to time to figure out how to be a jazz musician. For many years I feared not having the music. I struggled learning tunes and remembering them. I panicked on stage.

But jazz was in my soul and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t walk away. And I couldn’t just have it be a passing fancy. I wanted to be a jazz musician and once I figured that out, it was time to get to work. I’ve been working at it ever since.

I was recently talking to a friend who is taking lessons with a local monster player. He was complaining that he wanted to get to learning tunes. That conversation inspired me to write this blog post and share how I learned to learn tunes.

Now, I have to start with the caveat that “everyone learns differently”, but I feel obligated to add that you need to be careful about saying something doesn’t work until you have really tried it. Many of the best approaches I use now were ones that I dismissed previously, because it was hard for me, didn’t come easily, or I thought was a waste of time. That was a mistake. You have to give an idea room to work, and rarely does something worth anything come easily. Remember that there aren’t any “short cuts” – you’ll waste more time looking for the easy way than you would have spent just doing it, struggling through, and coming out the other side. Just be honest with yourself about what works and what doesn’t. Really look at something and ask yourself “does this really not work or is it just hard?” If it’s hard, keep at it, you’ll eventually break through.


Picking a tune to learn can be a challenge, especially if you’re just starting. There are tunes that you need to know and there are tunes you want to know. You have to find a balance between those two lists.

  • How to do find the tunes you WANT to learn? – Listen! It’s the tunes that stay with you, that evoke an emotional reaction, that you hum or that you find yourself drawn to. You like them because you like them. This is a personal decision.
  • How do you find the ones you NEED to learn? There’s a couple of ways. The best way is to do a little research. Go to jam sessions and take notes of what tunes get called. (This varies greatly by region.) That will give you a great place to start. For more tunes choices, keep track of any standard tunes that get performed at jazz gigs around town. Ask local jazz musicians and teachers what tunes you should learn. Most will be more than happy to help.
  • Another thing that I love doing is to find a jam buddy and each of you pick a tune to learn. Often friends will pick a tune that you never would have thought of, or a tune that you make not like. Learn it anyway. You’ll be glad you did and you’ll have someone to play the tunes with.

If you would like my help, drop me an e-mail. I’d be happy to recommend some tunes for you.


1) The very first thing I do is LISTEN, listen, listen. Then listen some more. I listen until I can hear the melody in my head. I listen until I can sing the root movement of the chords. I memorize the lyrics, if the tune has them. I listen to every version of the tune I can find in my own collection, and on Spotify and YouTube and then I pick out 5 of my favorite versions. Then I listen to them incessantly. I listen and sing along to the playalong tracks using iRealb, Aebersold, or Hal Leonard. I listen as much as possible, including as background music while working. It really helps me learn and internalize the tune so much quicker.

2) The second thing I do is memorize the melody and roots of the chords. If it’s a simple melody that I can easily sing, I will do this by ear. But I use the lead sheet if I need to. No ego there, it’s a tool. But I get rid of the lead sheet as soon as possible and then practice without it as much as possible. If it’s a tune I’m relearning (I knew, but forgot) then I only use the lead sheet if I’m absolutely stuck.

I practice VERY slowly and in small chunks, usually one phrase at a time. If it’s a harder melody I will just do 3 or 4 notes at a time. Most importantly, I think about what the next note is going to sound like before I play it and really internalize the melody and root movement in my ear. As a saxophone player (any woodwind) it’s really easy to just press buttons and the sounds come out. But if all you do is memorize what your fingers are doing, you’re not really learning the tune. I find when I slow down, listen and concentrate, and really focus on the sound, I learn it faster, remember it easier and find it much easier to transpose into other keys. (Something you have to do even if you just play flute, alto, and tenor). I try to do as much of it as possible without the sheet music. (That’s easier with the melody then the chords). If I do use the music, I try to get rid of it as soon as possible. Then I only use it if I get stuck and then put it away. (The first tune I really learned took me like 3 months. Now, I can learn a standard tune well enough to make it through in about 3 days. Progress!)

3) Once I have the melody down I play it as much as possible. I do this in a variety of ways. I’ll warm-up with the melody really slow or I’ll pick up a horn randomly while reading Facebook or Twitter and see if I can play it cold. I play it over and over during a practice session. I play it in time and out of time. I play it acapella and with iRealb at a variety of tempos. I play with it. I make it so that if all else fails when I’m improvising, I always have the melody to fall back on. Playing it with the favorite versions I picked while listening is also really good.

4) Now it’s time to tackle the chord qualities. This is probably the most tedious of the whole process, but it’s really important. Now, this is assuming that you know all your chord qualities and you can build the 13579 on any chord. If not, that’s something to work on. (I have a killer warm-up routine that reinforces all of that, which I would be happy to share.) But you can still do this process – just learn the arpeggios to the chords in the tune you’re learning. It’s a start, and you have to start somewhere, right?

I generally do the following, slowly at first:

  • Memorize the roots in time. Then I improvise using just the roots.
  • Work on 13, 135 and 1357 for all chords.
  • Work on 3’s and 7’s and exploring how they move between the chords. Then I improvise using just the 3rd and 7ths.
  • Play the Stay or Go game. This is where I start on any pitch and then when the chord changes I have to decide if I want to stay on the pitch I’m on, or move either by half step or whole step. Usually I pick a direction ahead of time at first so it’s Stay or Go Up, or Stay and Go Down. Then I’ll do whatever I want.
  • I play the 1357 of each chord in random order. I have a lot of fun with this one, personally. it’s more challenging then it looks, so I usually start pretty slow. See example below.
  • Analyze the chord functions so the tune will be easier to transpose into different keys.

5) Compose a Solo – this is one of those great practice techniques that can be done anywhere. Head to Starbucks, grab a coffee, and start writing. Many of my students are resistant to this step of the process because they are afraid that won’t write anything good. But really, who cares? It’s not about writing the coolest, hippest most killer solo, it’s just a way to hang out with the chords and get to know them. No pressure.

I usually do a couple of different versions, around 3-4 choruses of each depending on the length of the tune.

  • All 8th notes
  • Rhythmic focus
  • Combination – try and compose a solo that someone might actually play, but again don’t worry about it being the hippest thing you have ever heard.
  • Play the solo. Change anything you really hate. Work on anything that’s challenging. Remember that you improvised this, you just did it slowly. It’s a part of you expressed, so if you find something you really like, embrace it.

6) Improvise and Steal Ideas
Now it’s time for that hard work to pay off (and to learn there’s still so much more to work on.) This is the fun part – getting to improvise. I do this as much as possible. Same tricks I used with the melody I use while improvising. I also like to alternate between the melody and a chorus of improv, or randomly quoting the melody while soloing to make sure I know where I am. The app iRealb is really helpful because you can practice lots of tempos, feels, and even loop difficult sections.

Transcribe a solo or part of a solo that you like. Remember all that listening you did? (Hopefully are still doing.) Figure out what they are doing. Since you have learned the melody and changes, it will make it much easier to figure out.

Now you’re ready to take the tune to a jam session. This is the best test – live performance.


There’s nothing more frustrating then getting rusty and eventually forgetting a tune that you’ve spent time learning. I see it with students all the time. (Not just with tunes, but with scales and technique as well). My biggest piece of advice is to review. I set aside one day a week of my practicing and dedicate it to reviewing the tunes I’ve learned. I find I can easily run through the melody and a chorus and get it back into my brain. The more you perform a tune the more likely it will be to stay with you. So get to those jam sessions!


As you learn more and more tunes it’s important to keep track of the ones you know. (In addition to the tunes you need to learn and the ones you want to learn.) I personally keep all my lists in my iPad as playlists in the iRealb app. I also have a playlist of tunes I know on Flute, Tenor/Soprano, and Alto/Bari. It makes it easy to review or to reference if I find myself unable to think of a tune to play at a jam session or when I’m sitting in with friends.

Here’s a few lists for you to check out: – This is a list of the tunes that I heard played by the faculty at the Aebersold Camp in 2010. I figured they chose these tunes for a reason so it’s a list I like to draw from when I’m not sure what tune to do next.

4 thoughts on “How I Learn Tunes

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  3. Hi Moni. I’m interested in knowing what stylus and app you are using in the picture at the top of the page? I curently use “sketchworthy” along with a bamboo stylus. It’s kind of so-so. What do you use for quick notating on the ipad?

    • Hi Simon!
      I use a note taking app called Noteshelf – – which I like a lot because I can upload my own papers. The staff paper that you see came with it. The stylus pictures if just a cheap PenGo brand. It died and now I’m using a inexpensive Griffin. Works great for quick notes and keeping a practice journal. 🙂

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