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  1. #1
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    Learning jazz tunes by ear

    I want to stop learning tunes from fake books and learn them by listening to / transcribing recordings instead.

    I'm focusing on tunes that follow the very basic principles of tonal music, and are intuitive and easy to sing along to. I mostly try vocal recordings of songs by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, etc.

    My ultimate goal would be being able to play such songs by ear (not the less intuitive ones).

    I've tried to make a start but I'm failing totally. I'm looking for advice and comments on whatever helped you achieve this.

    I've tried different levels of detail when listening, from trying to identify key anchor points such as tonal centres to trying to transcribe chord by chord or even note by note. Nothing seems to work for me.

    An example of note by note would be my recent attempt on Beautiful Love using the recording sung by Anita O'Day, in the key of F minor:


    Beautiful Love, a song by Anita O'Day on Spotify
    Anita O'day - Beautiful Love - Listen on Deezer

    I started at the vocal head, transcribing the first 8 measures of the walking bass. I got this:



    (I've written it two octaves up or so as I think most of us read treble cleff more often.)

    Does any of that make sense to you?? I fail to see how that matches the New Real Book sheet, allegedly from some recording as played by Bill Evans in the key of D minor, which goes:

    Em7(b5) | A7(#5) | Dm | % (or D7) |
    Gm7 | C7 | FMaj7 | Em7(b5) A7 |

    Measure by measure:
    1) Well, it doesn't match at all, so whatever is going on there, it's not a IIm7(b5). Im6? This really puzzles me because a I and a II are very different things.
    2) That can be a V7 (with a perfect fifth instead of an altered one). The 4th quarter note is an F which would be odd.
    3) May be a Im... no third on the walking bass but it can be a Fm6.
    4) The 4th quarter note makes me think it's a I7 leading to the IVm, but the other 3 notes don't help me reinforce that idea. May be a two chord measure just like the 8th measure?
    5) I can see a IVm7 there, but I'm unsure about the 3rd quarter note there (a G).
    6) This does look to me like the bVII7 secondary dominant I was looking for. Good.
    7) And this looks like the destination bIII too. Good.
    8) I can see the II-V, but the II would exist in second inversion. No way I could ever guessed that's this II-V.

    I mean, I can see a few things, but I could never arrive to anything like those chords from that bass. To start with, how am I supposed to know whether only one chord is implied in a particular measure or it is two? How could I possibly decypher the 8th measure, for example?

    Also, as a general note, I'm bugged about all those natural D notes. I didn't think that tone would be used much besides Im6 and maybe V7.

    As for "general listening", I can distinguish a few specific things:

    • I have a sense of key. I'm mostly unable to identify a brief temporary tonal centre shift, but if a tune has a modulation, I notice the key I assumed is no longer being used and I can find the new key.
    • If I'm familiar with the changes, I often identify them (e.g. blues, minor blues, rhythm changes). Also seems to work when only part of the changes are there ("rhythm changes bridge", for example).

    But that's all.

    As for chord by chord, I have major problems with jazz that I don't have with any of the other genres I have transcribed (folk, pop, etc.):

    • The piano or guitar often gives me no useful information because chords are often incomplete / scarce and I'm not able to name them from the notes that are present.
    • If the comping comes from a strumming guitar, the voicings are often too complex (extended) for me to name the chords... so the situation is the opposite: too much in there. Also I'm a trumpet player, so I'm not familiar with common guitar voicings, etc.
    • The bass often doesn't help because I'm not able to decypher it (as above).

    I'm perfectly able to distinguish 7th chords in other music where the difficulties above are not present, so I think these problems can probably be seen as jazz language specific problems.

    Thoughts? I'm pretty frustrated!

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  3. #2
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    Right after writing this, as I was about to post it, I discovered this thread:
    How do you figure out the chords to a tune by ear?

    I've now read it throughout, and found excellent advice there. I'm still starting a new thread as my post has some specific questions, etc.

    Anyway, seems like I'm doing the right things, generally, but it's just not working. Maybe I should continue learning tunes from fake books until I know plenty and not just a handful of them, then I'll be able to recognise familiar sequences. That does work for me, as reported above ("general listening"). But is that not a snake biting its own tail?? Everyone keeps saying don't learn from the books, learn by ear, but in order to develop the skills needed to learn by ear, I need to learn from the books??

    Also, any volunteers to help me with the 8 measures discussed above? Maybe from that, I can get a little glimpse of the logic involved.

  4. #3
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    Keep failing. It gets better.

    Listen for melodies and bass lines then inner voice movement.

  5. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by alez View Post

    Thoughts? I'm pretty frustrated!
    don't have an instrument to check on hand, but listening to the recording and looking at your transcription, I'm pretty sure the first few bars are instead:
    F Ab D G / C Bb Ab G / F

    So the G on beat 4 of bar two makes a lot more sense than a repeated F, I don't hear a repeated F there.

    The melody note on the first beat of bar one is a C natural, and this works well over both Fm (which is what this band plays) as well as Gm7b5 (the fake book change).

    So jazz harmony is primarily about melody, and if a set of changes works with the melody, it's fine and accepted. Another tune where there is some ambiguity is "but not for me", where most people play the first chord as II7 (with the ninth as the melody note), but I've also heard it played I as the first chord (which makes the melody note the 3rd). both work, it's cool.

    So the first few bars are Fm - C7 - Fm, the bassist plays a D natural which is pretty common because Fm and Dm7b5 are the same sound, plus the D is an open string and us bassists are lazy.

    Bars 4-7 are a normal ii-V-I to relative major: Bb-7-Eb7-Ab. the G natural is a passing tone and totally normal to play over a Bbm7 going to Eb7 (especially since it's an open string on the bass, but, you'll hear this line in any key).

    Hope this helps! the key here is not taking the fake book as received wisdom, especially the first real book is just people transcribing tunes, and they made plenty of mistakes just like the rest of us. Plus, chord changes vary a lot between versions of tunes. One of the reasons I get cranky about fake books on this forum is that I have seen folks read changes instead of listening to what other people are playing and adjust.

    I think you're doing the right stuff, this is how I learned to hear tunes by ear, which I used to really suck at, and am now pretty good at. As you get comfortable with jazz tunes and conventions (particular what kinds of things bass players play), it'll get easier. In my foggy memory of Jamey Aebersold Jazz Harmony 101, we are all taught that G is an "avoid note" over Bbm7, but in reality bassists use it as a passing tone all the time (we also use lots of other non-harmonic tones including leading tones, etc). You'll also find that m6 tonic chords are way more common than m7 tonic chords in pre-1960s jazz.

    I think you're doing the right thing in going to the music as opposed to the books. the thing not to do is put too much faith and trust in the books; the music isn't gonna let you down, ever, but the books sometimes will.

  6. #5
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    I posted this once before on a similar thread but just in case you didn't see it here it is.

    First, make sure that your guitar is in perfect tune by using a tuning fork A-440 concert pitch.

    You might have to adjust the pitch after that a tiny bit up or down to be in tune with the recording depending on whether you are listening to a record player, cassette tape player, or DVD player.

    Then, find the bass note for each chord and then the melody note for that same chord and play them together.

    This will give you the "physical area" on your guitar neck where the chord will be played.

    Finally, see if you can fill in the rest of the notes between the bass note and the melody note taking into consideration whether the chord sounds like a major, minor, dominant 7th, or diminished chord to you.

    Hope this helps!
    Steven Herron
    Jazz Guitar Tabs - Solos, Tabs Books, Instruction DVDs + Video Lessons

  7. #6
    Your attempt to learn by ear is confounded because the path by ear is phenomenological, not verbal, symbolic, or analytical - this means becoming comfortable working with unnamed things recognized by the way they sound.

    Based on what you wrote, you may need to start your own personal jazz by ear boot camp:

    1] Put all your books and sheet music into a drawer with a note that reads, "NO!"

    2] Listen and play music without mentally extracting verbal descriptions of named things like key, interval, progression, chord type, note name, etc... playing by ear recognizes the sounds of all those things unnamed (this means transcribing a tune is not done with pencil and paper because you can't write down the unnamed, get it?)

    3] Listen to the sound of the whole big picture, not focusing on individual parts like bass lines, melody lines, chord types; you want to hear the actual sound, not construct and project what you think the sound might me from analyzing parts of it.

    4] Be patient.
    "Bent my ear to hear the tune and closed my eyes to see."

  8. #7
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    Thanks so much for the responses, they are really helpful and much appreciated.

    Quote Originally Posted by christianm77 View Post
    Keep failing. It gets better.

    Listen for melodies and bass lines then inner voice movement.
    Understood. Advice taken

    Quote Originally Posted by pcsanwald View Post
    don't have an instrument to check on hand, but listening to the recording and looking at your transcription, I'm pretty sure the first few bars are instead:
    F Ab D G / C Bb Ab G / F

    So the G on beat 4 of bar two makes a lot more sense than a repeated F, I don't hear a repeated F there.
    I too noticed that, so I spent quite a while listening using short loops of two quarter notes. But it's still pretty likely that in the end I got it wrong there.

    Quote Originally Posted by pcsanwald View Post
    The melody note on the first beat of bar one is a C natural, and this works well over both Fm (which is what this band plays) as well as Gm7b5 (the fake book change).
    The same thing happens in measure #13, long C note starting on the beginning of the measure (downbeat 1) which gives me the feeling that the chord used there can be anything. The fake book uses Fm there, I think Ab (preceded by a II-V device) works good.

    Which I'm mentioning much in line with your great comment right below that "jazz harmony is primarily about melody, and if a set of changes works with the melody, it's fine and accepted".

    Quote Originally Posted by pcsanwald View Post
    So jazz harmony is primarily about melody, and if a set of changes works with the melody, it's fine and accepted. Another tune where there is some ambiguity is "but not for me", where most people play the first chord as II7 (with the ninth as the melody note), but I've also heard it played I as the first chord (which makes the melody note the 3rd). both work, it's cool.
    Landing on the 9th seems pretty common. In Beautiful love, it's done in measure #5 too. Depending on the chord function, sometimes it works really well to land "anywhere consonant", which gives endless chord choices. Listening to the melody of this tune, I feel that this great deal of choices situation happens around measures #5 to #8 and other places too (like these measures with long C notes for example).

    Quote Originally Posted by pcsanwald View Post
    So the first few bars are Fm - C7 - Fm, the bassist plays a D natural which is pretty common because Fm and Dm7b5 are the same sound, plus the D is an open string and us bassists are lazy.

    Bars 4-7 are a normal ii-V-I to relative major: Bb-7-Eb7-Ab. the G natural is a passing tone and totally normal to play over a Bbm7 going to Eb7 (especially since it's an open string on the bass, but, you'll hear this line in any key).
    Thanks for clearing up these. It really helps.

    Quote Originally Posted by pcsanwald View Post
    Hope this helps! the key here is not taking the fake book as received wisdom, especially the first real book is just people transcribing tunes, and they made plenty of mistakes just like the rest of us. Plus, chord changes vary a lot between versions of tunes. One of the reasons I get cranky about fake books on this forum is that I have seen folks read changes instead of listening to what other people are playing and adjust.
    Well, I think my present skills are very far from being able to adjust like that, real time... I just learn the tunes, memorise them hoping that the structures learnt will be useful to know. So I don't really "read changes" real time either (I can, but I don't think it will improve my playing, therefore I don't do it).

    Quote Originally Posted by pcsanwald View Post
    I think you're doing the right stuff, this is how I learned to hear tunes by ear, which I used to really suck at, and am now pretty good at. As you get comfortable with jazz tunes and conventions (particular what kinds of things bass players play), it'll get easier. In my foggy memory of Jamey Aebersold Jazz Harmony 101, we are all taught that G is an "avoid note" over Bbm7, but in reality bassists use it as a passing tone all the time (we also use lots of other non-harmonic tones including leading tones, etc). You'll also find that m6 tonic chords are way more common than m7 tonic chords in pre-1960s jazz.
    Your words are so reassuring. The problem with frustration is that it gives a strong sense of being lost. So this is nice to read.

    I didn't really think bassists use many passing tones, having mostly 4 notes per measure (only), I thought you would concentrate on chord tones with interesting extensions here and there.

    Quote Originally Posted by pcsanwald View Post
    I think you're doing the right thing in going to the music as opposed to the books. the thing not to do is put too much faith and trust in the books; the music isn't gonna let you down, ever, but the books sometimes will.
    Understood Thanks.

    Quote Originally Posted by Steven Herron View Post
    I posted this once before on a similar thread but just in case you didn't see it here it is.
    I had read this in the other thread. I'm a trumpet player, but knowing what other people do for this does help a lot because many concepts still apply.

    Quote Originally Posted by Steven Herron View Post
    First, make sure that your guitar is in perfect tune by using a tuning fork A-440 concert pitch.

    You might have to adjust the pitch after that a tiny bit up or down to be in tune with the recording depending on whether you are listening to a record player, cassette tape player, or DVD player.
    I tune my trumpet carefully before using it with recordings and it makes a huge difference. In fact, I often make small adjustments as I keep going. Bad tuning is misleading.

    Quote Originally Posted by Steven Herron View Post
    Then, find the bass note for each chord and then the melody note for that same chord and play them together.

    This will give you the "physical area" on your guitar neck where the chord will be played.

    Finally, see if you can fill in the rest of the notes between the bass note and the melody note taking into consideration whether the chord sounds like a major, minor, dominant 7th, or diminished chord to you.

    Hope this helps!
    Steven Herron
    I can't really do this just like you described it, but I get the idea and I can do some of it analytically. In fact, I always consider the intervals between the bass and the melody and also I systematically pay attention to the perceived chord quality, etc. Good stuff, thanks.

    Quote Originally Posted by pauln View Post
    Your attempt to learn by ear is confounded because the path by ear is phenomenological, not verbal, symbolic, or analytical - this means becoming comfortable working with unnamed things recognized by the way they sound.
    I'm under that impression, yes.

    Quote Originally Posted by pauln View Post
    Based on what you wrote, you may need to start your own personal jazz by ear boot camp:

    1] Put all your books and sheet music into a drawer with a note that reads, "NO!"

    2] Listen and play music without mentally extracting verbal descriptions of named things like key, interval, progression, chord type, note name, etc... playing by ear recognizes the sounds of all those things unnamed (this means transcribing a tune is not done with pencil and paper because you can't write down the unnamed, get it?)
    I feel this is probably a very useful thing to do as a child. I'm not sure this is a realistic thing for me to try because I've spent decades trying very hard to achieve the opposite. What is your own experience with this?

    Quote Originally Posted by pauln View Post
    3] Listen to the sound of the whole big picture, not focusing on individual parts like bass lines, melody lines, chord types; you want to hear the actual sound, not construct and project what you think the sound might me from analyzing parts of it.
    This is something I do and I quite like.

    Quote Originally Posted by pauln View Post
    4] Be patient.
    I promise I will, but it's because I don't really have a choice

  9. #8
    Listen and play music without mentally extracting verbal descriptions of named things like key, interval, progression, chord type, note name, etc... playing by ear recognizes the sounds of all those things unnamed (this means transcribing a tune is not done with pencil and paper because you can't write down the unnamed, get it?)

    "I feel this is probably a very useful thing to do as a child. I'm not sure this is a realistic thing for me to try because I've spent decades trying very hard to achieve the opposite. What is your own experience with this?"

    Clarinet at 8,
    school band, reading, theory, concerts.
    Piano at 12, five years of classical lessons, theory, concerts.
    Guitar at 13, decided from day one, fifty years ago, to learn and play exclusively by ear.

    Formal knowledge of music theory only causes trouble learning to play by ear if you don't yet understand what playing by ear really means (which I think includes virtually everyone who does not already play by ear). It is not a different way of using the theory you know; it is something quite different to the degree that the theory in your mind while playing by ear is powerless and irrelevant to address
    what is phenomenological. The hardest part is discovering what "by ear" really entails; i
    f theory distracts or interferes, you aren't playing by ear yet...

    "Bent my ear to hear the tune and closed my eyes to see."

  10. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by alez View Post
    I didn't really think bassists use many passing tones, having mostly 4 notes per measure (only), I thought you would concentrate on chord tones with interesting extensions here and there.
    Bassists use passing tones constantly, as well as chromatic approach tones. I'm not going to go so far as to say we ignore extensions, but it's uncommon for a bassist to include a ninth in their line because the change says "C9". If we included a D natural in a line on a C9 chord, it would be because we are moving towards C, or moving towards E, and we would do that regardless of whether it was a C7 or C9. Jazz bass lines are all about motion between chords, and when there is a static chord, motion between chord tones.

    I'd recommend transcribing some bass lines, Ron Carter's lines on the "All Bird" Jamey Aebersold are a good place to start, because they are relatively straightforward lines, Ron is a master, and you can buy a transcription book to check your work (John Goldsby did the transcriptions and I think they are fairly accurate).

  11. #10
    the first time i ever did this was 'house of jade' from juju by wayne shorter
    it made me love wayne shorter more, and i learned more about harmony and melody than i did in school or lessons
    i find it's best to learn the melody, figure out the bass movement, then work on the 'middle parts'
    i really should do this more often, it's a pain in the ass, but so important

  12. #11
    I did this a lot when I started out, this was pre-internet and I didn’t even know you could get fakebooks, so I wrote out loads of changes to standards. Great for training the ear.

    I still do it when I want to learn a tune which isn’t in the usual books etc. E.g. I worked out ‘Chant’ by Duke Pearson and a Peter Bernstein tune called ‘Simple as That’. It’s good to keep this skill going!

  13. #12
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    Thanks for your contributions. They really help.


    Quote Originally Posted by pauln View Post
    Clarinet at 8, school band, reading, theory, concerts.
    Piano at 12, five years of classical lessons, theory, concerts.
    Guitar at 13, decided from day one, fifty years ago, to learn and play exclusively by ear.


    Formal knowledge of music theory only causes trouble learning to play by ear if you don't yet understand what playing by ear really means (which I think includes virtually everyone who does not already play by ear). It is not a different way of using the theory you know; it is something quite different to the degree that the theory in your mind while playing by ear is powerless and irrelevant to address what is phenomenological. The hardest part is discovering what "by ear" really entails; if theory distracts or interferes, you aren't playing by ear yet...

    Thanks for sharing this. I was wondering how can you escape from playing the same old lines if you don't keep incorporating new formal concepts, but I guess you can just learn anything by just listening to recordings by the masters, i.e. you can keep incorporating new sounds by learning them by ear just as well.


    Quote Originally Posted by pcsanwald View Post
    Bassists use passing tones constantly, as well as chromatic approach tones. I'm not going to go so far as to say we ignore extensions, but it's uncommon for a bassist to include a ninth in their line because the change says "C9". If we included a D natural in a line on a C9 chord, it would be because we are moving towards C, or moving towards E, and we would do that regardless of whether it was a C7 or C9. Jazz bass lines are all about motion between chords, and when there is a static chord, motion between chord tones.


    I'd recommend transcribing some bass lines, Ron Carter's lines on the "All Bird" Jamey Aebersold are a good place to start, because they are relatively straightforward lines, Ron is a master, and you can buy a transcription book to check your work (John Goldsby did the transcriptions and I think they are fairly accurate).

    Understood, so interesting. Thanks.


    Quote Originally Posted by patshep View Post
    the first time i ever did this was 'house of jade' from juju by wayne shorter
    it made me love wayne shorter more, and i learned more about harmony and melody than i did in school or lessons
    i find it's best to learn the melody, figure out the bass movement, then work on the 'middle parts'
    i really should do this more often, it's a pain in the ass, but so important

    Quote Originally Posted by grahambop View Post
    I did this a lot when I started out, this was pre-internet and I didn’t even know you could get fakebooks, so I wrote out loads of changes to standards. Great for training the ear.


    I still do it when I want to learn a tune which isn’t in the usual books etc. E.g. I worked out ‘Chant’ by Duke Pearson and a Peter Bernstein tune called ‘Simple as That’. It’s good to keep this skill going!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, it's helpful to read them

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