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Analyzing Tunes

by Tim Price

The goal of our studies in all these areas is the ability to improvise appropriately and with expressive melodies on all kinds of tunes, be they standards, pop songs, jazz vehicles, rock & roll tunes, or originals. An easy way to develop this facility is to study the tunes you want to play directly. Listen to them on CD's, get them in your head by repeated listenings. Through that kind of analysis and saturation, you will understand and use all the theoretical concepts that have been brought to your attention.


Start with a fake book you have. Pick a few tunes, let's say three. Memorize them.

Next, a great way to insure complete mastery is to transpose them to different keys from memory. If you're an alto player, transpose them to the tenor key. If you're a tenor player, transpose them to the alto key. As you work on tunes, notice their structure and form. Do not simply play from chord to chord. Learn to think and hear the harmonic movement. Listen for two bar sections, four bar sections, eight bar sections, on through sixteen bar sections. By doing this, you'll be building your repertoire of standards of tunes that are commonly performed and tunes that you like that you can play. You can play gigs by knowing a lot of tunes. You can also lose gigs if other musicians discover your weakness.


Work on understanding the harmonic movement and observe the melody the composer uses. As you repeatedly use the skills of analyzing something, you can grasp the nature of a new tune at sight. Knowing these structures can help immediately in your musicianship. You want to be thinking about form, the key, the chord function, what chord scales you will be using, and most importantly, learning the phrasing and musical punctuation of the melody. Is the tune AABA or ABAC or some other nonstandard form? A Cole Porter tune or a Gershwin tune most likely is going to be AABA. A Marcus Miller or Keith Jarrett tune might have a different form. Look at your key signature!!

Look at the last four measures of the tune. Look for the common harmonic patterns. Double-check and make sure there's no modulations. Then determine the functions of the chords. How do they move? Look for the substitutions if there are any. Look for the II, V, I's, and then determine what chord scales, blues scales, and pentatonics you are going to be using. Be very careful of tensions and tunes with modality.

Last but not least

Know the melody inside out. Listen for the phrasing that you want to use to put your personal stamp on this melody. Observe the bridge and how things develop throughout the tune. Now, start improvising by paraphrasing the melody. Gradually begin using your guide tone lines, chord changes in arpeggiated fashion, and various scales, licks, and lines that you have under your fingers. Develop some style of your own on the tune, and most of all, be creative. This is supposed to be fun!
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