How To Learn Jazz Songs The Right Way

Today we’re going to talk about one of the biggest mistakes that beginner jazz piano players make when they learn jazz standards.

By the end of this short lesson you’ll know how to learn jazz songs on a much deeper level.

Let’s get started learning (video, notation, and tips below).

The Fake Book Dilemma

If you’ve recently sat down to learn a jazz standard you’ve most likely used a fakebook.

Fakebooks can be a useful tool in certain ways.

But, if you’re using a fake book as your ONLY tool for learning a tune you’re making a classic beginner mistake.

The problem is that most fake books are missing an incredible amount of information.

You’ll rarely see all the hip voicings, chord changes, reharms, and rhythms that you’ll hear pro level jazz musicians playing.

The stylistic stuff that actually makes a tune sound interesting just isn’t written in there!

Ugh. Who wants to play a boring version of a tune? Not I said the fly. 🙂

  • So, how can you start filling in the gaps that fake books leave?
  • How can you actually start playing jazz tunes the way they’re really meant to be played?
  • How can you really unlock some of the incredible sounds you hear your favorite musicians play?

There is a solution…

Hearing Changes Everything

Jazz is ultimately an aural art form. Most of the jazz style is learned by listening to other great musicians and also watching what they do.

Since fake books really only tell a tiny portion of the story you want to make sure you’re not turning to them as your first step for learning.

autumn leaves piano tutorialYour real first step should be listening to a great example recording of a tune and studying what you hear.

Now, I’m not talking about having music on in the background while you do dishes or read the news on the internet.

No, I’m talking about a special type of listening.

The unique type of listening that pros do when they learn from recordings. 

Whether it be through listening to classic recordings, watching my jazz piano tutorials, or studying with a teacher, you’ve got to get your ears involved in the process right from the beginning.

So much of the true richness of the jazz style will not be found in your fake book!

If you’re not confident in your ear yet. Don’t worry. I’m going to help you through the process of learning through your ear right now.

An Example Video Using Autumn Leaves

So, to help you understand this process of learning through listening lets look at an example chord chart and then a video demo.

Below I’ve included a typical bland and boring chart for the jazz tune “Autumn Leaves”. This is how it’s notated in the vast majority of fake books.

Check out how:

  • The melody is written with every note on the downbeat (no swing and groove).
  • The chords don’t have any sophistication written in there (no 9’s, 11’s, 13ths, etc).
  • There aren’t any comping rhythms written in.
  • There aren’t any arrangement tips.
  • No cool voicings suggestions in there either. Just basic chord symbols.

All you have is just a plain and vanilla reduction of the tune. 

Then, compare it to the video below. (Feel free to grab some of the chords I teach in the tutorial too!)

autumn leaves chord chart jazz piano

Now, this time watch this video of me playing an arrangement of Autumn Leaves. 

(This video is a small excerpt from my Premium Jazz Lessons Membership Course.)

Notice how just by simply exercising your listening skill you start hearing all kinds of new possibilities on Autumn Leaves that you didn’t really hear before by just staring at the sheet.

  • Can you hear what happened when I added syncopation to the melody? The swing feel increased significantly.
  • None of that rhythmic stuff is in the fake book.
  • Can you hear how adding 9’s, 11, 13ths, and other alterations made the chords sweeter and richer sounding? 
  • Unfortunately, none of that is written in the fakebook.
  • Can you hear how adding reharms and additional chord changes in there gave the tune more of a fuller sound?
  • Sadly, none of that is in the fakebook either.

All you did was watch a video 1x and the black and white ink on the fakebook chart came to life. 🙂

Just imagine what would happen if you took this listening/watching approach for now on all your tunes.

How much time would it save you? How much cooler would your arrangements of tunes sound?

14 Things To Listen For

So, how do you learn by listening to recordings or by watching videos? How can you extract important details you can add into your own playing?

Here’s a basic list of things I’m listening for when I check out a recording of a tune. 1. How does the artist phrase the melody?

2. Are they adding a lot of syncopation?

3. Are they changing the rhythm of the melody?

4. Do they play the melody legato, staccato, laid back, aggressive?

5. Do they decorate the melody? If so, how (chromatic notes, change certain pitches, grace notes etc.)

6. Are there any cool chord substitutions they’re using?

7. What piano voicings are they playing?

8. Are they staying true to the original chord changes?

9. Are they adding any extensions to their chords?

10. Are they playing small chord voicings or large chord voicings?

11. How is the piano player or guitar player comping behind the melody?

12. What kind of rhythmic feel are they using on the A section?

13. Do they change the rhythmic feel on the B section?

14. What range on their instrument are they playing the melody?

Most importantly, how does the performance differ from the fakebook?

When you can start answering these questions you can start unraveling the ‘mystery’ of what makes a beautiful jazz performance. 

You can then take those discoveries and add them into your own playing!

Your Next Steps Going Forward

Learning jazz piano through listening is a skill just like everything else. You can absolutely make a huge impact on your playing if you listen the right way though.

As a fun assignment I highly recommend you take a new tune and find an audio recording or  video recording you really enjoy. Take the list from above and really get into the recording.

Listen to the tune several times and take some notes on what you hear using the list as your guide.

Then, go ahead and sit down at the piano and try out some of the discoveries you make. I highly encourage you to copy the “listening list” from above and print it out. 

Always remember the more you put into this great art form the more it will give you in return. Enjoy your practice!

If you have any questions or have some more ideas you’d like to add to the listening list please feel free to leave a comment below. It’s always nice to hear from you!



P.S. If you need more help learning tunes and chords I encourage you to check out the over 16 hours of videos in my Premium Jazz Membership Course.

 photo above courtesy of fever blue on flickr