You show up at a jam session and Autumn Leaves, All the Things You Are, and Bye Bye Blackbird are called in their standard keys. You know the melody for each of those tunes and make your way pretty well through your soloing. Looking back, however, how well did you know those tunes?
For most of us, it's pretty easy to rely on muscle memory to play through tunes in the key we've memorized and have gotten used to playing. A piano player has a feel for where her fingers fit on the piano keys to play through a tune, or a trombonist feels where his arm goes. We've built up those habits over many years to the point of being able to feel these tunes in our sleep.
But is that knowing a tune? What does it mean to truly know the melody of a tune?
Well, to know a tune's melody is to hear the tune so well that your inner musician will guide your fingers or arm no matter on what note you start. Another test of knowing a tune is to be able to sing it. Now, that doesn't mean quickly mumbling your way through an approximation of the melody, but to accurately sing the pitches. It means being able to sing the first note of the bridge. Try singing Over the Rainbow. Can you sing the pickup and first note of the bridge?
If I cannot sing the melody of a tune, I don't truly know the tune. Singing doesn't mean sounding like Sinatra or Michael Bublé. Nothing technically complicated, it just means that I get close to the pitch on each note.
Here's a fun exercise for confirming how well you know a tune. I've created rhythm tracks for five well-known standards, and your job is to play the melody for each. The catch is that they are not in standard keys.
I won't tell you which key because I don't want you to even think in those terms. I don't want you to analyze your way through the melody thinking about the implications of four flats or five sharps. I want you to hear your way through the melody. So, for each tune, the track starts out with a synthesizer tone playing the first phrase or beginning of a phrase of the melody. You have a couple of seconds to find those notes on your instrument, then with a count off, the rhythm starts.
Try it with Bye Bye Blackbird:
How difficult was that for you? Were you able to find the starting notes from the synthesizer phrase? Did you make it through the A and A1 sections but had trouble finding the first note of the bridge?
This exercise helps you identify how well you know a song and also what specific parts of it you may not be hearing as well.
I've created four additional tracks with which to practice this. For each of them pay attention to where you stumble. If you have trouble finding melody notes, sing through the melody with the track. While you sing, pay attention to your pitch. It's easy to sing the pitches approximately, but if you do so, you aren't discovering the notes you aren't hearing.
If you have trouble finding pitches with your voice, play a note on your instrument then sing that single note. Try it with another note. Listen for pitch accuracy. By doing this, you are training your brain to better hear pitch.
I know that you're probably not a singer, but I believe you will find that the better you can sing the pitches of a melody or find notes in a chord, the better you'll improvise and play your instrument overall.
As a related exercise, play melodies of tunes a cappella (without rhythm tracks). Try to hear the harmony of the tune in your mind as you play. If you get lost finding a pitch, stop playing and sing the pitch. Then find it on your instrument.
I think you'll be surprised by some of the struggles you experience with songs you thought you knew.
The benefit to all of this is that you will become a MUCH better soloist. Why? Because your solos will be guided, not by memorized licks, but by actually hearing the song and its harmony. You'll be better at directing your musical mind to control your instrument.
Here are the other four tracks for this exercise.
The Girl from Ipanema:
All the Things You Are: