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I am cross-posting a question I just posted in the non-classical forum. I think I'll get different responses in each forum, so I hope this cross-posting is ok.

Some of you may remember that I've been playing piano for 20+ years, so I'm way past beginner level. But recently I've been trying to learn more jazz-style playing. So my question is articulated in a sort of jazz-specific way, but I know a lot of people who post in the ABF play by ear and also improvise, or even if they're playing classical, they memorize a lot. So I think this question will be relevant for a lot of people. Anyway, here's my question, verbatim as I posted it in the non-classical forum:

So much advice about jazz is to start by memorizing something, either it's some scales or a set of chords, or just memorizing chords (e.g., being able to play a chord just from its name) or chord shapes. But I am someone who has always played from a score. I am very comfortable sightreading, so certainly that's part of it. And although I have played/performed music from memory in the past, since I generally don't memorize music, I think my memorization skills are sort of atrophied.

As a result, I have never really been able to get myself (force myself?) to memorize chords or scales. Partly that's because of a belief that I can play much more complex and compelling music when I'm playing from a score than I could if I were improvising. And if I just have the music in front of me, I can play whatever it is on the page even if I don't know how to put a name on the chord.

However, now that I'm trying to acquire more jazz-esque skills and studying jazz theory etc., I think my aversion to memorizing is going to hold me back. At the same time, it's really hard to know how or where to start. And I also think I would be more successful if I could do a better job of internalizing why it's beneficial to memorize chords and scales.

tl;dr version:

1. What, in a nutshell, is the benefit of memorizing chords and scales for jazz?

2. Can anyone give me some suggestions for how to go about memorizing, and maybe where to start/what to start with?



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Start simply with one Jazz standard that you like, and learn the chords & their inversions and the scale of that piece. Just study that, listen to it played by numerous artists, learn it so that you can think the chords know the notes and reliably play it in your head away from the piano.

That is how Jazz and Blues players learn, and thus can play without a score, which often does not exist.

In other words, learn it like you would learn a new language, or anything else that is complex and new, i.e. one small step at a time. Don't try to "learn or memorize chords or scales", which would be like trying to memorize a dictionary. Instead learn them within an application (the song), one small step at a time.


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Here are some general memorization tips from a pioneer in the field, Dr Piotr Wozniak.

https://super-memory.com/articles/20rules.htm

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Thank you both for commenting!

Originally Posted by rocket88
Don't try to "learn or memorize chords or scales", which would be like trying to memorize a dictionary.

Thank you for saying this! So many things I read talk about starting by memorizing a certain set of something -- all the major scales, or all the major, minor, and 7th chords.

And it is exactly like telling someone to start learning a foreign language by memorizing the dictionary!

New player, thanks for that link, there are great tips there! But wow, whoever it is needs to re-design their website, those red and yellow stripes are giving me a headache!


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Another suggestion which helped me:

Get some printed sheet music of standard popular songs written for voice and piano. I suggest you go back to the 30s, 40s and 50s where the harmony and rhythmic patterns are less complex than you may find in some current pop tunes) In those scores, the chord symbols are often printed above the vocal line for guitarists. At the same time, the piano accompaniment will write out those chords, sometimes rather basic in form. Thereby, you can see the chords, hear the chords and learn their names. It's not yet jazz, but it should help in learning to recognize chords and how they fit in with the harmony and vocal lines of a song.

Start with something relatively simple and straightforward.

Regards,


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Bruce, thanks for that suggestion. I have some scores with chord names on them (like a lot of my Christmas music) but if the LH is written out, I read that even without meaning to.

I think I maybe need a collection of scores that are just lead sheets... Maybe?


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Well, I can't answer your question about jazz. But memorizing scales and arpeggios is probably the easiest thing to do. All it takes is time. Get yourself a good scale book and work your way through it one scale/arpeggio at a time.

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Originally Posted by ShiroKuro
I think I maybe need a collection of scores that are just lead sheets... Maybe?
How can you play from lead sheets if, as you your seem to say in your first post, you don't know chords? Unless you only want to play already written out jazz pieces, you must learn jazz harmony(chords and scales) to improvise.

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Originally Posted by Sam S
Well, I can't answer your question about jazz. But memorizing scales and arpeggios is probably the easiest thing to do. All it takes is time. Get yourself a good scale book and work your way through it one scale/arpeggio at a time.

Sam, thanks for chiming in!

So, I have the complete scales and arps book (the one with all the major and minor scales, scales on left page and chords, cadences and arpeggios on the right page) and I have played through every single page of that book over the years....

But memorizing it?? How can I think about approaching memorizing it that doesn't feel like memorizing a dictionary (as discussed above)


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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
Originally Posted by ShiroKuro
I think I maybe need a collection of scores that are just lead sheets... Maybe?
How can you play from lead sheets if, as you your seem to say in your first post, you don't know chords? Unless you only want to play already written out jazz pieces, you must learn jazz harmony(chords and scales) to improvise.

So, to the second part of your comment, I am reviewing music theory and will move onto jazz theory once I finish that review.

To the first part of your question: the way I would learn a song from a lead sheet would be to look at the chord names, and either work them out myself or use a reference book (I have a jazz chord voicing book) and then memorize the chords needed for that song. This is sort of the opposite approach to the "memorize the dictionary" approach.

So, given all of that, what else would you suggest as an approach to learn jazz harmony?


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How can you play from lead sheets if, as you your seem to say in your first post, you don't know chords?

Just to add to my comments above.... so, no, I don't know chords in the sense that, is someone throws chord names at me, I can't just play them. Well, probably I could play a lot of the basic major chords (I, III, V) maybe without thinking.

But if you gave me a minor chord, or a 7th chord etc, I could work it out by counting intervals and playing it.

So, I do know a great deal about chords, in terms of what in pedagogy is called "declarative knowledge" -- i.e., I can talk out the knowledge I have. But I don't have very much of that knowledge internalized as "procedural knowledge" -- i.e., I don't know how, in other words, I can't just put that knowledge into practice.


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Originally Posted by ShiroKuro
Originally Posted by Sam S
Well, I can't answer your question about jazz. But memorizing scales and arpeggios is probably the easiest thing to do. All it takes is time. Get yourself a good scale book and work your way through it one scale/arpeggio at a time.

Sam, thanks for chiming in!

So, I have the complete scales and arps book (the one with all the major and minor scales, scales on left page and chords, cadences and arpeggios on the right page) and I have played through every single page of that book over the years....

But memorizing it?? How can I think about approaching memorizing it that doesn't feel like memorizing a dictionary (as discussed above)

Memorize it by doing it. Don't look at the music. There are fingering patterns to the scales and arpeggios so many of them are similar. Start with something simple like G major. Do not look at the music. 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 in the right hand, with 4 on a black key. 5-4-3-2-1-3-2-1 in the left hand with 2 on the black key. One hand at a time, then put the hands together, then expand to two octaves and four octaves.

Do the arpeggios the same way - no need to look at the music except to get the right fingering at first. Learning the arpeggios will also teach you how to spell the chords.

One at a time, a few minutes a day. In a year you will be able to rip off any scale and arpeggio.

If you don't take the time to do this, then you will always have this hole in your knowledge of music theory and the piano.

Sam


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Originally Posted by ShiroKuro
Originally Posted by pianoloverus
Originally Posted by ShiroKuro
I think I maybe need a collection of scores that are just lead sheets... Maybe?
How can you play from lead sheets if, as you your seem to say in your first post, you don't know chords? Unless you only want to play already written out jazz pieces, you must learn jazz harmony(chords and scales) to improvise.

So, to the second part of your comment, I am reviewing music theory and will move onto jazz theory once I finish that review.

To the first part of your question: the way I would learn a song from a lead sheet would be to look at the chord names, and either work them out myself or use a reference book (I have a jazz chord voicing book) and then memorize the chords needed for that song. This is sort of the opposite approach to the "memorize the dictionary" approach.

So, given all of that, what else would you suggest as an approach to learn jazz harmony?
You want to reach a stage where you don't have to look them up in a book.

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Originally Posted by ShiroKuro
Thank you both for commenting!

Originally Posted by rocket88
Don't try to "learn or memorize chords or scales", which would be like trying to memorize a dictionary.

Thank you for saying this! So many things I read talk about starting by memorizing a certain set of something -- all the major scales, or all the major, minor, and 7th chords.

And it is exactly like telling someone to start learning a foreign language by memorizing the dictionary!
The difficult part in scales and arpeggios is playing them well at a good speed. IOW the technical part. There's very little to memorize since the intervals are the same on all major scales and there's only a few different fingering patterns. To use your foreign language analogy, I think the non technical part of learning scales more like learning a foreign language by memorizing 12 words.

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Originally Posted by Sam S
Memorize it by doing it. Don't look at the music. There are fingering patterns to the scales and arpeggios so many of them are similar. Start with something simple like G major. Do not look at the music. 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 in the right hand, with 4 on a black key. 5-4-3-2-1-3-2-1 in the left hand with 2 on the black key. One hand at a time, then put the hands together, then expand to two octaves and four octaves.

Do the arpeggios the same way - no need to look at the music except to get the right fingering at first. Learning the arpeggios will also teach you how to spell the chords.

Sam, I don't mean to sound argumentative, but that sounds exactly like "memorize the dictionary" to me....

Quote
One at a time, a few minutes a day. In a year you will be able to rip off any scale and arpeggio.

Also, maybe I'm wrong or I need to give myself more credit, but I suspect that if I just spend a few minutes a day on this, in a year, the only bits I'll remember will be whatever I did in the last week...

Quote
If you don't take the time to do this, then you will always have this hole in your knowledge of music theory and the piano.

So, it makes perfect sense to me why I want to memorize chords... but why do I want to memorize scales like this? Especially the HT part?


Originally Posted by pianoloverus
You want to reach a stage where you don't have to look them up in a book.

Obviously (hence this thread). So, other than picking songs on lead sheets, figuring out the chords and memorizing them (chord by chord, song by song), how else do you suggest I do it? How else can I get from where I am now, which is I either play from a fully notated score or else look up/work out the chords one by one) to where I want to be, which is being able to see the chord name and play the chord?


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I haven't played any jazz, though I'm interested in learning the basics for reasons similar to yours.

One thing I have found super useful is to note the underlying chords in the score for the classical music I play. Since classical music doesn't always have recognizable 'chords' in the sense of 'notes stacked atop one another that you play at the same time,' this can be tricky at first, but it gets easier as you go on. (There are plenty of chord finder tools online that can help you out if you're not sure. Make sure you use one where you can put in the specific notation -- e.g., inputting Fb rather than E if that's how it's written in the score.) I've found that doing this has not only made me better at understanding/identifying specific chords but has made reading from a score that I've notated much quicker. It's also improved my ability to differentiate between chord types so I can hear or play X type of chord in a different key without having to figure it out note by note.

A less structured thing you might try is taking a little time in your practice session to improvise chord progressions. Don't think too much about it -- just start with playing any three notes you can fit under your hand and repeat, adjusting as needed. It doesn't need to sound good and you don't need to know what the chords are called. You might be surprised at how much your hands 'know' about what sounds like a chord and what feels like should follow it.

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Originally Posted by ShiroKuro
Originally Posted by pianoloverus
You want to reach a stage where you don't have to look them up in a book.

Obviously (hence this thread). So, other than picking songs on lead sheets, figuring out the chords and memorizing them (chord by chord, song by song), how else do you suggest I do it? How else can I get from where I am now, which is I either play from a fully notated score or else look up/work out the chords one by one) to where I want to be, which is being able to see the chord name and play the chord?
There's not much to memorize if you understand the theory. That's one reason you should learn the major and minor scales. One does not have to, for example, memorize the tonic chord for each key because they're all constructed the same way. If you know that in C the third is E and the 5th is G you can play the tonic. Same for any other key. Or you could add a major third and then a minor third to C. It would take some practice to play the tonic chord in each key instantly but there's not much to memorize. It's about understanding and practicing and not about memorization.

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It's about understanding and practicing and not about memorization

Again, there are different kinds of understanding, I think I have the declarative parts mostly covered, it's the procedural parts, which to me suggests a problem of time (i.e., time spent figuring out how to play any given chord), the solution to which seems to me to be memorization ...

But, in the interest of not quibbling over terminology, what kind of practice would you recommend? Remembering that the goal here is not classical music nor score-based playing.


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Honestly Shirokuro, it sounds like you are looking for some magic shortcut. There isn't one. Is it easy? No, it's hard. Will it happen quickly? No, it won't. Will it be boring? That depends on you.

I liked learning the scales and arpeggios. I resisted it at first, but a lot of playing piano is problem solving and learning patterns and movements. So learning this technical stuff is all about problem solving and learning patterns and how to move the hand. It has helped me a lot, and I am glad I learned it.

If you want to learn to realize chords, then practice that, every day for 15 minutes. Pick a song, and just learn the chords in that song, so you can play some music quickly and avoid boredom. Then pick another one, and so on. Eventually you will be able to realize chords like a real jazzer.

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Originally Posted by Sam S
Honestly Shirokuro, it sounds like you are looking for some magic shortcut.

Well, yes and no.... I am looking for something that makes sense to me and that seems both logical and efficient. There are clearly some things that are not efficient e.g., trying to collect a bunch of random YT videos with no set curriculum, trying to "learn jazz" with no structure, opening up a book of chords and trying to memorize them all...

And I'm also looking for something that fits in with the fact that most of the time my job etc. limits the time I can be at the piano. So for example, I can't practice the piano for four hours a day. I say that because I don't see how I could retain all of the scales and arps, memorized, especially without actively playing and retaining all the ones I finished as I add additional ones.... Maybe I'm not giving myself enough credit though.

But the other detail is, what is memorizing scales in the service of? That's part of why I titled this thread "help me change how I think..." because it seems like there's something I'm missing in terms of how to understand what the benefit/purpose of particular exercises are. I can already play them with correct fingering, I used to make it a point to play scales in the key of whatever I was working, although I've gotten out of the habit of doing that. But I always popped the scale book up on the stand to play them, I never memorized them even when it was a regular part of my practice.

So let me put it a different way: how have you benefited from having the scales memorized? How is that different from what you'd get from having one eyeball on the score?

Quote
If you want to learn to realize chords, then practice that, every day for 15 minutes. Pick a song, and just learn the chords in that song, so you can play some music quickly and avoid boredom. Then pick another one, and so on. Eventually you will be able to realize chords like a real jazzer.

This makes more sense to me, because it is in the context of a song.... I've been looking at different options for lead sheets, but a lot of them seem to be all in the key of C, and I don't think it's pedagogically smart to try to learn to memorize chords and transpose at the same time (which is to say, I don't want to be playing in C all the time)....


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