Jazz Guitar: Memorization versus Sheet Music

Question by Michael


How much importance do you place on memorization of tunes? Do you normally tell your students to commit songs to memory and put away the tab or sheet music?

I ask because I find that I “need” the tab or sheet music in front of me even to play tunes that I supposedly “know”. The tab and sheet music feel like crutches I must have. It really shows when I am around others who ask me to play a certain tune I know and I either can’t remember it or fumble around the chords and/or melody.

But if the music is in front of me, miraculously I can play it just fine. I wonder how much has to do with performance anxiety as well since guitar has always been a solitary pursuit of mine and I don’t play for, or with, others very much at all.

I know…I violated one of your jazz guitar tips in your first podcast…playing with other musicians.


M-A’s Answer:

Hello Michael,

Thank you, that is a great question that requires a little discussion here!

Although I don’t necessarily always insist on it, I have clear views on the memorization of musical materials. Whenever it comes up in teaching, I always tell the students to memorize whatever they’re working on. Let me paraphrase Pat Metheny here:

It’s very hard to concentrate on making music when you have to ask yourself “Is that next note an E or an Eb?” or “Is that Ab13 or A7b9 ?”

You get the idea here? It’s like a movie actor struggling with memorizing his lines on the script. Do you think he can really incarnate the character well and bring out the right emotions if his mind is occupied on remembering (or worst: reading) words on paper? Absolute memorization is required. It’s obvious from the actor’s standpoint.

What’s different in music? … well, I think we don’t NOTICE that we are not conveying the right feel for the music when we’re reading. There’s some lay-way here, but in an authentic jam session for jazz, there’s no music stands!

Now, coming back to your case, if it’s only about learning tunes then your absolute #1 priority is to get rid of the music stand altogether. Seriously! (-:

Reality is that jazz musicians play without reading music 95% of the time (or more). I mean, here’s a different thing: sometimes I’ll pickup an exercise or concept that’s written out, and I may need a refresher … or I’m playing a tune that’s new to me and forgot a few bars of melody / chords. I’ll do a quick check, that’s all. Back to playing from rote in a few minutes, not more.

BUT your case is different: playing entire tune(s) by looking at a sheet of music!? That’s a no go! (Unless it’s a reading session, an audition or a freshly composed tune). You may think you play fine with the paper, but reality is otherwise. So much energy goes towards the visual cues that what’s coming out in sound greatly suffers. I guarantee!

So, what’s the remedy?

First and foremost: commit one song to memory now. Get the sheet music in front of you, aim to memorize it now, then throw the paper away and challenge yourself. Polish it until you can no longer forget that tune.

If you want to kill a hundred birds with one stone, start with a blues (in Bb or F). Pick an easy melody like Tenor Madness. The blues form is so common that if you commit the chords to memory, you’ll already have memorized 20% of all the tunes in the repertoire (chords-wise)!


Second challenge: memorize your second tune. Pick NOT a blues this time. You may choose something like Summertime, Autumn Leaves, All the Things You Are, etc. Whatever it is, play the melody from memory, then the chords from memory and then attempt soloing on the form from memory. You’ll learn so much from this, you won’t believe it! Only move on when this is done.

Third challenge: create a list of ten tunes for memorization in the next 2 months. You already have the blues and another standard down… your missing 8 tunes … so one a week for eight weeks my friend! Use the same process: melody – chords – solo – melody. If you can “hold” all of this well enough on any one tune once (without sheet music), then consider the tune memorized and move on.

(You’ll have to come back to already memorized tunes in your two months. Always double-check using the melody – chords – solo – melody process. It’s fine if you have some blurry spot in it, as long as it’s “good enough”, you can always re-work the rough spots later).

Now, I will leave it at that for you now … but I’d be really curious to find out what you think and how you’re doing with these suggestions. Please leave questions and comments right on this page.

Thank you!

Marc-Andre Seguin
“Improve Your Jazz Guitar Playing with a REAL Teacher”


Comments for Jazz Guitar: Memorization versus Sheet Music

Aug 11, 2012
by: Anonymous

I agree with memorizing tunes. Reading takes the soul out of playing music because you’re mind is too occupied with reading. You tend to play with less emotion and feeling. You tend to be less aware of what everyone else is doing as you’re reading. You can miss a lot of aural and visual cues while being buried into the sheet music. It’s always best to know the music before so you can really have fun playing without worrying about, the melody, chords, and form.

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