Jazz Standards : Best way to Hear and Transcribe melody and chords from recordings

Question by David
(Cahors, SW France)


What is the best way to hear/transcribe a song (especially jazz standards) from the recorded version? I have a reasonably good ear but not always sure where to start.

For instance should I try to …

-Detect the key by locating a bass note on the 6th or 5th strings?


-Listen first for familiar chords or try to detect the ‘closing’ chord ?


-Noodle around in a given part of the fretboard until the melody line jumps out at me?

-Or ……………………?

Any help really would be gratefully received – this is a major gap in my skill base. Thanks in advance.


M-A’s Answer:

Hello Blackcat,

Great question: “Where should I start?”

The answer is, of course: The Melody!!!

The melody IS the tune. It’s the most precious aspect of ANY composition.

A jazz standard could be transformed (ie new chords, different time signature, Latin rhythms, amount of bars, arrangements, weird orchestration, new solos, etc.) but if the theme of the song is present, listeners will recognize it instantly.

So, focus on the melody at first. If you’re learning from a sung version, memorize the lyrics also.
When you’re good with the melody of the standard you are currently transcribing, read this other article :

Learning Jazz Standards  (the article in the link sums up my philosophy on how to learn songs, it applies whether you’re learning with sheet music of by ear.)

Some other thoughts:

Go slowly! It’s fine if you learn only one bar of music a day. Don’t rush through materials or you’ll forget them too soon…

Finding the key center of the song (the “final chord” as you mentioned) might give you guidelines as to where the melody “falls” on the fretboard (if you know scales). Stay alert for modulations though (a modulation is a “change of key” so to speak.)

Knowing the form helps. Is it a plain old A A B A form of 32 bars? (each section is 8 bar long) Then you have to learn only the “A”s and the “B” to know the whole song! (if not, investigate the form and nail it down on paper)

Starting with just root notes on the 6th and 5th string is the best way to start learning / memorizing the chords.

Memorize by formulas. Learn the chords by roman numeral and by “chunks”, say 2-4 bars at a time. Instead of thinking “Fm7 Bbm7 Eb7 Abmaj Dbmaj” just think “vi ii V I IV in Ab” (All the Things You Are)

It’s “linguistically” easier. Compare this:

“F minor seventh, B flat minor seventh, E flat seventh, A flat major seventh, D flat major seventh”
…or simply: “six, two, five, one, four in A flat”

Listen to different versions of the same jazz standard. You may hear a new “take” on the melody that makes more sense to you. You may also discover that not all recording are in the same key or in the same style or in the same time signature, or at the same tempo… which means that you need to…

Make a harmonic analysis on paper. Identify the differences / similarities between different interpretations of jazz artists. Work with roman numerals again. Identify the different key centers (if you hear more than one) and look for the “big picture” of the chord changes.

Chord melody is the “ultimate last step”. It requires a solid foundation on the tunes in your ears and mind, meaning a good understanding / hearing of:

-Root motion
-Chord changes / scales
-Your instrument

… and many possible inner implications / applications of all of the above!

Work on chord melodies on the tunes that you really love deeply.

I hope this helps,
Practice Well,

Marc-Andre Seguin

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