Playing a song, often referred to as a “tune”, from memory – and from start to finish – is one of the most important skills a musician needs, and jazz tunes offer a great way to acquire this discipline.  

There are many ways to go about this, but, keeping the improvisation aspect aside, the critical aspect of a tune that a musician must be able to demonstrate on the bandstand are:

  • to play the melody,
  • to accompany (“comp”) using chords and outline the harmony,
  • stay confidently within the form (the structure or arrangement) of a tune. 

The melody, at its purest essence, is the scale of a song, the harmony consists of chords over which the melody sits and the form consists of chord/harmonic progressions or groupings. 

We present below a practical way to learn mechanics of the “head”, aka, Melody of the tune, “comp” or accompany and play chords through the form:

1) Listen to the song

2) Try to figure out the melody and harmony by ear

3) Analyse the tune/harmony (or ask/research)

4) Play The Tune

  • playing the melody with the original recording and also along to a backing track
  • using “shell” chords to “comp” (accompany) through the “form” of the song
  • alternating between Melody and Chords
  • Reverse it: alternating between chords and melody

Without looking at any charts, if you can play the melody, “comp” and confidently switch between melody and playing chords at will, it means you absorbed and internalised the “meat and potatoes” of a tune .  

For this lesson, we are going to make use Sonny Rollin’s iconic tune “Tenor Madness”, which was recorded in 1956 and features John Coltrane (tenor sax), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums) – what a band!  

1. Hear The Tune

Listen to the tune as many times as you can! 

2. Learn the Melody and Harmony

Try to learn the tune at the original tempo, without slowing it down, this good practice for your ear, once you’re can sing the melody try to sing it – and play it on your instrument – using this backing track.  

Now that you have the Melody, try and figure out the harmony by ear too.  If you’re a guitar player or piano player, the easiest way to do this is to use “shell chords”, which outline the Root, the 3rd and 7th of a chord – three essential components of a chord.  

Types of Shell Chords:

Major: Root, 3rd, 7th

Dominant: Root, 3rd, b7th

Minor: Root, b3rd, b7th

Minor 7b5: Root, b3rd, b7th

Diminished: Root, b3rd, 6th

To learn more about shell chords click here.  

You can hear what this chords sound like and look like in the “live” score below, using MuseScore.  I’ve made all the chords with a Root in “C” so you can hear the difference

This tune is in the key of “Bb” so to figure out the harmony of the tune, try and figure out which chord fits each bar as you play along to the tune.  Try not to slow down the tune, rather go piece by piece, bar by bar and use your ears, let the sound of the quality of a chord get in your ear.  Once you think you’re done, compare your results with the analysis below.  

3. Analyse the Tune 

“Tenor Madness is a 12 Bar Blues in the key Of “Bb”.  The form is that of a typical Jazz Blues.  Below is a reasonably thorough analysis, however if you feel any of the concepts are too unfamiliar, you can skip this and go straight to playing the tune in Part 4 and come back later.   

Analysis of Form: 

Bars 1-4: Starts on Bar 1, the “tonic”, “Bb7”, move to the “subdominant” (learn more about this here) “Eb7” on Bar 2, then back to the tonic for Bars 3, 4. 

Bars 5-8: Starts on the subdominant, IV chord in the key of “Bb”, “Eb7”, then moves to E diminished (a common “substitution” for any dominant chord, that serves to outline, the b9, 3, b7 of “Eb7”) and finally back to a dominant in the tonic “Bb7” for bars 8. Bar 9 has a “G7”, which serves a V7 of of the C-7 coming up in Bar 9 – for more on this click here

Bars 9-12: The “Turnaround” has a C-7, F7 on bars 9, 10 and the final two bars are yet another turnaround – but this time in the form of a “I, vi, ii, V7” in “Bb”, (it’s quite common, as it shows in the image above, to turn the vi “G-7” into an G7, a “secondary dominant” V7/ii)

Analysis of Melody: 

Bars 1-4: The melody starts by outlining a Bb major triad, and highlighting the 6th “G”, then adds a blue note “Db”, when the harmony changes to the subdominant, “Eb7” in Bar 2, this is a common “device” in jazz, i.e. playing, or borrowing from Bb Minor Blues of the tonic when you move to the subdominant.  Bar 3-4 hold a melody around the Bb Major triad. 

Bars 5-8: Bars 5-6 are based borrow from the Bb Minor Blues scale: “Db” is a b3rd away from “Bb” and is also the 7th of “Eb7”.  Bars 7-8, simply repeat Bars 3-4. 

Bars 9-12: Bar 9 serves to outline a C minor triad but circles around the root “C” by traveling to the fifth ,”G” above, back down to a “chromatic approach note“, “B” and then traveling down the triad to the Root an octave lower.  This phrase continues into bar ten where the melody serves to “enclose” the 3rd of F7 “A” by starting on the 4th of F7, a diatonic note “Bb”, then using chromatic approach notes to walk up to A, the 3rd of F7.  Chromatic Notes and Enclosures, form the foundation of phrasing in jazz, and will be examined in more detail in a following post.  Finally the last two bars, quote the melody that are in bars 3,4 and 7,8. 

4. Practice Playing the Tune

Practice “Comping”

1.  First, let’s practice “comping” or accompanying using chords by playing through the tune a few times just using “shell chords”.  To start play the chords on every beat, playing “quarter note”- this style, or “four [beats] to the floor” strumming is also known as “Freddie Green Comping” .  Play along – slowly and accurately – with the Musescore file below: 

Practice this carefully – you can adjust the tempo upwards, after you can play it perfectly at least 3 times without any mistakes.  

2.  Now let’s add another rhythm, the famous “Charleston” rhythm to our “comping”.  To do this, for example in Bar 1, you play “Bb7”, as an “dotted quarter” note, on Beat “1” and an 8th note on the “&” of Beat 2.  It should sound like this:


Mixing Melody and Comping

Now Let’s mix the melody which we learnt well earlier on with chords and “comping” styles that we just learnt.  This exercise is about mechanics, not as much about musicality – or at least not yet, the idea if for you to get practice changing between two concepts – melody and comping, while keeping the form.  

To do this lets try the following, lets play:

Bars 1-4: bars of the melody 

Bars 5-8: bars of comping quarter notes

Bars 9-12: bars of the melody.  

Once you can do this confidently, flip it around:

Bars 1-4: bars of comping quarter notes

Bars 5-8:bars of the melody

Bars 9-12:bars of comping quarter notes

Here is what this should sound like:

Once you are comfortable with this, try the same excercise with the Charleston Rhythm.  And once you are good with that, let’s do the same excercise but alternate between melody and comping – but two bars each, instead of four, as follows, we are still restricted but sounding more musical already: 

If you’ve got to the stage where you can alternate between the melody of the tune and comping – you’ve got to a stage where you have internalized the tune.  This is a process that I use till today to learn a tune and it always works, because it forces you to divide a tune into smaller segments and learn both the melody and harmony. 

In future instalments we will examine aspects of soloing, harmony and performance on the same tune. 


Have a great day!


Karan, The Goa Jazz Academy