How to develop memory for musical structures

The benefits of memory

When playing music, reading it can really get in the way of freedom of interpretation. And the need to read means you haven’t internalized the structure. How can you possibly get inside it to improvise with meaning if you haven’t internalized it?

Also it’s often my experience that players who are reading are not listening as carefully as they should. So when stuff goes wrong, or someone tries to imply different chords, or the atmosphere changes, they don’t catch on and just plough on with what’s written. Reading defeats communication.

You probably already know the chords

Here’s a memory exercise you could do. I tried it recently on a friend who classifies herself as an intermediate player. Always likes to have the music there. I asked her to recall the chords for Autumn Leaves. With some effort she was able to drag them from her memory, maybe it took two or three minutes, but she knew them.

So the issue with memory, for her at least, is not that she can’t remember the chords. It’s that she can’t retrieve them fast enough.

Learning chords from a book is possibly not the best way to rectify this situation.

Practice recall, practice hearing

We need to practice recalling stuff, and reading defeats recall. And in a live situation, we often need to listen to hear the bits we can’t remember. So we need to practice hearing stuff. Reading defeats this.

Hence what we call Punishment Practice. Best done in a small group but can be done by yourself. The idea is to learn the structure of a piece in chunks, in a key-independent way, and then to practice the tune in many different keys.

Take a tune, one that you know to some extent. Work out the chords, either by dragging them from your memory, or by deducing them from the melody, or by listening to a recording. Resist looking in a book unless you are thoroughly blocked. Do not write anything down.

Find the components

Try to think in basic functional chords rather than clever substitutions and tricks.

Look for substitutions, try to get back to 2-5-1 rather than diminished or tritone subs. If there’s a 7 chord that you don’t understand, it could well be one of these.

Learn the chords by their function, rather than note names, e.g. IIm7 rather than Cm7.

Now we look for familiar sequences and use these as components.

There’s a comprehensive system for this devised by Conrad Cork, Harmony With Lego Bricks, and a follow-up book by John Elliott, Insights In Jazz. Personally I find Cork’s approach makes too many distinctions, and I don’t get his method for memorising key changes, but many people I know speak very highly of this method. Elliott has written out the lego brick analysis of many important standards. If you are going to learn from a book, Elliott’s is a good one to use, because you are learning in big chunks.

What I present below is the terminology that Sanjay Manohar and I use for punishment practice, and was gleaned from various sources, including Pete Churchill. It’s far simpler than Cork’s method and misses out many nuances. Which I feel is a good thing. They can be added later.

Standard components

Major 2-5-1 IIm7-V7-I∆
Minor 2-5-1 IIØ-V7b9-Im
False cadence IIØ-V7b9-I∆
2-5-1-4 IIm7-V7-I∆-IV∆
Minor 2-5-1-4 IIØ-V7b9-Im-IV7
1-4-3-6 I∆-IV7-IIIm7-VI7
3-6-2-5 IIIm7-VI7-IIm7-V7
Rhythm changes bridge III7-VI7-II7-V7
Flat-5 Kipper #IVØ-VII7b9-IIIm7-VI7-IIm7-V7
Green Dolphin St IIm7-IIm7/I-VIIØ-III7b9-VIm
Minor plagal IVm7-VII7-I∆
A train / Ipanema I | II7 | IIm7 V7 | I |
A Train chord II7
Scratch(as in It Never Entered My Mind) I∆ IIm7 IIIm7 IV∆
My Funny Im V7 Im7 IV7

Use these, invent your own names and components, or learn the stuff out of Harmony With Lego Bricks, whatever suits. Some of these could have m7 replaced by 7. Still the same component.

Pay attention to where the key centre is at all times.

Autumn Leaves comes out like this:

A music (repeated)

2-5-1-4 in relative major
2-5-1 in relative minor


2-5-1 in relative minor
2-5-1-4 in relative major

(note this is A with the lines reversed)


2-5-1 in relative minor -> 3-6-2-5 in key of IV of the relative major
2-5-1 in relative minor

Another example: I Thought About You.

1-4-3-6 – A train chord
Green dolphin St -> 3-6-2-5 in key of IV
IV∆, minor plagal, scratch
2-5 2-5 in IIIm, 3-6-2-5

Flat 5 kipper – A Train Chord
Green dolphin St -> 3-6-2-5 in key of IV
IV∆, minor plagal, scratch (twice the harmonic speed), 2-5 in IIIm
3-6-2-5 I

Note that the two halves are pretty similar, so there’s not all that much to learn.

Practice in many keys

Purists would have you practice in all 12 keys, but unless you have a couple of spare years to dedicate to this, 3 keys for each tune will do. But don’t go for the obvious simple keys. Practice in the most difficult keys you can think of.

At first this is punishingly hard, hence the name, but after a couple of numbers in a few keys, it gets easier.

You will find that you can’t forget a tune, once you’ve PP’ed it. And you’ll be able to transpose it to any key without effort.

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