Charting Songs

July 9, 2010

Ed HarlowLearning jazz repertoire takes time, and it can be very helpful to have a way to organize what you’ve learned so you can better remember it. This is a method of documenting critical song information for reference in the practice room, or as an aid in rehearsals and performances.

There are five components to document. From these five components, you can quickly remind yourself of the important characteristics of a song you’re about to play.

The Five Components

1. Key

Although the first chord of a song is often indicative of a song’s overall key center, this is by no means always the case. For example, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “In Your Own Sweet Way,” “Poor Butterfly,” among many others, are examples songs that settle into their key centers after their first chords have sounded.
Documenting the key helps to clarify any ambiguities that may exist for those songs that don’t begin in the song’s overall key.

2. First chord

Knowing the first chord of a song and whether or not it overtly indicates the overall key is critical information.

3. First chord of the “B” section (assuming there is a “B” section).

Sometimes the transition from the “A” to the “B” section is a common one – such as up a fourth, as is the case with “Take the A Train” and “I Remember You.” The transition to the “B” sections of such songs are usually relatively predictable – since the key of the “A” and “B” sections are so closely related, your ear will tend to lead you there.

Other times, the relationship between the “A” and “B” sections is a much less common one. For example, in “Cherokee,” the “B” section begins with a II-7 V7 I up a half-step from the song’s primary key. In “The Girl From Ipanema,” the “B” section begins with a Major 7th chord up a half step from the primary key. It is important to be very familiar with the construction of these types of songs because the chordal movements from the “A” to “B” sections of such songs is not as predictable.

4. Form

AABA, ABAB and 12-bar Blues are very common song forms in jazz, but there are others that crop up now and then that should keep any player from becoming complacent on the matter of form.

For instance, “One Note Samba,” and “Besame Mucho” have an ABA form with, with 16 bar “A” sections and 8 bar “B” sections. It’s easy to accidentally add an extra “A” section before the “B” section in an ABA song form.

“Chega De Saudade” (ABCD) and “Cheek to Cheek” (AABBCA) are two songs that start simply enough, but are quite lengthly and have unusual forms that can easily go awry for those who are unprepared.

Be rock solid with the form of every song you learn.

5. First note

“Stella by Starlight” is in B flat, but you’d never know it by the opening series of chords. Knowing what the first note of a song is helps to cut through any confusion when the key of a song is not overtly stated in the first few measures.

Song Information Chart

The prospect of memorizing dozens or hundreds of jazz tunes can seem overwhelming. Making a spreadsheet with song names along with their basic components is very useful in getting to know each song’s basic structure, for keeping a record of the songs you’ve worked on and as tune list for practice, sessions and gigs.

Not only is it handy to have this list for songs you’re learning, but it helps you to recognize the similarities and differences among these songs.

Here is a sample song information chart:

Sample Chart

You’ll notice that the songs and their five musical components (plus an additional field for “special notes”) are neatly organized and the list itself is as compact as a real book’s table of contents. Plus, this is your unique list – it’s customized to the songs you like to play. Using a song information chart encourages and promotes your originality while bolstering your musical competence.


Over the past few years, there has been a proliferation of real books for every possible instrument and more recently, electronic versions made for smart phones. These are very useful tools and are great for learning songs. However, being so easily obtainable, and in the smart phone version, portable, the aspiring jazzer may be lulled into a sense of complacency in regards to learning jazz tunes on a deep level.

This would be a mistake.

The written chord changes, whether on paper or pixels are an aid to learning a song and should only be used in performance as a last resort for unfamiliar material.

The process itself of charting songs, as outlined above, is a quick and direct way of familiarizing the player with one song, or a group of songs. This not only gives you a valuable reference for practicing, sessions and gigs, but it can also serve as a list of the songs you’ve at least taken the time to map out. Having one or more pages of this vital information on selected pieces is far more effective than flipping through endless songs in a book or on a phone – plus those around you won’t assume you don’t know the music or are texting a friend!

Composer and saxophonist Ed Harlow has played with Tony Bennett, Paquito D’Rivera and the orchestras of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. An alumnus of New England Conservatory, Harlow publishes his original compositions through Advance Music.

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