Ear training with standards

I’m reading a book right now called “Hearin the Changes”, by Coker, Knapp, and Vincent. The book’s preface talks about how we create lots of memories of sounds at a subliminal level, but recall or recognition of unconsciously recorded memories can be difficult, they compare it to recognizing a person’s face but not being able to place where you’ve seen them before. This book uses numerical analysis to describe common harmonic pathways in jazz, and points to specific measures in songs where you can hear them, and consciously tag them so you can recognize the harmonic changes when you hear them elsewhere in the future. So the book is promoting active listening to train your ear to recognize changes and identify them in the future in unknown songs. It is a little advanced for me, (IFR’s Pure Harmony Essentials is probably the best fit for me to work on improvising), but a fun way to challenge myself and keep an eye on my goal of becoming musically conversant and able to orient myself in the music I love.

Some of the examples in this book bring up questions in my mind relating to IFR’s tonal approach to ear training, specifically when/how one deals with key changes. One of the harmonic pathways described in the book is called a downstep modulation, tonicizing a whole step down, usually in a series of steps. A good example is “How High the Moon”: 1, 1- (2 of b7), 4D (5D of b7), b7, b7- (2 of b6), b3D (5D of b6), b6. Then it does a 2-b5, 5D, 1-, 2-b5, 5D, 1. So it spends the first two measures in G, the next 10 measures exploring what might be perceived as the keys of F, Eb, and G minor, then back to G major for 6 measures with a lovely 2-, 5D, 3-, b3D (tritone sub for 5D of 2), 2-, 5D, 1, and then we are back into the downstep modulation through b7 to b6, and back to 1. This book “Hearin the Changes” is careful to point out that many temporary distortions of the harmonic environment are not really key changes, but it considers these downstep modulations to be an example of genuine key changes. I’ve also seen “How High the Moon” interpreted elsewhere as I described above using IFR’s naming scheme, so temporary distortions of the original key. I’m curious, those of you with more developed ears than me, do you hear the downstep modulations in “How High the Moon” as a temporary departure from and return to the original key, or a progressive distortion and resolution of the original key? I know the answer to questions like these are often “what matters is how it sounds to the listener”, but I’m still early in my development and learning to identify the square pegs and round holes.

Does anyone have other suggestions for active listening exercises with jazz standards?

Hi Darren, I’ve read that Coker book, but I think an even better one along those lines is THE HARMONIC LANGUAGE OF JAZZ STANDARDS, by Marc Sabatella, which you can buy here SABATELLA’s BOOK web page
Sabatella’s book has 98% of all that you’ll ever want to know about jazz chord progressions, from an intellectual point of view. And it’s fairly encyclopedic in terms of functional chord progressions.

To your question on active listening exercises… Here’s something really useful. Go to the VANILLA BOOK online, which you can find here: VANILLA BOOK web page
It has the basic chord charts for more jazz standards that you can possibly remember.

But more important, go to the web page that Ralph Patt calls “tonal centers” which you can find here: JAZZ TUNES indexed by chord progressions
That page has jazz tunes sorted by chord progression, so you can pick a chord progression, and get half a dozen jazz standards that use it and see exactly where in the chord chart it shows up. Then go to YouTube or Spotify, and listen to several versions of each of those jazz standards. After a while, you should be able to hear the progression in question, and hopefully remember how it feels.

Then rinse and repeat for more chord progressions. Spend the next several years doing that.

Hi @Darren, thanks for the interesting question. I’m sure other people will continue to share their own insights and resources, which is great. Maybe what I can try to add is my own perspective on how all of this relates to the improvising musician. This is maybe only one part of your question, because you were asking about harmonic analysis and hearing chord changes in general. But I think my own contribution is best limited to the specific scenario of wanting to improvise over these tunes.

For improvisers, the question you’re asking about tonal orientation isn’t a simple one to answer because we always have a variety of resources at our disposal. So before even starting the conversation, we first need to acknowledge that each musician has a different level of need for tonal orientation. Some musicians like Bill Evans are very intellectual, and they always see the entire tonal landscape with all of its scales and chords. Bill Evans also had a deeply emotional relationship with all of these sounds, but the point is that he could SEE the sounds on his piano keyboard and he could see them coming from a mile away. At the other end of the spectrum you have Chet Baker, who was perhaps the greatest improviser of lyrical melodies of all time despite never having a clue what chords he was playing over. Most of the time Chet didn’t even know what key he was playing in. But his deep familiarity with tonal fragments like the ones we study in Pure Harmony enabled him to instantly picture the notes of whatever phrase happened to come from his extraordinary musical imagination in each moment.

When you want to practice the crystal clear intellectual orientation of Bill Evans, this is your Exercise 4 practice. And you can bring any jazz standard you like into this practice. It’s up to you how thoroughly you want to explore each song, but it’s possible to visualize even very long tunes like How High the Moon on a single tonal map without ever mentally changing keys. (I’ll upload a tonal sketch of this tune so you can see what it looks like.) And so while I agree with the author you cited who talks about the particular sound of the “downstep” modulation, for me it’s even more empowering to maintain an overall vision of WHERE that leaves us. So now we’re in the tonal center of b7. Then comes another downstep modulation. But where does that leave us? Now we’re in the tonal center of b6. And then from there you can picture the chords that come next without having to resort to memorization or mentally changing keys. What this global vision of the harmony enables is an improvisational arc that goes across the entire song, because you’re not breaking it up into isolated fragments in different keys. But again, not everyone feels the need for such clarity of vision, nor should they. These are all just different resources available to you in your music practice, to explore and develop to whatever extent you want to.

At the other extreme, it’s also fascinating and beautiful to practice the more mysterious “Chet Baker” experience of playing entirely by ear. When you’re playing in this way, you don’t even need to know the chords to the song or even what key it’s in. You approach each new chord or progression with an empty mind, just listening to your own inner musical voice and using your knowledge of basic tonal harmony to locate on your instrument whatever sounds you want to play. In IFR, this is exactly we practice in Exercise 5. And soon we’ll have more tools and resources available at our website to help you practice this ability. But this ability comes entirely from having a deep familiarity with the material that you’re studying right now in Pure Harmony. So this is part of the reason why we’re always talking so obsessively about the major scale and its seven chords. Not only are these the raw materials of the popular music that we hear every day on the radio, but they are also the raw materials of the most sophisticated music we’ve ever heard. And if we want to play that sophisticated music which makes use of such playful abstractions on these simple sounds, then we’re going to need to master these simple sounds very, very deeply.

This is how we see things in IFR. I think the closest point of connection to the Coker book you mentioned is in our Exercise 4 practice. This is where we break chord progressions down into their tonal building blocks, just as you described. The biggest difference between our two approaches is that I’m guessing that Coker’s approach is a hybrid between IFR Exercises 4 and 5, where there is some tonal recognition of modulations but then a willingness to mentally change keys and just kind of lose yourself in the new key center until the next modulation. In IFR we break these two experiences out separately because there is a whole world to explore and discover in each one. But if there are other interesting differences that you would like to share with the group, I would love to know any other thoughts or observations you have.


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@hender99 @Darren Or for a gentler, guided, introduction there’s @MireiaClua 's Recognising Chords by Ear IFR workshop where there are specially prepared tracks to provide ‘baby steps’ before diving into the real thing. I’m doing that at the moment. Week 1 concentrated on the 1 - 4 releationship. Week 2 on 1 - 5. We are now in Week 3 and have a dozen ‘Feel the Chords’ tracks for which all we know is that they will either use 1 & 4, or 1 & 5, it’s up to use an approach we’ve been taught to work out the structure of the progressions and which pair of chords it uses. Each week we’ve also had a playlist of relevant ‘real tracks’ for study too.

That bit still applies however we go about it, I’m sure! :slight_smile:

Thank you for mentioning our workshop, @DavidW. I really appreciate that you’re making the most of our program and even helping to explain it to others. One of the reasons I waited so long to participate in the forum is that I didn’t want to monopolize the conversation by always bringing it back to our own teaching. But my personal opinion is 100% what you just said. The way to learn to recognize the chord changes in jazz standards is to start with the most essential chords from Pure Harmony and actually master them. These are chords 1, 4, 5D and 6-, and together they represent the four most important emotional states in harmony: relaxation (major), suspension, tension and relaxation (minor).

It’s for this reason that these four chords are the subject of so many of our elementary courses:

IFR Jam Tracks Level 2: Pure Harmony Essentials
workshop - Chord Melody Guitar 1
workshop - Recognizing Chords by Ear

But even the investigation of these four chords can’t happen properly until after we’ve had a chance to explore the sounds melodically. So this points us to even more foundational work:

IFR Jam Tracks Level 1: Seven Worlds
Sing the Numbers 1: The IFR Tonal Map
Sing the Numbers 2: Seven Worlds

So this where we think the journey begins. It might look like a long road before you reach those jazz standards you want to understand. But even several years of deeply enriching personal experience is nothing but a passing moment in the context of an entire lifetime. (And it’s a lot better than spinning your wheels because you’re not grounded in reality.) So we think that in music, the slow road is actually the fast road. And we believe that the sincerity and patience that you’re showing in your music practice right now will reward you a thousand times over. Thank you for bringing that perspective into this conversation!

On a side note, we’re all preaching to the choir here because @Darren actually already took Mireia’s workshop Recognizing Chords by Ear, and he was one of our most positive and successful students. And @hender99 is deeply immersed in all of these concepts and practices also, and he could probably explain all of this as well as I could. So both Darren’s and Allan’s comments are wonderful extensions of our work together, and I appreciate them both very much. I just wanted to explain a little bit about how our methodology is organized for other students who might later be reading this thread.

Thanks to all three of you for your consistently wonderful contributions!


Thanks everyone for your suggestions and feedback.

I picked guitar back up a little over a year ago after a very long break. I’m pretty intellectually oriented, and tried an online course that was focused on practicing modes of the major scale. I learned a bit, but felt disconnected from actual music, and felt like I needed to seek a different approach. I didn’t realize it yet, but I think I had imagined that I just needed to build muscle memory with my chosen instrument, and musical sensibility would somehow emerge. I stumbled upon David’s book Improvise for Real, started with some of the online IFR resources, and had some really engaging email exchanges with David. He encouraged me to focus on singing and ear training, and quieting my hands, which was really insightful.

I’ve spent a lot of time now with the IFR learning materials, like the Sing the Numbers tracks, and the Recognizing Chords by Ear workshop. I’ve spent time listening with full attention, and time listening while working or falling asleep. It has been thrilling to make real progress (I’ve always had trouble learning foreign languages and worried it was too late in life to develop my ear).

I think the IFR backing tracks that help us focus on a single harmonic environment, and then slowly building up relationships and movement, have so much value for building an intimate understanding. I need those types of exercises that I can keep up with to explore and build a deeper relationship with the sounds and progressions. It is also really good to recognize IFR chord progression exercises in songs I’m familiar with, to get a sense of how the progressions may function in a larger context.

It is really interesting to read this comparison between Bill Evans and Chet Baker. I listen to them both a lot, and David even recommended Chet’s album “Chet”, where they play together, including “How High the Moon”. I would listen to that song and think: “simple”, “beautiful”, and “mystifying”, because I could deeply appreciate but not comprehend what was going on in the song. The first two chapters of “Hearin the Changes” talk about how variations of 5D-1 establish a tonal center, and how they can be used to create movement. It listed “How High the Moon” as an example to study, and what a thrill it was to look at the chord progression and comprehend the entire thing at some level! Its like a fully realized structure to me now, there is logic, movement and evolution that makes the whole thing coherent in my mind. I think I need that kind of context to help me work on improvising melodies that have motive. (At least, I hope that is something that can help me learn to improvise melodies that have motive.)

Hi @Darren, I had forgotten that I recommended the album “Chet” to you. That’s such a lovely album. It’s a perfect introduction to lyrical Chet Baker at his best. His playing is gentle and melodic, but with his inimitable imagination for combining harmony and the blues feel. Bill Evans is beautiful as always, and even Pepper Adams’ solos are haunting. For me, this is the true contemporary chamber music, in the romantic tradition of Chopin but with improvisation and a gentle swing. I actually prefer some other Chet Baker albums that are a bit more raw and intimate, because it’s his thought process and imagination that I find so beautiful and fascinating. This album is maybe a bit less complicated because every note is absolutely perfect in every way. But as a work of contemporary composition and social commentary, it’s hard to imagine a listening experience that is more purely beautiful than this album.

I love the path you’re on in your thinking and in your musical experiences. And I can totally relate to your excitement at discovering that downstep modulation and realizing that you can HEAR this in the music. That’s a thrilling connection to make, and every one of these discoveries is cause for celebration. The question of whether to then visualize all of these sounds on a single tonal map like we do in IFR or to navigate through the harmony in some other way is really much less important. The real discovery is just that music theory is ultimately talking about sounds and sensations that you yourself can hear and enjoy in the music. For most people, this personal discovery is a point of no return because suddenly the entire art form of modern music begins to feel like something you can truly understand and participate in.