Home Alt Forums Saxophone Tips memorising a tune

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    I’ve always wanted to be able to play a tune on the sax either from memory or by ear, with or without a backing track, and never really come across any easy info that has worked for me.

    I finally boiled it down to my own system

    First, listen to the tune over and over and over, until you can remember how it goes in your head. If you can’t recall how a tune goes in your head, you certainly won’t be able to play it by ear. As an example try playing the song “Eating dust on mars” by ear, it’s impossible because you’ve never heard it, and you won’t know what to play as it doesn’t exist. So start out with an easy tune that you are familiar with, in my example i’ve picked ‘Blue Moon’, it’s one of those melodies that has stuck in my head quite easily.

    Secondly, Divide up the tune into separate lines made up of small sections. Transcribe each small section one at a time and practice playing each small section by ear or memory on the sax before transcribing the next small section of the tune.

    Transcribing the music to a blank sheet of paper, will help you remember it a lot easier than memorising the notes straight off a music sheet. When i say transcribe a piece of music, i mean transcribe it using numbers 1,2,3,4b,5,6,7 instead of F,G,A,Bb,C,D,E (ex if the music is in F Major) onto a blank sheet.

    ‘Blue Moon’ starts out (in my case i’m using F Major as my backing track is in F Major) like this

    mid C, High C, Bb, C, D, C, Bb, C……by trying to play it by ear or looking at the music sheet, which ever way you choose, you have to know what scale it is in, and the starting note of the tune. It is quite easy to work out what scale a tune is in, without having to rely on a music sheet to tell you, the same goes for the starting note.

    I would then transcribe the tune by listening to it and finding the keys on the sax and copying them to a blank page like this
    Line A: 5 /5 4 5 6 5 4 5 :: 2 3 4 3 2 3 :: 1 2 3 1 1 \7 /1
    Line B: 5 /5 4 5 6 5 5 4 5 :: 2 3 4 3 3 2 3 :: 1 2 3 1 1 \6 /1
    Line C: 1 1 1 2 2 2 2 3 3 1 1 :: 1 1 1 2 2 2 2 3 3 1 ::
    1 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 2 \7b 7b :: 7b 7b 7b 7 7 7 7 /2 2 5
    Line B: 5 /5 4 5 6 5 5 4 5 :: 2 3 4 3 3 2 3 :: 1 2 3 1 1 \6 /1
    Line D: 5 /5 6 5 :: /1 \6 5 3b 2 1 \6 /1 :: \6 /1 2 3b 2 1 \6 /3 3 :: 3 3b 3 4 3 1 \6 /1

    So what i’ve got is Lines A, B, C and D, each broken down into small learnable sections separated by “::” where i memorise or play by ear each section at a time, until i can recall a whole line.

    “/“ means Slide Up into the next Octave above
    “\” means Slide Down into the Octave below
    Numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 are always played within the same Octave

    You might be wondering why use numbers – because if i can recall the numbers, then i can play the tune in any Scale (i have “Blue Moon” in 12 backing track scales to practice it on).

    Thirdly, to be able to play any scale using numbers isn’t that hard. All you have to do is spend an hour or so, playing the scale in terms of numbers. ex play 1, then play 1,2,1 then play 1,2,3,2,1 then play 1,2,3,4,3,2,1 then play 1,2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1 then play 1,2,3,4,5,6,5,4,3,2,1 finally play 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 all the time remembering where each number is on the sax keyboard. Then start playing random numbers between 1 and 7, so you can jump around the numbers from memory. When you get to that stage then you can try playing Lines A, B, C, B, D and memorising each small Section.

    Fourthly, by listening to the tune, and playing along with the tune, you can develop a better sense of timing with the track from memory, rather than reading the timing on a music sheet.

    The first time you try this process is the hardest, by the time you’ve done several different songs, the playing by ear process gets a lot easier. In fact i should say, by the time you’ve done twenty tunes, playing by ear becomes more natural.

    blue moon in F major


    in this recording, i used the same backing track in a different key, and just randomly improvised along to it in one take.

    if anyone else has some useful tips on playing from memory or playing by ear or a combination of the two, i’d be interested in hearing

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