Playing the Changes: It’s what separates the men from the boys.

mustachio-boyJazz improvisation is inherently subjective. What makes one solo “better” than any other is often a matter of taste, a preference for a given style. But while articulation, swing feel, and phrasing vary wildly from one great player to the next, every noteworthy improviser is able to effortlessly demonstrate a tune’s chordal movement. Just as any writer worth her salt showcases complete mastery over grammatical convention, the conversant jazz musician must be fully in command of the harmonic structure on top of which they are improvising. Simply put: You’ve gotta be able to play the changes!

Arguably even more important than their virtuosic technique and impeccable rhythmic feel, what makes the great players truly great is their unshakable fluency of harmonic language. Until you are playing all the changes over a tune, your not really playing the tune. All the cool licks in the world won’t make you sound any more proficient than a truckload of glue will convince anybody that little Tommy’s mustache is a all-natural, glorious Tom Selleck.


What does it really mean to be able to “play the changes”?

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the terminology, the “changes” are the chords that were originally composed to support the melody of a song.  Many musicians first face chord changes by being presented with an excerpt from a Real Book, known as a lead sheet, which states the melody and chords to a given tune.  As these changes are flying by, it is the job of the jazz musician to spontaneously compose a line that fits within the context of the harmony. More advanced jazz musicians will occasionally superimpose other, more complex harmonies on top of the original chord changes, with the intention of eventually resolving back to the originally composed harmonies to give their superimposition context. Some call this playing “out” and then back “in” [the chord changes].

Learning to play the changes takes many years of focused listening, practice, and patience. However, I’d like to offer 4 simple tips that will get you headed in the right direction:


Tip #1: Play ALL the changes

This may sound silly, but more I’m around jazz, the more I realize how critical it is to be aware of every single harmony you are playing over. When you catch yourself playing over a tune and thinking “G-minor-7, something, something, C-maj7”, don’t let is slide – either stop or go back later and figure out what “something” and “something” really are. Then practice outlining both “somethings” in your improvisation.


Tip #2: Don’t play “out” until you can play “in”

First learn to play chord tones over an entire tune (root, 3rd, 5th, and 7ths) and practice finding half-steps that nicely voice-lead between the chord changes. Next, be able to play eighth-note lines in time that are 100% “in”, meaning they use the voice-leading you practiced first to  make smooth transitions between the moving harmonies. Only once you are comfortable with may you then take on the added challenge, if you so desire, of adding your own harmonic flare by playing “outside”.


Tip #3: Throw out your “random stuff” lick ASAP!

A common pitfall of many inexperienced improvisers (and some experienced ones too!) is to constantly put a band-aid over their harmonic trouble-spots by playing the same random, chromatic or atonal lick.  It’s the jazz equivalent of having a conversation with bullshitter who says “like” and “um”, then just spews a bunch of random big words and other crap that is clearly BS. Be honest with yourself. The next time you’re practicing, take note of the times you play your “random stuff” lick and try to eliminate it from your repertoire.


 Tip #4: Learn the tune by ear

Staring at a real book is the absolute worst way to learn a tune. By finding a classic/standard recording of the tune and learning the harmonies by ear as you play along, you will learn how the tune sounds. Once you have internalized what the chord changes actually sound like, crafting solo lines that fit that sound becomes a far more natural exercise.


Now that I’ve sufficiently scared you into some dark hole, don’t be discouraged. Honestly, try not to worry about this too much outside the practice room and just play with your fellow musicians! Everybody struggles with everything I’ve talked about above at some point, and as long as you’re having fun playing the music, you will discover each of these things for yourself over time and be determined to overcome them.


By Mike Lebrun

Mike is a jazz saxophonist & composer committed to a brighter future for music. ...Full Bio


  1. Hi Mike,

    The more I learn the more complex it becomes. Thanks for your awesome post!



  2. Hey Mike,

    Would love to hear your thoughts on what to do when you find yourself repeating similar material over the same harmonic structures. How do you practice or think about breaking out of playing the same stuff a lot? (I realize this very well could be a whole other blog post) Thanks!

    1. Hi Alex, thanks for the great question! I absolutely struggle with this, and I know most musicians, even at the highest levels, feel the same way. An old teacher told me about a time he went backstage after a Michael Brecker show, and Brecker told him point-blank “I’m tired of playing the same stuff over and over.” That said, you’re probably right, this would make a great post! Briefly, one thing I’ve found useful is to find MORE things to play by allowing yourself to play LESS stuff. For example, constrain your blowing to a very narrow range of your horn (i.e. only play between low G and middle D), or force yourself to play for 5 minutes over a simple tune using only major and minor triads up and down, no scales (so over a Cmaj7, you can play the triads Cmaj, Dmin –or Dmaj for lydian–, Em, Fmaj,Gmaj, Amin,etc.). Be creative and set your own constraints, these are just a couple that I like to use. If you let the exercise settle in for a few minutes then eventually go back to paying the tune without constraints, you will hopefully find yourself thinking about different ways of connecting the changes rather than just plugging in your “go-to’s”. Hope this helps!

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