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The Real Book (99percentinvisible.org)
558 points by mpweiher 2 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 135 comments

When I was a teenager, my music teacher always had a copy of the Real Book around. I went to a local music store and was looking through their music books when one of the employees asked, 'is there something I can help you find?' When I said the Real Book, he said, 'oh, we don't keep that out here'... he disappeared for a minute and came back with a copy from the back room. At the time, I felt like I had been admitted into a secret club.

I have a very clear memory of taking the subway to a random music shop in Boston near Berklee as a teenager that an older musician friend had told me about that had Real Books in the back. Went up to the counter and when I asked for it the person working there got real quiet, asking me what key I needed it in, and then ducked into the back to grab it. I think it was something like $45, which was a lot for 15 year old me in the 90s at the time. It definitely felt like a secret club! I loaned it out to a drummer friend in college and never got it back, I should ask him if he still has it.

I thought they were all in the same key! I got mine because someone gave it to me. Then later I gave it to someone.

they come in the different transposed keys for instruments that read in different keys, but technically. the actual key, is all the same.

And the good jazz musicians can play their instrument from the C version. Over time you learn to transpose on the fly. It's just 12 keys after all, and the melodies tend to be not that complicated anyway.

When I was learning to play the saxophone my instructor had an old copy of the Real Book. The transcriptions of songs by some of the jazz legends would blow my mind. I thought the people being able to transcribe those were geniuses (still do). They had no sophisticated software to help them. It was all done manually by listening to countless hours of recordings over and over again. All those chord changes, harmonies, the extra fast tempo...

That also reminds me of Phil Schapp. He used to run (probably still does) a radio program at Columbia University. Most astonishing encyclopedic knowledge of jazz!! Have a listen sometime. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Schaap

Edit: Added Wikipedia link.

> They had no sophisticated software to help them.

Which is a shame because they sometimes make bad transcriptions...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFWCbGzxofU is a deep dive by Adam Neely into "Girl From Ipanema" covering how "The Real Book" neutered the blues countermelody because ... someone just didn't write it down in the 70s and everyone learns it from TRB now.

Guitar tab sites always had the same problem with bad transcriptions. Fortunately, there’s a whole generation of musicians that do fairly accurate “how to play” series on YouTube.

IMO Ultimate guitar has really great tabs for most reasonably popular songs. The ratings don't seem to be gamed as much as other sites as well. It's almost good enough to forgive all the shady UX patterns all over the site.

The current version of this website is so shaddy and specifically geared to destroy the original concept of tabs being easy to copy and edit. This website is now the antithesis of where it started. It is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the modern web.

Have the two of you given Songsterr a try? I've used it a couple times in its nascent years, and it seemed promising. But boy I used it again recently and it's improved a _lot_ and their library of songs has also grown substantially! I really love Songsterr now and check there before Ultimate Guitar if I need anything.

Same thing with Blue Bossa. The syncopation in the original is completely missing in the Real Book chart, and now every high school jazz musician learns it the Real Book way and runs it into the ground.

If you're just straight up reading from The Real Book and not listening to the records, you're playing yourself.

I was also lucky to have a piano teacher who would correct the wrong stuff in the real book for me.

The software that helps is the ability to play and replay any part of the track, or slow things down a bit. The "transcription" is usually done by someone who knows music...

Thanks for sharing that! What a great dive into the particulars—way beyond my music theory knowledge, but still accessible.

This video is absolutely fascinating. Thank you!

No sophisticated software, but you could take a turntable and play a 33 1/3 RPM record at half speed (16 2/3 RPM) and that would drop the recording by an octave but keep the notes the same.

Another way was put stacks of coins on the LP to slow it down

I've spoken to a few professional arrangers, and I always ask "How many times did you have to listen to that to write it down?"

"Just once."

Genius indeed. Or 10,00 hours. Or both.

I had the misfortune of having a friend in high school who could listen to something and transcribe it. I remember at band camp watching him with a cassette player and manuscript player transcribing an instrumental break from a Chicago song. He'd play a couple seconds, score it out, then play a couple more seconds until he was done.

I say misfortune because I assumed this was a binary thing: you either could do it or you couldn't, and I was in the latter category. Later in life, I found that it was a learnable skill (probably what did more than anything else for me in developing my ear was being part of the cathedral choir and doing a lot of sight singing in harmony) (another aside, having done a lot of church music over the years, it was interesting to see the level of musicianship of the cathedral choir, and I was in the larger amateur group rather than the smaller professional group—where in most church choirs, each section would have their part played at the piano and they'd sing it back, the cathedral choir would have all four parts played together at the piano and everyone would sing back in harmony. The professionals didn't bother with the piano part and just sight-sang everything, including some really tricky harmonies, like having the sopranos sing a high F against an E minor chord in the lower voices.) At my peak, I was able to work on writing music while walking without any instrument and come home and transcribe what I'd written including all the harmonizations. I've lost some of that skill from lack of practice in the years since and I had to use Capo to recover the chord progression of a piece I wrote where I couldn't remember one of the chords in the middle 8.

So bottom line, there are some people for whom this comes naturally but it is absolutely a learnable skill.

This is true of other skills that seem magical. One that stands out to me as being learnable, but often seen as magical, is 'savant like' memory capabilities.

People assume that these people have different minds and that is how they have such incredible recall, but the truth is our memories are really strong when the recall is a spatial query and the object being recalled is encoded well. People mistake their short term memory for their actual memory and they often don't do the work of encoding and decoding their thinking to improve its compression properties. This leads to the impression that our memory capabilities are much worse then they are.

If you properly encode the memory into a spatial context you can have rather incredible feats of memory. It just takes work to do the proper encoding and decoding and the creation of spatial contexts in which to store the things you want to remember.

That happens often with things that seem magical. Edward Tufte had an amazing observation about magic that really sticks with me: magic is an art of misinformation wherein the objective is to hide the work that was done. Oftentimes magical things are things which take a lot of work, but that work is hidden.

for 'savant like memory', see the book ' Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything' HN discussion here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4528807

and on the memory palace: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2395739

and on spaced repetitions https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24857437 and https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13151790

I would think definitely some 10,000 involved. I have done transcriptions for years, but not very frequently. I don't have 10,000 hours, but I have more hours today than I did 20 years ago. And I'm definitely better at it. Ive reached the point where some music I really can just hear and write down, but there's still plenty that I need to work at meticulously.

I'm a bassist. I got my Real Book in 1982. I was already playing in the high school jazz band, but as a suburban kid, I had zero exposure to things like jam sessions and live jazz performances. Nobody had taught me how to learn harmonies from recordings, so I was kind of lost. The Real Book gave me a way to follow recorded tunes and grasp what the players were doing. Later on, being able to play from "lead sheets" enabled me to play with musicians who were a lot better than me, and was really how I learned to play.

But eventually, I was hauling a ton of fake books to every gig. About 20 years ago, I was running late, and decided to leave my fake books behind. And I survived. I had memorized most of the tunes that were played regularly in my locale, and forced myself to learn the rest by ear, on the bandstand.

So I tell people that the two best things I've done for my jazz playing were: Getting a Real Book, and getting rid of my Real Book. Today, those tunes are hopelessly overplayed, and I prefer finding bands to play with, who are willing to venture off the beaten path, with less familiar tunes or especially original material.

hah I had the same problem, finally about two years ago I decided it was time to ween myself off the book. A guy in my area has a small school which is largely focused on getting players off-book with the top couple hundred standards. It's definitely a slow process at first, but what I think is remarkable is how (even setting aside the blues or rhythm changes tunes) how much faster memorizing new tunes goes once you've done 50 or 60.

I think that I had assumed, perhaps partly because of the existence of the book, that while memorizing pop or rock songs is relatively easy, permanently memorizing standards with a lot of changes was not a realistic thing, but now I know that its really more that the problem space is just larger for standards, and its just a matter of exploring that space for a while that you get familiar enough that you can listen and guess your way through tunes you're shaky on. Now, the book seems like more trouble than its worth on gigs because it takes a lot of my limited cycles to stare at it. But boy did it take a while to get to that point!

I've learned that the changes are actually relatively forgiving. Many of the fake book changes are different from the harmonies that were used when the tunes were show and popular tunes.

Also, even if you're a rhythm player, tunes are a lot easier to memorize if you learn melodies. And that helps in two ways. The first is just having a better grasp of the tune, and the second is that if you're unsure of the changes, you can improvise directly from the melody.

Granted, as a bass player I can get away with not knowing all of those 7ths, 9ths, etc. "I solemnly swear to play the root, the whole root, and nothing but the root, so help me Dusty Hill."

> Today, those tunes are hopelessly overplayed

Which is, in fact, the point.

You can't "jam" over a tune that everybody doesn't know forwards, backwards, and sideways.

I do agree that it would be nice if musicians added something from the latter half of the 20th century to "standards".

You absolutely can jam over a song you don't know inside and out. If everyone did know the song that well then you're just playing the song. Real "jamming" (not trying to be too pedantic with the use of the word) happens when you don't know where the song/jam is going and you build off of and comp each other.

Jamming over a tune that you don't know is called "faking." That's a skill unto itself. ;-) But I think it's also a skill worth learning.

I've spent a lot of time playing bass on stage with band's I've never rehearsed.

I heard a saying the other day you might like...

bass players aren't paid to play quickly, they are paid to hear quickly.

> bass players aren't paid to play quickly, they are paid to hear quickly.

Stanley Clarke probably disagrees :)

Seriously: I think it's a great quip.

One of the really annoying things that has led me to pursue other instruments is that, no matter how good I get, it's generically inappropriate for me to play like that most of the time.

I can play tunes by Jaco or Les Claypool, but I can't play that at a country, blues, or bluegrass gig. Or even most of the jazz gigs I've played, for that matter. :D

Indeed, I also tell people that we're not paid for the notes that we play, but for the notes that we don't play.

The Real Book is a great and weird learning tool. It's a rite of passage in jazz education to realise that your favorite tune isn't actually how it was written in the Real Book. Miles Davis didn't get it wrong -- the Real Book did! And just like that, you have your first bit of secret jazz knowledge...

There are also some dated, now-seemingly-bizarre choices that were included. These quickly become in-jokes among folks boning up on classic tunes. "Should we do Speak No Evil, Ceora, or...General Mojo's Well-laid Plan?"

My favorite weirdness is the creative harmonisation of late 60s free jazz. The chords offered for "Orbits" are quite cool but very much the transcriber's imagination.

Yes, it's inadequate and flawed if it's the only resource offered. But it's no gatekeeper, it's a gate-opener. I prefer to see it as an invitation to dig deeper. Someone practicing "Billy's Bounce" might gaze in disbelief at "Some Skunk Funk". What's going on with the mixed meter in this Charles Mingus guy's tunes? And thus it facilitates our going out to discover more styles, more players, more music.

To be fair, General Mojo's Well-Laid Plan is from "Duster" by Gary Burton's band with Larry Coryell, which is considered to be one of the first fusion records and was really influential at the time.

Gary Burton was also a Berklee local, as were composers of many of the other seemingly obscure selections. Those tunes probably were in fact "standards" in that time and place, and through The Real Book, likely achieved more prominence than they would have otherwise.

I find it curious though that General Mojo didn't make it in to the Hal Leonard "6th Edition". I find it hard to believe that they couldn't secure the rights; did they just deem it too obscure? For trying to recreate the old book, seems like an unfortunate loss. Those tunes gave the book part of its character.

I never saw the original Real Book. I bought the New Real Book from Shel Music and it seems pretty good? (I mostly don't play jazz and bought it out of curiosity.)

For beginners I recommend starting with The Real Easy Book which has some simpler tunes, mostly blues-based.

Fascinating! It's sort of similar to "bootlegged" guitar tabs on alt.guitar.tab newsgroup and OLGA. There was lots of legal action by publishers and a lot of the content is now lost, or at least not easily accessible online anymore.

...except for an archive of the classical tabs, selflessly maintained by one guy:


Don't tell anyone!

> 2900 classical guitar tabs in plain text format

> Use a maximum of 80 characters a line so that the tab prints out ok

> An 9MB downloadable zip file is available of the whole site

The fact that I had an upwelling of joy reading those lines on a nice, plain webpage just goes to show how far we go to lock down and bloat up so many things these days. Thanks for linking! The scrolling versions of the tabs are neat as well.

> do NOT use the 'Tab' character for spacing

I had no idea the "tabs vs spaces" debate raged in other corners of the universe...

I've always felt that Vim would be an incredible tab editor with the right config. I'm not enough into vim enough to actually make it happen, but if somebody is, I'm interested!

I’m feeling uneasy because I know there’s a whole generation of “one-person” shops which run these important websites. I hope they have a transition plan in place for the inevitable.

Yeah. I got nervous so I downloaded the site and put a mirror up on IPFS: https://ipfs.io/ipfs/QmWG7VPMwC6T1PCp5G77AjrLCJMrmSQshYovf3i...

It's not perfect, because if he updates his site my mirror won't necessarily be updated, but hopefully it's better than nothing. I'm pinning that on two seperate computers so it should have some resiliency, but if someone else wants to pin it too that'll do a lot for keeping it up.

Thank you for doing the good work.

Archive.org to the rescue

What is the Real Book? (a jazz shibboleth) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dD0e5e6wI_A)

Someone should make an online "real book" for electronic music production, with a bunch of popular beats and instructions for how to reproduce them in a DAW. Does such a thing exist?

Attack Magazine has a section called Beat Dissected which teaches sub-genre beat making.


Will second. This is about as granular and well put-together as I’ve seen for teaching electronic beat-making.

It’s sometimes hard to do this because oftentimes in electronic music the sound or technique can rely on a quirk of the specific synth or sample. Attack do a great job considering.

Syntorial is a comprehensive hands-on introduction to subtractive (IIRC?) synth programming (not DSP programming, but fiddling knobs like you would in a typical commercial soft synth), including add-ons specifically for popular commercial soft synths like Massive. Their forum also encourages people to share synths they hear in popular music and help each other recreate the sound.

They also produce Building Blocks, which is all about music theory and composition and teaches some basic beats (and, more importantly, I think, how to think about beats so that it becomes easier to recreate ones you hear from scratch).

Both are by the same creator - great resource:

Building Blocks - https://www.audiblegenius.com/

Syntorial - https://www.syntorial.com/

Other commenters have mentioned books with beats and patterns in them. While we're at it, here is a great one for classic (and not-so-classic) synthesizer sounds. "Welsh's Synthesizer Cookbook"


An issue I have with this is that most of the electronic music I produce isn't really so much trying to follow a melody or harmony, but is mostly "new stuff".

However, I have been playing keys in a Pink Floyd cover band for the last two months, and that process of both learning the parts and, more interestingly, programming patches in my synths to mimic the stuff has been fun. I just programmed the patch for "Brain Damage" this afternoon, and I've been finding various walkthroughs and tutorials very helpful, even if the basic tones (mostly saws and squares with a ladder filter) are pretty easy.

I really like fakebooks, but Youtube has kind of obviated the need for the various textbooks that were popular in the 80s, at least for me.

Not quite what you're asking for, but it's really good.


There is a book called "The Theory and Technique of Electronic Music" written by Miller Puckette (creator of Max / Pure Data visual programming languages). That is quite heavy on the mathematical side though - really is more like the title suggests the theory underlying the DSP.

Ableton have some online content like https://learningmusic.ableton.com/ which is laid out in chapter form and uses https://tonejs.github.io/ for browser synthesis / sequencing etc

That's more like textbooks though. I was talking more about a tune by tune cheatsheet. That would probably involve some shorthand notation (does that exist?)

yeah, fair point about the Miller Puckette book - that is indeed a full on textbook.

Check some of the Ableton chapters a bit more closely though - https://learningmusic.ableton.com/make-basslines/good-life.h... is this not something like you're referring to? Has a grid with the midi notes in place arranged just like you'd see in a DAW. I think they have an exporter for the MIDI into ableton as well

They had them for Minimoogs, where you could buy a book of patches with the control settings to get different sounds, including those from some popular songs: http://www.synthzone.com/midi/moog/minimoog/MINIMOOG%20PATCH...

But that doesn't convey the melody/harmony/rhythm, only the sound design.

Attack Magazine put out a book called The Secrets of Dance Music Production, which has some fairly good "beat starter" breakdowns of how a 16-step beat would be sequenced different styles of electronic music, such as deep house, tech-house, trance, etc. https://store.attackmagazine.com/products/the-secrets-of-dan...

Not what you asked, but a digital version of the current Real Book does exist and makes common appearances on band stands! https://www.irealpro.com/

Yes! I am surprised there isn’t a definitive source for common sequencer beats and grooves.

There are some older books like: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Machine-Patterns-Leonard-Publishing... which is just tabulating lots of common rhythm patterns from a wide number of genres.

and some more modern ones like: https://op-forums.com/t/pocket-operations-a-portable-book-of...

Neither of these are online though and would be well suited to it I agree.

A quick search also came up with: http://808.pixll.de/ which has drum patterns uploaded by users for popular songs

I already have the Pocket Operations book - it’s great. Thanks for those other links.

not a definitive resource but recently learn about the pretty cool https://hiphoptranscriptions.com/

Back in the 90s, one of my friends excitedly declared that she'd managed to get her hands on an illegal real book. At her birthday party, I found myself at the piano playing requests from it, but I wasn't familiar with the convention used in the book to write, e.g., C- for Cmin and I had assumed that the dash meant a diminished rather than minor chord. I had some really weird harmonizations coming out of that.

I've had the exact same experience... There were a few early, illegal Real Books that had songs you couldn't get ahold of from the licensed versions.

I can't help thinking that this story is a fantastic example of the free market at work. Two college kids use their insight to spot a market need that the "big guys" missed, and create a wonderful, useful product that becomes a smash hit.

Of course, when I say "the free market", I'm talking about the one where good ideas can be shared and copied freely --- not the one populated by sheet music landlords, whose laws were flouted every step of the way for great public benefit.

In fact, a lot of this music wouldn't exist if not for people freely sharing and copying ideas. The article mentions "authorship disputes that go back to the early days of jazz. Many jazz songs arise out of collective tinkering and improvising in jam sessions. It’s sometimes quite hard to say who exactly wrote a given song."

"But how is that a market if things are shared and copied freely? No, there must be property rights and strict enforcements and protection of those rights, and ideally the more property one has, the more their rights are protected: so that small and ineffective market participants can be forced out easier, that'd allow for arriving at economies of scale quicker which will improve things for everyone, yes, even for those whose property was reassigned to better owners".

As much as it is criticized for being used to gatekeep in the jazz scene so to speak, it is nice to have somewhat of a reference for competency. Music is so subjective that when you are teaching yourself it can be hard to know if you are heading in the right direction.

Music is all about utilizing shared language, and I feel The Real Book was just a way to add some depth to the expected knowledge base in a certain scene. Kinda like software patterns.

In case anyone missed it, this article is just the text summary that goes along with an episode of 99% Invisible. It's my favorite podcast, and I would encourage any HN fan to check it out.

I had no idea this history! My Bb copy for trumpet must have been from the first year of legitimate production. Always enjoyed reading this handmade comic-sans-y notation and have fond memories of my high school trio playing extended version of Red Clay.

I think we had a few copies of this in my high school's jazz band (the director of the movie Whiplash was from the same band). I played the flute so had inch thick folders of handwritten music transposed from the tenor sax or trumpet parts.

Growing up, my uncle had every Jazz book in the world. He was world-renowned Jazz Educator. Because I was just a kid, I had no idea how famous. I remember seeing shelves upon shelves of realbooks, etc. I appreciate this article so much. Thanks for sharing.

If you are who I suspect you are, my first real jazz education was a class using one of your uncle's books (along with the Real Book). Great experience.

One of the best purchases I ever made was a two-volume collection of jazz standards published in Japan with the English subtitle “All of the Jazz Standard [sic]” [1, 2, 3]. It includes the melody, chords, and lyrics for over 400 well-selected songs. A bit pricey, but all of the songs seem to have been properly licensed for publication in Japan.

I bought my copy twenty years ago and I’ve been using it ever since. (I play piano.)

[1] https://www.amazon.co.jp/-/en/%E9%AB%98%E5%B3%B6-%E6%85%B6%E...

[2] https://www.amazon.co.jp/-/en/%E9%AB%98%E5%B3%B6-%E6%85%B6%E...

[3] https://page.auctions.yahoo.co.jp/jp/auction/g271937333

Saw the title, and thought it is going to be about what Erdos referred to as The Book, in which God keeps the most elegant proof of each mathematical theorem.

Incarnated as the wonderful Proofs from THE BOOK by Martin Aigner and Günter M. Ziegler.


> During a lecture in 1985, Erdős said, "You don't have to believe in God, but you should believe in The Book."

I always loved the handwriting :) So consistent, so charming.

I can still remember going to Kinkos with a friend’s copy of the real book in 1996 to make a copy of my own and get it spiral bound.

Not only did you get the charts, but you got their notes. And the notes of anyone before them from the book’s lineage.

Still have. Still use it.

> I can still remember going to Kinkos with a friend’s copy of the real book in 1996 to make a copy of my own and get it spiral bound.

I was, around that time, a Kinko's employee, and the company got really sticky about copyright in the next couple of years, especially after the regional franchises were bought out, clamping down on the official unofficial nod-nod-wink-wink say-no-more policy. A lot of it was driven by photographers upset at people getting their event photos scanned for which the photographer kept the rights, and students duplicating textbooks or handouts, but it bled into nearly everything and was becoming a huge PITA. My understanding is that it got even stricter after the FedEx purchase, though I wasn't there at that point.

I had the original Eb version but later bought the licensed C version. Some of my favorite tunes disappeared, now I understand what happened. Great article.

I remember learning to play classics but also just enjoyed reading along with stuff I had no chance of learning myself.


Illegal sheet music, underground comics, the "Anarchist's Cookbook" and similar... long tradition.

I don't know if that analogy holds. A fake book is indispensable for working dance bands who want to play at banquets or whatever where someone will request songs the band hasn't played before. The Anarchist's Cookbook is just for teenagers to download and feel like they are sticking it to the man. There are not, to my knowledge, a whole lot of practicing anarchists.

Good point. a closer analogy might be found in that body of knowledge i would call "telecom bullshit"; the arcane private standards that start to happen whenever you get near anything carrier or cell phone type stuff. I'm largely ignorant of it, but there is a library of data there thats certainly "encumbered" and still necessary.

The minutiae of building codes; plumbing and electrical specifically, are such a body of knowledge without a corresponding bible. There's the apprenticeship "how its done," which implies "around here, where we know what the inspectors like"; in many places the inspectors have never seen a copy of the codes they're supposed to be enforcing.

> The Anarchist's Cookbook is just for teenagers to download and feel like they are sticking it to the man

It does contain instructions on how to manufacture some smaller types of explosives and other goodies, so it's not completely useless. It was also initially released before the internet, and since the creation of the internet, lost a bit of it's usefulness of course.

> There are not, to my knowledge, a whole lot of practicing anarchists.

Maybe not where you live, but anarchism lives on across the world and you can find practicing anarchists inside most states around the world today, some groups bigger than others, CNT and FIJL being probably some of the bigger ones today.

Since this is HN, any advice for someone wanting to get from basically zero music knowledge to reading and playing jazz stuff? Let's say keyboard or guitar.

I do know some music theory from elementary / high school.

I'm a part time working jazz bassist. Agreeing with the others, my advice is to first just learn to play, but make sure you experience both reading and playing by ear. The latter you can start at any time by listening to recordings and trying to sing the tunes. In fact, when someone says they are struggling with playing a tune, a teacher will often ask: "Did you try to sing it first?"

You can find teachers who focus on jazz. Let them know your intentions. Make sure they force you to play melodies in addition to chords, and to read from standard notation in addition to tabulature.

Eventually you should look for a beginner jam session. In my locale, before the COVID, there were multiple jam sessions at different times and places, but one of them was deliberately organized as a learning session for beginners. It was hosted by some local jazz educators, and they may even have gotten some sort of grant for it.

A good thing about guitar or piano is that you can function in a rhythm section before you are fully up to speed as an improv soloist. The same is true of the bass.

I'm going to give different advice from the other person. Start out getting some basic technique and reading ability, but when you want to play jazz stuff, it's really a language. Learn by imitating -- transcribe (by ear) and play other people's solos and try to get the articulations, dynamics, rhythms, and so forth exactly right. Train your ear -- learn to hear the different chord colors (major/minor/dominant/diminished/half-diminished) and degrees of the scale.

A lot of this can be self-taught, but it really helps to have a mentor, and lessons can really be helpful. That's what I did when I initially learned in high school. Go on your own until you hit a roadblock or get stuck in a rut, then take a lesson.

Also, don't forget that jazz is a communal activity. After you achieve some base level of competence, you really need to start playing with other people, and preferably other people who are better than you are.

I've played both piano and guitar for over a decade, at what I'd consider to be a relatively advanced hobbyist level. I enjoy playing jazz, but I'm not so sure anyone would enjoy listening!

For me, lots of theory concepts "click" more easily on the piano. I think it's partially a visual thing -- on a keyboard things like intervals are visually apparent (how many keys are between these two notes), whereas it requires a bit more mental overhead to conceptualize the same things on a guitar fretboard.

I greatly prefer to discover and play around with new musical ideas on the keyboard first for this reason. Others' mileage may vary!

As far as resources go, I'm a fan of Mark Levin's "The Jazz Theory Book". It starts with basic theory then works through more advanced concepts.

I think you're probably right, but I do think guitar has one ease of use advantage over piano. scales and chords are "moveable" on guitar in a way they are not on piano. once you learn, say, the c major scale on guitar, you can just slide it up a fret and you have a c# major scale. same pattern and muscle memory. to do the same on piano, you have to actually keep track of what is sharp/flat in the scale. ideally you would develop a good understanding of the circle of fifths either way, but you don't necessarily have to on guitar.

maybe it makes no difference and I just feel this way because I've spent more time with guitars than pianos. when I sit down in front of a piano, I can't escape the feeling that it's biased towards c major.

I find the discrepancy between the bottom four and top two strings gives me trouble in terms of patterns.

The bass has truly portable patterns, which makes it super easy to learn.

Piano is built around octaves, so once you can play a scale in one, it works in any, unlike the guitar.

Go back to the fundamentals first. https://www.musictheory.net/lessons Learn this by heart then learn it again!

Best lessons ever for Music Notation and Music Theory 101. Just keep in mind this is for the "western common-practice period", not some kind of intrinsic property of music.

Then watch a lot of Adam Neely, learn on https://www.justinguitar.com/ if you play guitar, and just devote lots of hours to the many, many, many free resources on the internet (which now you will be able to search for, since you will start to know the unknown unknowns).

See you in a few years, the self-taught way is long but rewarding. Have fun!

EDIT: Also, remember learning both horizontally (theory) and vertically (play the damn tunes!) It's easy to fall into the unidimensional growth trap.

If you like music nerd stuff you should check out Rick Beato on YT.

Also if you like having a person with an inflated ego stuff his awful opinions down your throat you should check out Rick Beato on YT

I like him for the storytelling. He reminds me of my primary school teacher, fond memories, who always turned any subject into personal anecdotes, gently opinionated, slightly inflated and imaginative. Rick's generation perhaps among the last who grew up on low bandwidth media and loads of storytelling all day long among everyone.

His music theory approach is useless. It's just a checklist of terms that fit into his particular grid that day. No one wrote any worthwhile pop or rock songs with theoretic emphasis, ever.

Examples of his awful opinions and ego? I’ve watched him occasionally over the years but haven’t noticed this.

For the record I generally like Beato's channel. I suspect part of what you dislike is a result of the YouTube-ification of his videos. Making everything amped up, strong opinions, etc. Watch some videos from 5 years ago. There are no "wow!"s in response to every line in a song, more nuanced opinion, etc.

Unfortunately, though, he's been a little more clickbait-y of late. For example his "rant" videos, which are both very clickable and don't have copyright claims like most his videos. I expect to see more of these going forward now that he knows he can rant for 30 min, cut it down to 10 min, post it, and make $10k from ad views.

The "What Makes This Song Great?" series is wonderful. If for no other reason where else are you going to here isolated tracks from your favorite songs? But I somewhat suspect he was trolling his viewers with doing one on "Since You Been Gone" a few weeks ago. I enjoy the song and am happy to crank it up and dance with my kids, but the production / arrangement is typical Dr. Luke blandness. But of course I still watched the whole video, waiting for him to "break kayfabe". :)


He doesn't really understand electronic music in my opinion. I find these sweeping statements about how "x ruined y" to be extremely lazy. Especially when it comes to comments about computers and music from these traditionally rock-ist people

Totally agree, needing to groove or follow harmony in some ways is a limited way of thinking about music. And my job is to teach people how to groove and follow harmony! One of my favorite types of music is electro acoustic because it is soooo far from the ideas of western music, probably most similar in formal structure. That being said Radio Head’s ‘Amnesiac’ is a superb example at bringing together the extended sonic pallets of electro acoustic in a main stream setting. What are some examples where you feel technology has enhanced traditional music forms?

Yeah, Radiohead are a great example indeed of bringing these two worlds together. Kid A is another amazing one from them.

When you say "traditional music forms" what do you mean specifically? I'm trying to avoid going down a rabbit hole of references which answer the wrong question :D

My answer to any question would change day to day really, especially at the moment as I'm finding lots of new and interesting ways to think about and approach production. Last night I was watching this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VspVQiG6hj8 (most well known as the artist Rrose making pitch black techno) which presents such a simple idea for creating an interesting drone sound using resonance alone & without any actual audio input.

I think a lot of the early IDM people like Aphex Twin, Autechre etc in their music have really used technology to push music beyond its traditional forms. And you have people like Oval that go with this kind of idea of "the medium is the message" (https://archive.aec.at/media/assets/b3d9569953edbc479d2a7bf6...) marking CDs to create glitches etc and surfing through filestystems to create microsamples

yeah 'traditional music forms' was a poor choice of words, guess I meant western music, or modern popular styles.

I really love synthesis & IDM but I tend to gravitate more towards soundscape compositions that are made of samples that have been abstracted to varying degrees. For example here's a piece I made that loosely follows Sonata form but has very little harmony or rhythm. Made completely of samples from an outside field and my living room. https://soundcloud.com/anthony-nagid/the-reality-sculptor-st...

Thanks for the essay, I'll put that in my que! There's a book I really like on 'The Art of Sound Organization' that got me into these styles. https://www.amazon.com/Understanding-Art-Sound-Organization-...

I share the same feeling as parent post.

The video where they sit down listening to various string gauges and nod at the obvious tone change comes to my mind. I'm 99% sure they would not see any difference in a blind test.

He also has plenty of videos about his past, his achievements, very opinionated tastes about what is good, etc. I find it quite annoying and over self centered.

Agreed on the blind test prediction.

However, electric guitarists are placebo addicts and if 4 nice men spent a 20 minute internet video agreeing on something one of the bearded guys from ZZ Top maybe once said, some guitarists will play along with a little bit more ease in their hearts.

I have a stack of them in my office. The Real Book, the Real Christmas Book, the Real Rock Book and more. They are awesome if you can sight read and great as a learning tool.

Real book and fake book have been so influential that transcription errors or „odd“ choices have somewhat become Standards and you see people be irritated if people play the original compositions

The real book is actually full of egregious mistakes and philosophically speaking is quite questionable. There’s a significant body of great Jazz musicians (eg: Yotam Silberstein) who avoid the book at all costs. My teacher -who’s part of Yotam’s quintet- is also very careful with the book and tries to avoid it.

On any list of "Jazz for Beginners" you'll see Blue Bossa, and right off the bat, in the fourth measure, The Real Book has an unlikely Bb7 chord. Most jazz musicians I've spoken with use the changes Cm7 / Cm7 / Fm7 / Fm7 for the first four measures, instead of The Real Book's Cm / Cm / Fm7 / Bb7. I'm not sure how that Bb7 got there, or how it's stayed there after 50 years, but there it is.

I just checked since I’ve never heard it played with that Bb7 in bar 4... I’ve got one of the old unlicensed editions and it has the “right” changes, Cm7 / Cm7 / Fm7 / Fm7. Some of the stuff in the legal versions is particularly wonky.

There is a great potcast at the bottom of the page worth listening to, with even more interesting information than in the article. So many people were using the Real Book for years without knowing who actually compiled and typeset all these wonderful lead sheets.

This is the problem with modern jazz. Treating it as some kind of canon is the antithesis of what it was in the first place. It's tantamount to writing down a conversation between two ancient philosophers and repeating it ad nauseum, expecting some new insight. Keith Jarett wasn't concerned with the stuff Art Tatum had done. Miles Davis wasn't trying to build on Louis Armstrong's rendition of Wonderful World. They were both exploring new spaces and trying desperately to break from the past to discover new forms. The mindless repetition and riffing on standards is why jazz has died as a relevant genre of music, and is seen as something that corny old men in suits listen to while sipping whiskey and feeling refined. Jazz used to be the cool sound because it was the avant garde, not some pretentious collection of standards written by dead people.

If you're not familiar with what those old philosophers said and how their arguments work, you're liable to make yourself look like a fool when you tread old ground not realizing it's old. Similarly with Jazz, if you wanna be avant garde, you should have some idea of the body of work that's come before you. A lot of the best musical rule breakers were classically trained and knew their shit.

>A lot of the best musical rule breakers were classically trained and knew their shit.

Classical training is a different story. Musical theory is endlessly useful to know. But jazz has been stuck in a certain kind of sound for the last 40 years since those people who actually made it gave way to those who simply play it. And now there's just this idea of what jazz is and ought to be, rather than treating it as what is was originally; a complete break from the roots of the western classical tradition into a wholly new art form informed by the limitations of what they were leaving behind.

It's sort of a cargo cult situation, really. You have these incredible artifacts left behind that came about as a result of complex processes of intense effort and struggle, yet those who inherited them act as if by imitating the same thing, they will get the same results. It's completely missing the point.

"a complete break from the roots of the western classical tradition into a wholly new art form informed by the limitations of what they were leaving behind"

Wait, what? A whole lot of the western harmonic tradition went right into jazz. The "standards" are Tin Pan Alley songs from the first half of the 20th century. A lot of the bebop harmony came straight out of Debussy and Ravel. Third Stream music was an explicit synthesis of classical music and jazz. Some of Coltrane's innovations came out of Nicolas Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Musical Patterns. The walking bass was in Baroque music (Bach). While you cannot neglect the African side of it (rhythm, the blues, improvisation) nor neglect that it was Black people who put together the pieces and created the music, saying that it was a "complete break from the roots of the western classical tradition" is farcical.

And it's a tradition, not a cargo cult. There are still people alive today who played with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and so forth. I have played with some of them. They tell stories, give advice, and pass on things that you might not get otherwise. Before the advent of jazz programs in colleges, the music was passed on via an apprenticeship system, which is diminished but still extant.

Even in jazz, there has always been an interplay between old and new. During the jazz era, jazz was the sound of popular music, meaning that a lot of work for jazz musicians consisted of playing in dance bands that were as locked into a sound as some jazz performances are today. The jazz era didn't end with a bang, but had a very long tail, resulting in me getting hired for the same kind of work within my own lifetime. Everybody recognizes it for what it is, artistically, but on the other hand there's something to be said for making an audience happy.

Today, people approach jazz for different reasons, and of course at different levels of proficiency. Jazz is old enough to have a history and a canon, and the enjoyment of exploring and preserving that history is a good reason for some bands (hopefully not all of them) to exist. Given my stature in the local music scene (not a first-call player), a lot of my work is of that ilk. I approach it respectfully but not with utter obedience. As a bassist, the instrument that I play has undergone steady evolution, even post jazz era, so that what I play on a "traditional" gig is informed by the present as well as the past.

It's a mix of both. Musicians often want to seem like they didn't take lessons and don't have in-depth knowledge of music theory and old songs, but they often do (e.g., how many guitarists don't admit they took lessons and want to make it seem like they're just riffing but they mysteriously seem to hit the chord tones on the changes and manage to play in modes that work for a song). It's just not "cool" for a musician to be knowledgeable about music theory and history. I think every pursuit - not just music - is presented with a challenge once it's been around for a while, it's no longer new and unusual, and there exists a body of knowledge and history. It becomes a large task to learn from past performers and then try to innovate in your own way. Once a body of knowledge becomes large enough, it's a big life-consuming task just to get your head about the prior body of knowledge before you're able to go out on your own and attempt to innovate. I think the same thing is happening with rock. The same could be said for philosophy itself - philosophy used to be practical and applicable to everyday people (see Greeks and Stoics, for example). Now, it's largely confined to academia and extremely esoteric arguments among a cloistered elite.

See also Monty Python.

Different crowd (fewer suits, less whiskey) but same phenomenon: work deliberately created to be avant garde now repeated as canon.

Regardless of the art form, deeply studying previous works is the way to really understand how the artist created them. With drawing and painting it's learning by literally copying them, and with jazz, it's learning by playing the same song and experiencing it for yourself. When you've internalized what the "masters" have done then you're in a better a position (certainly technically!) to create your own works.

Of course Jazz greats such as Miles Davis etc would regularly play popular show tunes and use these as foundations for radical reinterpretation (eg. John Coltrane playing "My Favourite Things", Miles Davis playing "If I were a Bell"). If these guys had no qualms doing their own riff on something someone else wrote like "some day my prince will come" I dunno why anyone else should feel they're doing anything wrong doing the same.

But isn't that how it always goes? Things that were once avant-garde become “standard” and the next avant-garde has to be something different again. The same thing cannot stay avant-garde forever.

Back in the days when I was a teenager

Before I had status and before I had a pager

You could find the Abstract listenin' to hip-hop

My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop

I said, "Well, Daddy, don't you know that things go in cycles?

Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael"

-- Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, Excursions

Sheesh, it sounds like you are overly obsessed with being cool.

Learning songs written by other people is something every musician does. There's nothing wrong with playing covers and being able to play music that's familiar to your audience is essential for many working musicians.

That doesn't mean you have to play old standards when you could riff on newer music, but it also doesn't mean you can't. There's nothing wrong with reviving a tune written a long time ago and putting your own take on it.

Music is not necessarily more enjoyable just because it's brand new. It can be just as interesting if it's new to you, and there's plenty to explore.


True, and the exact same thing can be said about classical music. The average person needs some sort of framework to learn the art form. And yes, this is more imitation than innovation, but nevertheless can serve as a framework for musical expression.

Didn’t know about the legal implications. A bunch of Real and Fake Books were readily available at the music library in Germany I frequented in the 80s. I’d bet they’re still available now.

The Real Book, often considered the Real Inaccurate Book.

I love my Real book, for me its a lifetime worth of music.

Though I consider its versions as vanilla, it would be cool to see a real bebop version.

ahhh, good old days.

back when I was in elementary school, my big bro was learning jazz and taught me music (still do, but my progress is slow).

then he went to university. by the end of semester he came back home brought some chunky books printed on 70gsm paper. he give some to my cousins

the blog's hero image reminds me of that book. one of them is still in my house's storage.

Does it also contain the drumming part scores?

This was a great read!

I love 99% Invisible.

Almost exactly at the same time as The Real Book's publication, appeared the Lions' Commentary on Unix v6 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lions%27_Commentary_on_UNIX_6t... ). Also disseminated via surreptitious copies at first, also ultimately legally published.

Why did you change the title?

It's possible that the word filter for titles that HN uses removed the "real". But yeah, whatever the cause, the result is bad.

Especially as 99 Percent Ivisible have a book out, which is what I thought this was going to be about.

HN's debaiting software did. We changed it back.

Submitters: if HN's software edits a title badly, you can override that by clicking 'edit'. Just please don't restore clickbait.

what is the real book?

Try reading the very first paragraph:

« It has a peach-colored cover, a chunky, 1970s-style logo, and a black plastic binding. It’s delightfully homemade-looking—like it was printed by a bunch of teenagers at a Kinkos. And inside is the sheet music for hundreds of common jazz tunes—also known as jazz “standards”—all meticulously notated by hand. »

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