Awesome Tool for Writing Tunes | Free Lead Sheet

Almost every jazz musician around today is aware of the “Real Books” – those handy books of tunes that have helped all of us through countless gigs. The Real Books have been around since the 1970s and I’ve used them since college. I was unaware that there was a website that had chord changes of Real Book tunes readily available.

The Real Book website lists the hundreds of tunes that you would find in the printed versions, but the cool thing is that you can transpose the chord changes into any key. I guess because of copyright issues the melodies themselves cannot be listed. But you can still use this site as an awesome tool to write your own tunes over the chord change to any Real Book tune.

As an example, I chose a tune on the Real Book website at random – Bemsha Swing. Now I’ve heard this tune but its been awhile and to be honest I could not remember how the tune went. But that’s ok because its the chord changes that I was interested in – and having the original tune in my head would actually hinder me from writing something new over them.

Here are the steps I took to write the original swing tune over Bemsha Swing changes…

1) First thing I did was choose the tune and key to write the new tune. I chose the tune Bemsha Swing by Monk because I could not remember how the original went and for simplicity’s sake I chose C Major for my new tune. It may not be the best key to choose if I was arranging this for big band or small group, but I wanted to do this quickly so C Major was an easy choice.

2) I had to choose a style and tempo for the new tune. I ended up deciding that an easy swing feel would be appropriate for this one. You’ll have to experiment with this though. Try playing the changes faster, slower, swing, latin, bossa, etc. until you get something in your head that will work. This can be pretty intuitive, but let your better judgement be your guide.

3) I analyzed the form structure and chords and determined it was basically AABA form – but the phrases were not 8 bars as a regular standard would be, but only 4 bars. The “B” section went to the 4th above the tonic key (C Major).

4) Along the way, I would have to change a few chords that worked better than the original changes for my new melody. The cool thing about using this technique to write a new tune is that you will unvariably stray from the original changes and insert your own to fit the melody you are writing. This is not only adviseable, its recommended. The original changes give you a quick starting point for you new tune, and you’ll be surprised how fast you can put together an original tune of your own

The Results

The video below illustrates a few points of the new tune. You’ll find the “before” and “after” links below the video. The new tune took me about 1/2 hour from start to finish. Its not the greatest tune ever written, but I think it would work great as a small combo tune with some fun chord changes to blow over.



Download Monk Fish PDF

Take this Poll

Would you be interested in a jazz tune writing class, then arranging small group charts on the class member original tunes?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...


16 Replies to “Awesome Tool for Writing Tunes | Free Lead Sheet”

  1. Dale Chapman

    Hey Jim.
    When I was studying, I was the pianist for the horns as they were being put through their paces – having to be able to know a tune in any key. The teacher (Bob Stroup- RIP) would call on a student at random and then tell him the key and song he was about to play. Then this rhythm section trio (p,b,d) would back them up. I wrote out all the tunes in figured bass so it was dead easy to play any key. Nice!

  2. Jim Martin

    Yea, the Roman numeral Real Book is a great idea. I had never seen one before and I am pretty sure that this particular piano player put it together himself. I’m guilty of not practicing tunes in all keys enough. It is a great skill to have especially as a piano or bass player.

  3. Ross Lyster

    Irun a big band name The Groovin`Easy Orchestra playing music from the bigband era . I have found this lesson very

  4. John Axtell

    Hi Jim, I am not musically trained (a mere mathematician/ sometime sax player)but I have found your video interesting. I will stick with your class as I am interested in arranging for the Jazz Orchestra which I play with.

    John A

  5. Jim Martin

    Thanks John, glad you got something out of this one. I am writing an arrangement of this tune for 2 horns (tpt or alto and tenor, or trombone) I will post the chart when its ready along with an explanation of a few things to think about when writing for 2 horns.

  6. David Cannaday

    Jim, Tricks of the trade. Good idea writing over chord changes.If one needs a new tune write over some existing chord changes. Good lesson

  7. Jim Martin

    Thanks David. It also allows you a starting point to change the changes as you develop the melody. Once you have a starting point, then do a chord change makeover by adding some sus chords, altered dominants, etc. As you write the arrangement, lines you come up with will also provide an opportunity to add more chord changes as well. So its not so much ripping off a tune’s changes, but using it as a spring board to something new.

  8. Murray Swain

    Thank you, Jim. Helpful stuff here, especially the freedom to add one’s own chords to freshen up the changes.

  9. Jim Martin

    Murray: Yes, that is ultimately what you want to do, just use the tune as a starting point. There will always be opportunities to alter the changes, especially when you get a melody going.

  10. Jim Martin

    Mike: I’ve thought alot about how I would do a class like that, i.e. class size, cost, work involved, etc. and to be honest, I haven’t figured out the best way yet. I’ll let everyone know at some point this fall.

  11. Class Member

    Hi Jim, I just registered today. I enjoyed your video and want to give it a try.

    I’d also be interested should you start a class.

    Frank Pratte

  12. lloyd gilgore

    hi Jim, I sort of felt guilty composing this way but now that i think of it it is done all the time.I definitely see the value as a springboard to new and creative ideas. Thanks for your input! Best, Lloyd

  13. Jim Martin

    Lloyd, you don’t have to feel guilty for very long because you will invariably come up with new and different chord changes. Its the melody that is the most important anyway, and this technique is kind of a jump start to get something going. Its easy to sit and stare at a piece of paper without writing a note.

  14. Williemae

    Valuable information. Fortunate me I discovered your site by accident, and I’m stunned why this accident did not
    took place in advance! I bookmarked it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.