Playing The Changes 

What does it mean to play the changes? Does it mean playing a series of tones that are within the chords to a song? Does it mean using guide tones between chords to complete the melody? Does it mean using a scale/mode that has a relationship to the chords of a song? Or, does the phrase "playing the changes" have a much deeper meaning?

When I first heard the words "play the changes to the song", I had no idea what they were talking about. At first I thought they meant many of the things I mentioned in the first paragraph here such as using the chord tones from the song or the right scale with the chords from the song. Then I learned about motif development and super imposing melodic ideas in different keys over different chords. I also went on to study about avanced styles within jazz music such as the developments of saxophonists Ornette Coleman & John Coltrane. Many times these artists would play tones over chords that are outside of the chords and/or scales that went with the chords.

This baffled me. In my mind I wonder exactly what do they mean when they say "play the changes to the song". I would ask several different persons what they meant by that and I would get several different answers. It seemed as if there was no answer to that question. And, that would become what I would except as being the answer to the question, "what does it mean to play the changes?". There isn't just one absolute answer to the question.

It's according to what the music requires you to do. That is what playing the changes is. Knowing the chord tones to a song, the proper scale relationship to the chords of the song, and the guide tones between chords to a song, are only the very beginning of what it means to play the changes. You must know the song inside out as if you had written it. Every possibility - ascending & descending - inside & outside - to every chord within the song has to be known.

To me, the tones that you play on the chords to a song are like shadings and colors on a painting. The tones bring about emotions in me. I try to learn the words to every song I am working on and I do research about the origins of the song. If a song is from a musical, I try to look at the song from the perspective and context that the song has within that musical's story line. When I write an instrumental song I always have lyrics that I have written for the song and I try to write a melody so that it contains the emotions from the lyrics.

So playing the changes is a very deep thing to learn how to do. It takes a very very very long time to learn how to play the changes. It's a life long endeavor that never ends. This is the pursuit that I am after my life and, it keeps the music fresh to me. Every time I play a Blues or I play a standard like "The Autumn Leaves", it's as if it is the first time I am playing any of those songs.

So go out there and play the changes to your song as best as you can. And, remember that there are no wrong notes. The first time I met my friend Wilbert Longmeire he told me "young man if you play a wrong note make sure that you play it loud!!!". I was 25 years old then & had been playing jazz for only a short time. When I saw him at the jam session I got nervous and hit a few sour notes. It took me many years to understand what he meant. He was trying to tell me that there are no wrong notes as long as you believe in the notes that you are playing.


James Murrell