In recent lessons with students I'm frequently asked how do you learn a tune? Many people say "listen to the original recording and memorize it" and I agree. Although that statement is true, I believe there are many other approaches that can be considered. Not every one learns the same way and that can cause a road block and/or discouragement on the path to learning a new tune. Personally, I have three steps that I adhere to when learning a new tune.
The first step is listening to the tune via the original record and hopefully liking what I'm hearing. I haven't found many original recordings that I don't like, but there are some which brings up my next point. Many times we can't connect to a melody because we haven't found a way that is interesting to our ears and because of that we struggle learning that tune. I'm not saying putting a melody in a different possibly more difficult time signature or new reharmonization or something extreme but I am advocating that maybe hearing the melody to another groove could help. Maybe there's lots of different things musically going on in the original recording (drum fills that vary the time feel, shifting chords that catch your attention, more complexity). I learned tunes like Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile" in a salsa groove, Miles Davis "So What?" in a funk groove and many other tunes to different grooves which made me more interested in the melody. It's cause and effect, if you're not interested then normally there will be no focus on the tune which now is preventing progress. While I listen to the original recording I also try to incorporate listening to the version that I like best and usually end up comparing the two and what is happening amongst the two recordings.
Step two, I learn the melody enough to be able to sing along with the recording. For me this is the easiest part. I sing melodies/ solos every day and it has strengthened my ears because of it. I learned this method from internationally acclaimed trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon. His book "If you can sing it, you can play it!" is where I read about this my junior or senior year in high school. This method is crucial for any musician of any genre. Many if not all of my mentors and professors have been strong advocates of singing melodies and etudes to improve your ear. If your ear is not strong then you will have trouble with this at first. Worry not though friends, that is why we practice! To get better at things we're not so good at.
Step three, I pull out a lead sheet and then I read what is written down and compare the recording to the page. People might disagree with that, and that's okay! I'm a visual learner and other musicians might be too. While constantly trying to improve your ears, you should also spot check any discrepancies that you might have if you're not able to get exactly what's being playing on the recording. There are errors on both sides of the spectrum. Some recordings have wrong notes and some transcriptions also have wrong notes written. This is why we should incorporate both and compare them to each other. Typo's (wrong notes) happen in all sorts of music. I've found multiple in the Bird (Charlie Parker) Omni Book and some in Arban Characteristic studies (No.1 specifically). I only found that out though by playing through it and comparing me to the recording(s) I used. The flip side of that, listening to a recording hearing three different versions and then comparing the notes to the chord being played at the time and seeing if it fits melodically and harmonically. You can do this both aurally and by comparing a lead sheet to the recording.
I hope this helps you out! Please comment below with critique or agreement or share it with your friends! Or like it! By no means am I advocating for my method being correct, I'm just trying to share a method of mine with others who are looking for a new way and or wanting to try something new!
P.S. I know all of these post are late in the night, when I'm done practicing I like to think about education so I can be a better teacher. I'm such a nerd, haha!