Simple Songs: An alternative approach to warming up, training your ear, and learning your keys

Simple Songs

This guest post is from saxophone and multi-reed player, composer, recording artist, and educator Sam Sadigursky of

One of the most important concepts that I try to have all my students understand is that any melody they hear, regardless of complexity, is not a set of notes, but instead a set of musical (or intervallic) relationships. No matter which note you start on, if you preserve the relationships found in a song, it’s still going to be the same song, even if the notes you play are completely different.

Taking simple songs and playing them in all twelve keys is a great way of learning to identify and hear these relationships. It’s an incredibly effective way of training your ear to hear intervals while gaining fluidity in different keys. It can also be a refreshing break from practicing scales. If the song is a slow one (and if you’re new to this, you should be doing any song slowly), then it can also be your warm-up for the day as well.

A lot of students learning jazz are told to take specific licks or riffs that they like and then take them through the keys, but many of these riffs are quite complicated. It can be much more beneficial to take simple, mostly diatonic folk-type songs and get good good at transposing them before moving on to more difficult vocabulary. Often, once you start transposing these songs, you’ll find some of the intervals in them more difficult and varied than you might have once thought.

Below you’ll find a list of songs that you might want to start with. You can do this with any song you ever come across. Another bonus is that once you’ve taken a song through the keys, you’ll find you know it much better then when you started, since you’ll have a grasp on how it was actually constructed.

Unless you see otherwise, all songs start on the tonic (or root note) of whichever key you are playing it in.

  • The Can Can (this song is mostly a scale, so it’s a great alternative to practicing your Major scale and basic patterns)
  • Happy Birthday (be careful – the opening note of this is the 5th degree of whatever key you’re in)
  • Old McDonald
  • Home on the Range (starts on the 5th degree)
  • Auld Lang Syne (starts on the 5th degree)
  • Somewhere over the Rainbow
  • America the Beautiful (starts on the 5th degree)
  • The Flinstones Theme (starts on the 5th degree)
  • The Star Spangled Banner  (starts on the 5th degree)
  • Love theme from Cinema Paradiso (one of the most haunting melodies ever written in case you don’t know it)
  • Oleo (Sonny Rollins)
  • Brahms Lullaby (starts on the 3rd degree)
  • Rythm-a-ning (Thelonious Monk)
  • When the Saints Go Marching In
  • The Star Wars Theme
  • Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen (starts on the 3rd degree)
  • The First Noel (starts on the 3rd degree)
  • O Little Town of Bethlehem (starts on the 3rd degree)

Please feel free to add your own songs in the comments section! I would love to see some of your ideas.