written music

Head (music)

In its broadest sense, the head of a piece of music is its main theme, particularly in jazz, where the term takes on a more specific set of connotations. In other types of music, "head" may refer to the first or most prominent section of a song. For example, a progressive rock piece may be most easily identified by its head. The term may, though obtusely, be applied to classical music, insofar as classical pieces generally bear similar thematic elements, but the preferred term in this instance is generally subject. The term "head" is most often used in jazz or jazz-related contexts, and may refer to the thematic melody, an instance of it in a performance of the song, or a more abstract compilation of ideas as to what the song is. It may also, though uncommonly, refer to the first section of the melody, or the theme riff in the melody.

There is a slightly related musical direction, D.C. or da capo (Italian, from head), which means to go back to the very beginning of the sheet music and play to the end, typically ignoring all repeat signs.

What's in a head

The idea a head represents comprises a combination of elements. No one piece of written music defines what the "head" of many jazz tunes really is, but a boiler-plate jazz chart, which is often only a page long in large print, will tell you

as well as more general information such as

The form is an even more general and abstract concept dealing with the theoretical context in which the actual music is being played: the chord progression, its sections and other miscellaneous events such as kicks or time changes are all important information that the musician, or musicians, must keep track of and usually repeat many times (commonly eight to fifteen or more). The "form" does not include the melody to the piece, and as such there is a difference between knowing the head and merely knowing the form. Two important standard forms over which hundreds of heads have been written are the 12-bar blues and rhythm changes. There are also heads written based on the forms of other tunes, such as Charlie Parker's Ornithology, based on Morgan Lewis's chord changes in How High the Moon. So often on the bandstand at a jam session, though it is frowned upon, musicians can get away with knowing the form if they don't know the head.

Many fake books, some of which are considered standard literature among jazz musicians, exist containing anywhere from a handful to hundreds of charts like these, occasionally stretching into two pages and on rare occasions going further and requiring page turns. A song can be played in any number of ways from the head on any one of these charts for any length of time; all the music contains is enough information for the musician to understand the head (and extrapolate from it).

There are many, many heads which are considered part of standard jazz repertoire, and professional players are expected to know these tunes by memory and be able to perform them in a variety of ways on the spot. In this regard, the information associated with a head can be very wide-ranging and the information presented on the chart is really only the tip of the iceberg. Invoking the name of Sonnymoon for Two is invoking a history of performances, arrangements, tricks and variations upon what is really only (in this instance) a four-bar phrase, all of which constitute knowledge about what is ultimately called the head.


In playing the actual music, the head refers to any time the band plays the theme to the song. Usually this happens once or twice at the beginning and the end of a performance. For example, many Clifford Brown recordings characteristically feature a short piano intro, the head, several chorouses of solos and a recapitulation of the head followed by an outro coda. Although it most commonly is, the head does not need to be played at both the beginning and the end of a performance, and is occasionally played in the middle, for instance between solos.

Jazz musicians often give each other the "head" or "top" cue by patting their hand on top of their head, which is usually meant to make sure everybody "goes back to the head," or starts playing the head again the next time the "top of the form" comes around. On the unfortunate occasion this may be due to confusion about "where" the top of the form actually is if the musicians get off-sync with one another, or a frantic attempt to regain composure and finish the performance, as playing the head to end a piece is default jam session protocol.


The jazz blues is a very basic, common and versatile and blues heads come in all shapes and sizes. Here are some tunes with various different blues forms:

Rhythm changes are an important form for jazz musicians to know, based loosely on the chord changes to the Gershwin brothers' I've Got Rhythm:

For a list of common jazz heads by author, see List of jazz standards.

Knowing heads

Jazz musicians are frequently called upon to play a series of songs in short order with no planning, either at jam sessions or impromptu gigs. Therefore it is important for professionals to know as wide a variety of tunes as possible and be able to play them proficiently. Most of the time this means memorizing the melody, chords and anything else important about playing the song with a band. Many musicians stipulate that one does not know a head until one knows the lyrics (assuming it has), and it's generally accepted that one should be exposed to recordings of a tune to properly know it. Sometimes there will be fake books available at jam sessions, and sometimes it is easy to recall a tune while playing it or learn it on the spot, but for the most part it is expected that professional jazz musicians have a very large vocabulary of tunes available by memory. In truth, there are hundreds of tunes jazz players ought to be prepared for, but this is a lofty goal. A common mantra is that if one knows one tune, one should know five, and that if one knows five tunes, one should know twenty five, et cetera.

See also

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