Why is Autumn Leaves played in the key of E minor?

“Why is Autumn Leaves played in the key of E minor?”

That’s the question a reader of my Jazz Pianist’s Guide To The Real Book recently emailed me. (You can read the Autumn Leaves page HERE.) It’s a great question and the fact of the matter is that I don’t really know the answer.

What I do know is this:

Several generations of jazz musicians played Autumn Leaves in the key of G minor (the first chord is Cm). And then, all of a sudden, newer generations began playing it in the key of E minor (the first chord is Am).

What happened to cause this abrupt change? The answer is this: The Real Book happened.

But the “real” question is this: Why did the original compilers of The Real Book put the tune in E minor? All the jazz greats, after all, played it in G minor. Cannonball Adderley’s version, with the famous trumpet solo by Miles Davis, is in G minor. And the older musicians I worked with at the beginning of my career always played it in in G minor as well.

Since the original edition of The Real Book recommended Bill Evans album “Portrait In Jazz” at the bottom of the Autumn Leaves page, I thought that maybe Evans had recorded it in E minor himself. (He did enjoy playing in “sharp” keys.) But no, his version is in G minor too.

So why did The Real Book put it in E minor?

My theory lies in the melody itself. In the “older” key of G minor, the melody’s high note is an F, which is above the comfortable range of most jazz vocalists. (And with female singers, it sounds more operatic than jazzy.). In the “newer” key of E minor, however, the highest note is a more manageable D, which most male and female jazz vocalists can easily sing.

Even though The Real Book was written, for instrumentalists, it may be that one of the Berklee College of Music students was currently playing Autumn Leaves with a jazz vocalist and decided to include that version in The Real Book. To me, that’s the most likely answer.

But… if you have a more accurate or verified theory on why Autumn Leaves is now played in the key of E minor instead of in G minor, please let us know in the comments section below. You’ll be contributing to jazz history!

PS – if you’d like to practice “Autumn Leaves” in the traditional key of G minor, here’s a playalong video I made:

Learn the 5 Essential Left Hand Techniques with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You’ll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration

20 thoughts on “Why is Autumn Leaves played in the key of E minor?”

  1. Hey Ron
    I love the way you played that walking bass to autumn leaves. It’s an inspiration. My walking bass is pretty lame compared to that. I love autumn leaves and also enjoy listening to the sung version in French by Edith Piaff.

    • Thanks Mike! Check out the walking bass lessons in my Intro To Jazz course. They’ll get you playing bass lines on tunes like this in a way that’s very do-able.

  2. Originally written in the key of G Major (and it’s relative, E Minor), it is usually played in Bb Major (or G Minor). Bennett plays it in original key

    • I just saw this! Thanks for the info about the original key. I think the sheet music I saw wasn’t the very original version. Much thanks:)

  3. No, sorry, the original key is “D minor. Just listen to the French and original theme by Prevert and Kosma sung by Yves montand… Les feuilles mortes.

    • Thanks Thierry! I had seen some French sheet music in either Dm or perhaps Cm at some point. I wonder if it was published with the English lyrics in Em somewhere.

      It’s still a mystery!

  4. I think the original sheet music for piano was published in Em. At least the copy of sheet music that I bought from eBay, which was published in 1947 and 1950 by Ardmore music and priced at 75 cents, was in the key of Em.

    • Much thanks Bob – now we’re on the authentic trail!

      Was it a piano/vocal arrangement? Or an instrumental version for piano only?

  5. i betcha anything the berklee guys just lifted the changes from the kind of sheet music my grandma used to have in her piano bench, ie ‘100 best known songs,’ etc… that kind of sheet music would randomly transpose things to make it easier for amateur pianists/vocalists to play. back in the 90s when she gave me some of her music books i was semi-bewildered when i tried to play along to recordings using that music.

  6. Ron, I am convinced you are absolutely spot on in your assessment of why E minor became the chosen key for “Autumn Leaves.” I attended the Berklee Summer Program in the 2000s, and in fact played “Autumn Leaves” in my combo, with a vocalist. I am pretty sure we played it in E minor. Berklee has a lot of traditional things they do and I think that is one of the things they do with their combos. Great article and resource, thank you!

    • Thanks Josh, this is great to know! I think it’s probably a combination of what you’ve related here, and what someone else pointed about about the original sheet music being in that key. The original sheet music works better for vocalists than the traditional “jazz” key of Gm, which is better for the trumpet range. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Autumn Leaves seems like an ideal candidate to learn in both keys mentioned.
    Ron, through your existing videos and notes, you’ve provided excellent teaching and analysis in regards to the chord progressions in both keys mentioned.
    In regard to learning the melody is there an approach similar to how we learn the chord progressions? For example we learn the ii-V-I chord progression. Is there a way to learn the melody like that? Or do we need to memorize the actual notes’ names? How do professional musician like yourself keep track of the melody in different keys?

    • This is a great question, David, and a great topic for exploration. Start out by playing the chord roots, and listening to the intervals between them. Then identify the underlying keys and the chord functions (Roman Numerals) as best you can for a given tune. Autumn Leaves, in the key of E minor, starts out with a ii”V’I progression in the key of G major, then there’s a C major 7 chord, followed by a ii/V/i in E minor. So the first 8 measures actually modulates from G major to E minor.

  8. Ron, I see you’ve already made the suggestion to learn in both keys, and, also in the Key of D minor – valuable advice as always- thanks! I’m still learning to navigate this site – so much information and it’s all so enjoyable! Here’s your quote from https://keyboardimprov.com/the-jazz-pianists-ultimate-guide-to-the-real-book-table-of-contents/autumn-leaves-from-the-jazz-pianists-ultimate-guide-to-the-real-book/

    Incidentally, most jazz musicians today play “Autumn Leaves” in the key of Em, which is how it appears in The Real Book. Older generations of musicians, however, often played it in Gm (which begins on a Cm7 chord). The Miles Davis recording linked to above is an example of this. Learn it in both keys so you’ll be prepared if someone calls the tune in Gm. You may also want to learn it in the key of D minor, since a lot of vocalists sing it in that key.

    I’m still interested in understanding a good way to memorize the melody in different keys, if there is such a way.

  9. Thanks Ron! (Looks like my last posting crossed your response)

    Taking your encouragement to explore the issue of how to memorize a melody, I thought of the song Do-Re-Mi from the Sound of Music. So then I researched a little more and came across the Solfège method for singers. I think it’s remarkable that the Solfège system also has the ability to indicate raised and lower tones as described here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solf%C3%A8ge

    I wonder if there’s any merit to applying the Solfège method to help memorizing a tune, especially in regards to changing keys.
    For example, the first four measures of Autumn Leaves would be La Ti Do Fa…. Sol La Ti Mi (at least that’s my attempt). Using this method would allow us to apply to whatever key we’re in, but is it practical or too cumbersome?

    I appreciate your advice on using Roman numerals for the chord changes and understand how important they are when playing a piece in a particular key to for the setting at hand – jazz singer, trumpeter, et al. What has puzzled me is how do we keep track of the melody and avoid memorizing each melody note based on whatever key we’re in, like Gm or Em.

    Maybe the solfege method would help? Or maybe it’s an insane idea, but I’m glad to share this attempt at “exploration.”

    • Solfège is excellent, and many musicians, including myself, have studied it. It does break down a little when changing keys, but it’s very valuable despite that. It will definitely help your musical ear and aid in memorizing tunes!

  10. I have a different theory about how the Real Book version came to be in E minor instead of G minor. Both students and faculty were working on the project together. I think when it came time for publication, someone grabbed the alto sax part (which is in E minor) by mistake, and that’s what ended up in the book.


Leave a Comment

Sign up for Blog Updates