Learning Notes Versus Patterns

Bassist's left hand

Q: Recently I’ve been struggling with scale degrees and chords. Right now I practice my scales using in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc. However my problem is being able to name the notes of the scale because for the most part I have memorized scales based on patterns (like how playing E major is the same as A major, just on different strings). I’d like to know the best way to practice scales so that I have the notes memorized and what scale degree they are and be able to call them out quickly. I can do it slowly if I think about it, but I feel like this would be helpful in memorizing jazz tunes based on the chord numbers and patterns rather than just memorizing the chords themselves. What do you recommend?

A: I think that the absolute best way to put that kind of practice of use it in a musical relevant way is to buy a “Real Book” or use something like the iReal Pro app on your computer or mobile/tablet device and start practicing through changes.

There are a number of columns here at No Treble written by myself, as well as a number of great players and educators.

Here are a few:

Playing and memorizing scales and modes by themselves is a great way to get a feel for the shape, an ear for the sound and a thorough mapping of the tonality across the fretboard. However, it doesn’t help you discern what the different notes are or how it can all be applied when making music in real time.

Practicing through jazz changes is the key (at least, it was for me). Picking any kind of pattern (chord tones, 1234 of the appropriate scale, 1345, etc.) and forcing yourself to play it through shifting chord types and tonalities is a phenomenal way to turn that information and learn how to make music out of it. It’s also fantastic for building up that kind of muscle memory that you are asking about. You need to force yourself into a situation where you HAVE to think of what note to play.

If you decide to play 3457 from the appropriate scale for any chord while working through a tune, you will have to know what the “3” is without playing the scale from the root. It is a bit tedious at first but it pays off huge if you stick with it.

In addition, I didn’t really learn my fretboard and all of the notes until I learned to read music. It simply forced me to learn where all of my A’s were, for example. There is no choice but to work out the notes one by one, both in the notation and on your instrument. Start reading and do it for 15-30 minutes a day. After the initial speed bump in the learning curve, you will take off and be amazed at how much you’ve learned about your instrument and making music in a relatively short time.

I hope this helps!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. It does help. 15 to 30 minutes a day. Let’s see how long this takes… Thanks for the challenge.

    • Learn your circle of fifths and know your major and minor scales in every key. As long as you know what note it is supposed to be, you can relate it to position.

  2. DJ

    Learning notes is tremendously difficult when you, like many beginner guitarists and bassists, start out playing tabs to your favorite songs. After awhile, your technique gets better, but you start to realize that not having a good understanding of what notes you’re playing is holding you back. A lot. The problem at this point is that you’ve developed you’re playing technique enough that in order to go back and learn notes and chords, as well as how to read music, you have to play at a complete beginner level, which is very discouraging and, frankly, very boring and mundane. Couple this with only having read treble clef for 8 years on a completely different instrument, and you’ll want to bang your head off the wall in frustration, between learning the fretboard while having to essentially forget treble clef while you’re learning bass clef. This is my problem, and a reason why I haven’t picked up my bass in awhile. If anyone has any advice, I’d love to hear it! I know there’s a ton of resources here and on the rest of the internet, but it’s hard to sort through it all and find a good starting point.

    • RAE

      There are some great free apps for learning fretboard and note reading, turned into “games” with various options and settings… Best is using them when not practicing with instrument in hand… I use them while commuting on the train… Try FretSurfer, BassPro, BassNoteLegend… Good luck!

    • David

      I feel your pain.. Learning the notes on the bass clef, then learning where those notes are on the bass fret board is my current challenge. It is tedious, but I think it is worth it. And I am seeing improvement. One thing I did was I downloaded a program to my cell phone called Music Trainer 2.0. It gives you exercises to learn notes both on the bass clef and the treble clef. It has helped immensely. I also got a book to learn walking bass lines. This is helpful because walking bass lines are quarter notes. It’s not to complex, but I am learning the notes, as well as learning the technique. And a third thing I do is to play a scale slow, and as I play the note I say the note out loud.

      Hope that helps.

  3. Repetition is key, memorizing the neck I would recommend doing one string at a time from the open note to the 12 fret moving up in half steps. Always say the name of the note out loud while you play it. This will reinforce the notes placement and name in your memory. It takes about 7x played correctly in a row for this to become part of your long term memory,

  4. “After the initial speed bump in the learning curve” , thats beautifully phrased ! beginnings are hard .

  5. Dave Guettler

    This one is easy- all you have to do is learn the chords to Giant Steps, and then learn it in every key. The song is interesting enough to play every day for many years, and so complex that in order to play in every key there is no option other than learn the notes. And then start soloing over it…