Part 2: What Goes on in a Professional’s Brain When Playing? The Intellectual Aspect

Posted on Posted in Stories, Tips from Mark

There are many great players who don’t read music. Even with a classical guitar degree and authoring a couple of dozen books on the subject, I don’t actually spend that much time reading music. I absorb it faster by listening. This started by copying Beatles and Byrds tunes off records as a kid. What a great education that was in learning song structure, chord changes, and incorporating emotion and exuberance into the music. 

At the same time, I am thoroughly schooled in harmony, compositional techniques, voice leading and chord voicings — and where to produce them on the guitar. All of that is bouncing around in my brain as I play.

Here’s how my brain works with a guitar in my lap: I largely memorize a piece with muscle and aural memory, yet I know the melody and chord progression. (One of my criticisms of the classical guitar approach is often the subservience of knowing the chords.) A practical reason: If you know what chord is next you can grab it somewhere even if your muscle memory fails you in the moment. 

As I am thinking about what chord is coming next, I can ‘hear’ what melody note goes with it, and where to play it on the guitar that produces the best sound and the most fluid movement of the music. I analyze what melody note is coming with each chord: i.e., what are the notes of the key I’m in, and what degree of the scale (do, re, mi, etc.) each note is that is coming in the music. AND I know the letter names of the notes and where they are on the guitar.

Anticipation is SO important in playing music. Your brain must be ahead of your fingers. 

To this effect, in this article I have included a simple end-of-the-neck scale diagram for the five common guitar keys: C A G E D. If you don’t know these patterns, learn them by saying the note names out loud as you play the scales. After copious repetitions, undertake them again, this time saying the solfège names (do, re, mi, fa, etc.; or 1, 2, 3 if you prefer — I prefer numbers!). Over time you will learn to hear if a scale/melody note is do or mi or sol of a key. For me, that translates into a corresponding letter name in the key I’m using, and the location of it on the guitar.

There is much more to be said about this — like knowing how to play a chord anywhere on the neck that coincides with the desired/required location of the melody note(s) — but we will leave that for a later installment.

NOTE: I’ve never been a huge practicer of scales (I never aspired to trading licks with saxophone players in a jazz band!), but for fingerstyle guitarists they serve several important developmental purposes:

1. smooth timing when moving from one note to the next (so many players are choppy because they don’t sustain one note till the next, like a singer with one breath of air);

2. homogeneity of the tone and volume of the notes;

3. learning the locations and names of the notes; and

4. they are a good warm up!

When you use solfège in the following diagram, the note that is the name of the key is do.

For example, Key of E: E-do-1 F#-re-2 G#-mi-3 A-fa-4 B-sol-5 C#-la-6 D#-ti-7

Copyright © 2023 Mark D. Hanson & Accent On Music, LLC

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