Mental Musicianship

Mental Musicianship

Sometimes we find ourselves on long car rides or sitting through boring events and we yearn to have that guitar in our hand. Here is a list of things that a person could do to continue their musical journey while away from their guitar and smartphone.

Memorizing the Notes of the Triad Chords  

You don’t need an understanding of theory to blindly memorize. Think of it like memorizing multiplication tables in grade school. Committing the notes of your triad chords to memory will help you immensely on your musical journey. It will be especially helpful when you start learning about chord tones. If you know that a C major triad AKA the C major chord aka “C” will always contain the notes C E G, then you can begin to examine your chord forms to more clearly see what is happening.

Now lets tip our toes into the theory world: the difference between a C major triad and C minor triad is simply changing one note.

C Major: C E G
C Minor: C Eb G

By memorizing your major triads, you are 2/3 of the way to knowing all of your minor triads as well. Hopefully these little tricks inspire you to learn a little theory, something which will make you a more knowledgeable musician.

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Memorizing Relative Keys

“The minor fall and major lift” – Leonard Cohen

You don’t need any understanding of theory to blindly memorize pairs. This simple mental exercises will help your understanding of the music you create, even if you don’t yet know why.

Here is just one way to relate this knowledge to guitar, lets say each of your fingers (no thumb) is a guitar fret. Your index finger would be the minor key and the pinky is the relative major key. On every string, any note you choose will have this relationship.

But believe me, there are plenty more reasons to learn your relative pairings. Switch a chord in any progression for its relative pairing and you will immediately hear the mood change. This is your intro to connecting music to emotion.


Strengthen Your Interval Knowledge

Interval knowledge means many things. Knowing where they occur within your scale patterns, recognizing the exact sound of a particular one, understanding how they sound in the context of particular chord progressions. It is also important to remember that interval pitches go in both directions, ascending and descending (higher to lower, and lower to higher).

One way to strengthen your interval knowledge is to associate each one with the beginning of a famous and established melody that you already know. For example, you may recognize the root to fourth interval as the beginning of “Here Comes the Bride”. Here is one place you can start and by using google you will find many more examples.

Now that you have associated each interval with a tune, you can practice humming them  out loud or even mentally singing them (seriously, try it)! And while this list is about practicing while away from your guitar/computer/smartphone, you can certainly check out the links below to get a heads-up:

Recognizing Notes: Interval training game.
Recognizing notes in the context of a progression: Alain Benbassat’s method.

Or you can challenge yourself by sketching out your intervals on a scale grid (see next topic). 

Sketching Out Scale Grids

Got pen and paper? Draw out a grid of your guitar and plot the data points. Start with simple major and minor scales, pentatonic or diatonic.

Here is another thing you can do: take a chord progression like C major – A minor – F major – E major and plot the triad notes for each chord onto your guitar grid. Look for patterns like reoccurring notes, notes that only occur over one chord, etc… The smart soloist is the thinking soloist.


Finger Scales

Do you have at least four fingers? Great! Pretend your index finger is fret one, middle is fret two, ring is fret three, pinky is fret four. You can now move your fingers according to 4 of the 5 standard pentatonic patterns.

For example this pattern:


(the above graphic is from the same guitar point-of-view as the image before this)

Moving your fingers in the following order would imitate playing the scale shape from E-bass to E-treble:

Index – Pinky (this represents the note sequence at the bottom of the image)
Index – Ring
Index – Ring
Index – Ring
Index – Pinky
Index – Pinky (this represents the note sequence at the top of the image)

You can use finger movements to imitate 4 out of the 5 standard pentatonic shapes. The only reason you cannot imitate them all is because one shape occurs on five frets instead of four frets:


Memorizing the Circle of Fifths  

Memorizing the Circle of Fifths can be accomplished without an understanding of music theory, but using that memorized knowledge in a practical way is a different story. Knowing how the Circle works may not make you a better guitar player but it will make you a more knowledgable musician.

I could go on and on about the Circle of Fifths like an insane person, here’s proof. I don’t want to sidetrack this post into a Co5 lesson, so all I can say is that any further study will undoubtedly start with you memorizing it clockwise and counter-clockwise. And that is something you can do away from your guitar.

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Become an Active Music Listener  

There is a big difference between being a passive music listener and an active music listener. Most of the time we are the former and there is nothing wrong with that. It allows us to hear the music as a feeling, a memory, a final combination of noise. Being an active music listener is about mentally tearing the music apart and this skill will help your understanding of how music is created. Try the following exercises:

Isolate Parts – try to focus on just one part of the overall music. The guitar. The bass. The drummer. The fills. Are there background vocals? Isolate each single entity and study how it helps the overall tapestry of sound. Listen very closely for the very small, very subtle, bits of sound that successfully elevate the entire song. You would be surprised how much is actually going on when you really start to listen closely.

Study Song Form – listen to the song and break apart each segment. How many verse sections does it have? Does the chorus always kick in the same way, or does a bridge appear? Intro, outro, solo section? Do the vocals sound punched or doubled at times? Is there a pattern? Could you take a piece of paper and map out the entire song’s form? Now how does the mapping of that song compare with another? What about another from the same band or same album? Or another band or album? Or another genre entirely?

Keep Time – break down the lifespan of the song. In conjunction with studying the song’s form, listen closely to how the song breathes and moves. A good amount of music moves in 4’s. Study the timing of each section closely. Study the timing of the different vocal rhyme-schemes. Or how long the intro is compared to the outro. Or the length of the verse compared to the chorus. Can you count along mentally and feel when one part of the song should transition to the next part? This is all valuable information!

Mental Visualization/Hearing

I know this sounds silly but bear with me. Visualize a guitar in your hand. Now imagine your hands forming a familiar chord. Pay attention to exactly where your hand falls on the fretboard. Zoom in for a moment: look at the strings, see the shine of the frets, really get a mental image. Now STRUM!!!

Hear the chord?

Of course the more experience you have, the more this technique will work. And it does work. Now try switching chords. Play a I-IV-V. Play relative keys. Play parallel keys. Strengthen your ear mentally.

Mental Singing

Most people get better at guitar by playing covers. Especially in the beginning, one of the hardest things for a newbie to accomplish is remembering chord shapes, remembering the overall chord progression, remembering lyrics, and then singing those lyrics correctly in key while switching shapes.

So save yourself a tiny bit of trouble by doing “mental takes” and singing your lyrics in your head. Repetition is the key to memorization. The more solid you are on the lyrics, the more you will be able to focus on perfecting other aspects of the performance.

For the more advanced musicians, practice your mental takes as accurately as possible. When you start singing the song in your head, keep time as perfectly as you can and most importantly do not stop your flow because you make a mistake or forget a lyric. Yes, you can even practice singing through mistakes in your own head. Remember, we all make mistakes on stage. Pros know how to hide them within the context of the overall performance.

Tapping Out Beats

Drum out different rhythms with your fingers, fists, feet, a pen, pencil, cup, etc… You can do this along to a song that is playing or you can do it to complete silence. Try to emulate different rhythmic patterns: hip-hop, flamenco, reggaeton. Later, grab your guitar and try to translate that drumming into strumming.

Just don’t annoy the hell out of everyone around you!

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