Don’t just copy music. Investigate the note choices made for more effective learning

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Purely learning from guitar tab (and video equivalent) can impede your progress.  Find out how.

Here we are going to take a look at some different learning styles, through the lens of decades of research into effective learning (whatever the topic).  It shines a light on why learning only by copying someone note-for-note (learning parrot fashion– very often leads to frustration with you feeling stuck in a rut, and uncertain how to move ahead with your own soloing and song writing.  The danger in copying someone note-for-note, in essence, arises when little to no effort is applied understanding the note-choice of that someone, and too much (even all) effort is applied to reproducing that song, that solo, as perfectly as possible. We’ll investigate this and I’ll make some suggestions for helping you get more from learning a solo.

If you’re not prepared to make the effort to learn basic theory in the area of intervals and chord-scale relationships, then it will be very hard breaking out a rut, if that’s where you are.

Make It Stick

What we want is knowledge we can instantly retrieve mentally in a playing situation, and at least know sources of knowledge we can consult, when we’re writing a tune, or practising previously learned material, and we can’t immediately retrieve that knowledge.  The book “Make It Stick” by Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel, is all about learning so that the knowledge does indeed stick in your brain, and discusses much research into how this is (or isn’t) achieved with different learning styles.  The main takeaways from this book are the learning needs be effortful, and the knowledge later retrieved, with spacing between when a given topic is learned and retrieved.

For example, rather than just reading something, and re-reading it in preparation for an exam, expecting to regurgitate from notes, they argue it is much more effective to dig deeper into what you’re reading, to question how it can be applied, maybe in a related context, and to test your understanding of what you’ve learned.   This shows up weaknesses that can be corrected.  Without that testing, you may believe you know something better than you really do,  The purpose of the spacing between initial learning and testing yourself (by trying to retrieve and apply the knowledge) is that the brain forgets a little in the interim, and retrieving the knowledge (with whatever additional effort you need apply to fill in the forgotten bits) makes the memory stick much more firmly.

Before we look at how this relates to learning music parrot-fashion, let’s divert briefly to the idea of transferrable skills and getting more “bang for your buck” when practicing.

Bang for your Buck

Think about guitar technique for minute.  What do you think are the most essential skills to have, that underpin all technique?  It has to be the act of producing sounds on the guitar, without unwanted noise.  These skills are finger independence and accurate finger placement, at the right times (fretting hand), and accurate picking (when needed), and synchronisation between the two hands, so the notes are articulated.  These techniques can be very sharply focused on during practice, and retested (retrieved) in many different playing contexts.  Problems are looked for in minute detail in the picking hand (is each note played in time? Is there unnecessary motion? Is the thumb or pick cutting off the sound if you wanted it to ring out; Are there issues crossing strings …).  Fixes are applied, and practised many times, seeking perfectly timed and sounding notes.  These skills are called upon over and over, in more realistic and challenging playing, such as scale sequences, arpeggios and the like, and recalled in soloing and chord playing.  These skills transfer into all your playing.

The analogous situation with note choice boils down to

These all make you think a lot, but the point is, the same basic process applies again and again, and you are reinforcing your knowledge each time you query something.  And within a given genre, same or similar note choices are used a lot.

There’s an additional bonus.  If you understand intervals, it becomes much easier to learn new scale types and new chord types.  This foundational knowledge of intervals readily transfers in all areas of learning about note choice.  For example, if you know major triads, and know where the major third interval is in the shape, you can reuse that knowledge as you learn minor triad shapes … because the note making the major 3rd with the chord root just needs moving back one fret (towards the nut) to become the minor 3rd needed in a minor triad.

The skills you develop in understanding note choice transfer into all your playing, from soloing, writing, to understanding other people’s solos and songs.

Learning styles

While learning, the more you can involve your senses, the more the learning will stick.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a visual or auditory learner or learn from the written word, or are a kinesthetic learner by preference … the more ways you can acquire, understand, and use recall to test your understanding for weaknesses, the better you will learn and remember.   Research has proven many times that the advice of mindless repetition, rereading, is nowhere near as effective for memorisation, as effortful learning.  This raises questions about learning something note-for-note, purely by copying and not thinking more about it (questioning the note choice).


Learning parrot-fashion

Options available for learning a song or a solo by yourself , by pure copying, are

What about learning by ear?  This isn’t pure copying, as you have to employ a lot of additional mental effort, such as transcribing a solo.  Eventually, this can work well, especially for gigs and jamming with friends.  You learn the sounds of the scales, chords, and licks common to the genre(s) you play.

Guitar tab

Using tab (maybe video) is definitely the least effortful in terms of transferrable skills.   Think about it.   You are learning where to put your fingers, and how long to hold the note(s), and if you’re lucky, are advised on picking direction, hammer-ons and so on.  Now, I’m definitely not saying it doesn’t take effort to learn a solo like this, especially to the point where you can play it really well.  But (especially if no chords are given) there are no note names, and the frets shown may not be immediately obvious as corresponding to notes in a chord or in a scale.  So you are programming hand movements for this one situation (the solo).  And even if that same fragment (maybe slight altered) shows up again in another solo you’re copying, it probably won’t click that it’s the same source of notes.

Whereas, if you recognised a bunch of notes coming from a minor pentatonic, say, then you can more focus on why this particular ordering of the notes sounds better or worse to you.  Maybe the choice of ending note sounds cool.  Or a chromatic note has been added in, so you then know one way to enhance the pentatonic.  You’re now curious, investigating, looking for more than hand placement.  But if you just learn hand placement, suppose your band wants to play this song in a different key, to make it easier for the singer … without understanding what’s musically going on, you are in a very bad place.

The solution here is learning enough theory so you know where chords come from in relation to a scale, to know their interval makeup, and to know the scale’s interval makeup.  Because there are a handful of interval shapes that are easy to recognise visually, be that looking at someone’s hand, looking at a computer, or looking at tab.

Music notation

Learning music notation is very effortful, but sadly, it is not much better than tab, when it comes to understanding note choice.  Once the skill of reading notation is good enough to play the written music, focus very much goes on the performance … making the music sound as good as possible, adding in whatever nuances you want to give it your personal touch.  But all too often, take the notation away, and the musician really struggles to improvise or create their own music.


Clearly this depends on the content.  Some may explain note choice.  Others may just tell you verbally where to put your fingers (probably by string and fret number), and now you’re in a race against the video moving too far ahead, or your juggling with the video controls.  In that situation, you may find it even harder.  But again, it’s a similar situation to tab.


If you are serious about learning the guitar so you can confidently  improvise and write your own music, or co-write with others, then you really do need to effortfully learn those aspects of music that are relevant to a playing situation.  I’m not talking about details such as naming all the notes in a chord, or how to correctly spell a scale, or all the technical jargon.  I’m talking about what affects note choice:  scale – chord relationships, and ultimately, the simplest to learn forever, intervals … you cannot help but mentally retrieve these every time you play (when you want to retrieve them).  When you’re learning, make use of whatever accurate sources of knowledge you have, be that the Internet, theory books, chord books, scale books (and/or digital equivalents), and return to check your understanding a little later.  Ask yourself what other ways can you make use of these sounds you’ve just learned.  Or do you see and hear a new interval in a chord or scale shape?  Or how else can you play that shape?

Just remember …

                    No brain, no gain.

Good luck!!  (p.s.  emuso has many ways for you to test your understanding, including auto-correcting lessons where emuso  asks you questions (such as create a maj7 chord on the “guitar”, and it will check what you’ve created, and fix it if needed)

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