September 15, 2009
Would you like to be able to you play what is in your head? A recent discussion brought this topic forward, and I would like to share my thoughts on this subject.
Most of the time when I play something, there isn't much thinking involved - the notes just kind of come out by themselves. Sometimes it sounds pretty good, sometimes, well not so good. When it doesn't sound good, I notice and try to determine what the problem is and make corrections as a result. The point is that I usually don't think ahead much regarding what I am about to play, even if I have a good idea what I want to play next.
Over the years, I have developed good ears for finding notes, both in my head and on the guitar. However, these are two different things. I can put it this way, if you develop a good ear and can "hear" the music in your head, you can also get to the point where you are able to "transfer" this music or these notes onto the guitar, without thinking.
Sounds too good to be true? Well, it is true, but it involves both spending time doing ear training, as well as practicing how to find notes on the fretboard effortlessly.
The first step is to focus on ear training. There are courses you can buy on DVD for this; there's software you can buy, and there are also websites that provide tools for ear training. I believe it is extremely useful to be able to instantly determine any of the 12 intervals in western music. Can you tell the difference between a Perfect fourth and a Perfect fifth? Are you able to pick out a b7 immediately? How about a Major 7 or Major 9 chord, can you hear this right away without having to go to the guitar or piano to try and figure it out?
The key to being able to understand a melody in your head is being able to know/hear all these intervals instantly. Why? Because you can break a melody down into intervals and make specific sense out of it that way. Once you can do this in your head, you can then transfer this knowledge to the guitar.
Learning the intervals on the guitar is a different beast in itself though. Here the problem becomes where are these notes and how can I possibly remember where everything is? Well, the way I do it is to see "shapes" of notes. You can learn to visualize a Major 3rd or a Perfect 5th (a Power Chord!) on the fretboard, and once you have these down, you can actually play what's in your head!
Okay, perhaps this sounds confusing, so let's try an example. I am assuming you have some knowledge about intervals, but if you don't, have a look at Wikipedia's Interval entry or see the resources below.
Let's check out "Itsy Bitsy Spider", I am sure know this one. It starts on the root note, until the "y" in "Bitsy", at which point the interval is a Major second. On the word "Spider", the interval is now a Major third. We can continue analyze the whole melody this way. Because I have learned how to find all intervals on the fretboard, I actually visualize these notes in my head (call it a mental fretboard) as they are being played on the guitar fretboard. When I later pick up the guitar, it is simply a matter of playing the notes I have already visualized. At this point, you are actually performing the easy part.
Now, the more you practice ear training and fretboard knowledge, the easier this process becomes. However, this visualization process is of course more difficult when the tune or melody is more complicated. Still, the more you do this, the better you will become at it.
You can do this too, but you will have to have patience, as this usually takes some time to learn. For some it can be a matter of months, for others it could be years, it all depends on how much you practice and how easily you learn. No matter what, do believe in yourself and know that this is not impossible or will only work for musical geniuses. Not so! Patience, brother - practice, stay focused and never give up. Words I try to live by as well.
Ear Training Resources
Fretboard Learning Resources
By Robert Renman - www.dolphinstreet.com