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Trouble learning basic music theory as a novice? Frustrated? This might help...

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by NCD, Feb 7, 2013.

  1. NCD


    Mar 19, 2011
    First off, the subject says might help, not will help. Hopefully you'll take something good from this, maybe not. Some will, some won't and all I can do is try to let you know what worked for me. I'm not a music teacher though I have studied the art of teaching itself, for other subjects.

    Background: I'm 47. I tried to learn music theory 6 (six) times and quit in frustration every time. Finally, I learned about arpeggios and decided to skip scales and modes for a little while and just have fun with those. It was the best music related decision I've ever made. I've discussed this with several music instructors and they all agree that my approach does one thing that the traditional approach fails at miserably... that is that my approach keeps the student interested by letting them have fun from day one rather than bury them in headache inducing theory.

    In my way I just show you how to have some fun in a few ways and then, like a sneak attack, I tell you afterward that what you learned was actually part of theory and then I tell you the technical name for what you're already doing and having fun with.

    So, here we go...

    Crucial Information: This applies to teaching / learning anything. From music to biology to physics or electronics theory, it always applies:

    Your brain is a warehouse. It has shelves that have a system of organization and it has a loading dock. Information comes in and gets dumped on the small loading dock. If you want to use anything that got dumped, you have to pull it from the shelves that are neatly organized. But wait...

    If it's on the loading dock where it got dumped, how are you supposed to get it off the shelves? Well, it has to get taken from the dock and put away on the shelves before you can use it. This takes time. The time for that to happen is probably the most important step in the learning process that no one ever takes into consideration.

    Notice I said small loading dock. You can only dump so much junk on there, so fast. If you keep piling stuff on before it can be put away on the shelves then the dock gets full and stuff starts falling off. It falls off into oblivion... gone. Goodbye, not coming back, forget about it.

    So this means that if you cram your brain full of stuff for an hour or two then you'll have about five to ten minutes of it put away on your brain shelves but the rest fell off. Gone. Asta la bye-bye. You won't remember any of it because the loading dock was too full to hold it so it never got put away on the shelves in your brain.

    The key to actually learning is to put small loads into your head and then do something else for a little bit in order to allow your brain to process the information. Process = put it away in it's appropriate place in your brain so you can find it later. If you skip that part then you can dump all of wikipedia into your head... it won't do you any good because it never had time to be put away before you hit information overload.

    People with photographic memories have filing systems so fast that their loading docks never get full. Lucky them. We aren't them, so we have to allow time for processing.

    Start with 5-10 minutes of practice, then walk away for just 15 minutes before coming back for 5-10 minutes more. No, I'm not kidding. Yes, 5-10 minutes is a very tiny amount of time. You know what?

    Every second of it will get filed away so you can use it later. Nothing will be wasted. That my fellow noob, is the secret to learning quickly. The harder you study, the more of your hard work gets wasted because the info overloaded your brain's loading dock and got wasted since it never got filed away. For most people, after about 15 minutes of studying / practicing brand new, never before seen material the brain hits overload and you're just wasting your time until you take a break and process.

    Note: The above applies only to new information that you've never seen before OR to trying to get a new lick / phrase into your muscle memory. You can practice things you already know pretty well for much longer without any problem, and this becomes important later.

    Later, after you know some stuff... Learn something new for 5-10 minutes and then, instead of walking away, practice a song or arpeggio or some things that you already know for 15 minutes before taking in any more new info. The time you're practicing things you already know is the time that your brain will be filing away the new info. Now you're in a position to practice for a long time, but keep the periods of taking in brand new information down to 5-10 minute chunks.

    Last point on learning in general: When you start making mistakes STOP. Take a break. Walk away completely for at least 15 minutes, maybe as much as an hour. If you don't the frustrating mistakes will only get worse, really really fast. If you keep pushing it then you will deteriorate, meaning you can get worse if you keep trying to practice but are practicing wrong.

    If you keep fingering the left hand wrong because you keep pushing, your brain will have more time doing it wrong then right... and that's what you'll learn. Are your notes not crisp and clean even after marathon practice sessions where you work and work while making mistakes? Practicing it wrong because of the mistakes means that's what your brain will remember later... and that's going backward, not forward.

    Now, on to learning music theory in a fun way...

    Step 1: Learn a basic C Major scale with open strings (You can look at it on the fretboard printer tool at studybass.com , set the scale root to C and the scaale to Major). Goof off with it. See what you can make it do. Get silly, get fun. Invent stuff. Most importantly, enjoy trying different things and just have a good time with it. Do that in small chunks until you've done it for about an hour in total, then take the rest of the day off.

    Step 2: Learn that same C Major scale higher up on the neck, without any open strings. Goof off with it again. Try to recreate some of your favorite creations from before but this time do them higher up on the neck, without any open strings. Keep playing with it and see what you can do with it. Again, small chunks for a total of about an hour, then walk away for the day.

    Step 3: Now notice that the scale you learned without open strings forms a shape on the neck. Forget about the fact that you were starting on C and use that same shape pattern anywhere on the neck. You'll see that it still works. Why? Because it's a basic Major scale shape, not just a 'C' Major scale shape. If you start on D then you're playing D Major. Start on G# and whammo... now you're playing G# Major. All the major scales are the same shape on the neck.

    Shapes... That's what it's really all about.

    What about minor, blues or pentatonic scales? Forget about them for now. Skip them. Modes? Don't even think about it. We won't deal with that 3 headed monster for a long time, so don't worry about dealing with them.

    Step 4: Go to studybass.com and pull up the fretboard printer. This time select the chord tab and set the root to C and the chord to Major Triad. Look at it. Notice that the notes shown are the first, third and fifth notes of the C Major scale. Set a metronome or drum machine track up in a way that gives you 4 beats per bar and goof off with that. Hit the C note on every beat of one and use any of those 3 notes for whatever you want on the rest of the beats. Just get back "home" to hit C on the one each time it comes up. Play with it. Have a good time. See how it feels to hit only the C, then use only the C and the G (known as root-fifth). Remember that most of the time simpler is better when it comes to the bass. Most importantly, notice that the 3rd is always one string higher and one fret lower than the C while the 5th above is one string higher and two frets higher. Also notice that the 5th below is on the next string lower but on the same fret.

    Master that Major Triad Shape... shape... shape...

    Step 5: Do the same thing as step 4 but this time set the chord root to D and the chord to minor. Be sure to get "home" to D on the one beats. Notice that the 5th is in the same place but the 3rd has moved. It's been flattened one fret so it has another shape, one you want to learn. No big deal... it's only one little fret different but that gives it a different feel or emotion. Also, notice that if you play the 3rd one string higher and two frets lower then there is a 5th right by it so you don't need to jump your left hand down. That same note is right there, on the next higher string!!! Break out that metronome or drum machine again with 4 beats and have at it. After 10 minutes, swap to the C Major triad for 15 minutes. Take a break and do it again, 5-10 minutes on D minor and 15 on C Major. Now go fishing... or play a video game. Just do something else for the rest of the day and let your brain process.

    Step 6: Go back to our friend the fretboard printer. This time set the chord to G and Dominant. Looks like the Major, right? Yea... except that when you get into the seventh chords there will be a difference but for now don't sweat it. Since this shape is the same just play with it for 5 minutes being sure to hit the G on the first beat again. Do step 7 in the same practice session...

    Step 7: Set up your metronome or drum machine the same as before.

    - This time, play 4 beats of D minor triad (hit D on the first beat of the 4) and stay within the 3 notes of the D minor on beats 2,3 and 4.

    - For the next 4 beats use the G Dominant triad (hit G on the first beat of the 4) and stay within the 3 notes of the G Dominant triad on beats 2,3 and 4.

    - Then for 8 beats (2 sets of 4) use the C Major triad (hit C on the first beat of each 4 beat "bar") and, you guessed it, use the 3 notes of the C Major triad on beats 2,3 and 4.

    Play this smoothly, going from one triad to the next, over and over. 4 beats of D minor, 4 of G Dominant and 8 of C Major and then right back to 4 beats of D minor to start all over again. Sounds cool right?

    D is the second note of the C Major scale. It's a minor chord so the number is written in lowercase roman numerals, like this: ii

    G is the fifth note of the C Major scale and it's a Dominant chord so it's written in uppercase roman numerals, like this: V

    C is the root note of the C Major scale and it's a Major chord so it's written in uppercase roman numerals, like this: I

    So when you play 4 beats of D minor triad, 4 beats of G Dominant triad and 8 beats of C Major triad that's written as ii-V-I-I... or what people call ii-V-I for short. You may have also seen this called 2-5-1.

    Specifically it can be called "ii-V-I in C Major". That's what's meant when someone says the changes.

    Don't get confused by the terminology, by this point you're already doing it.

    Step 8:

    Now, go back and set the fretboard printer to learn these chords:
    D minor 7th
    G Dominant 7th
    C Major 7th

    Yes, we're only adding one note to each. Notice how the 7th for the Dominant 7th chord is not in the same place as the 7th for the CMaj7 chord. This is where their shapes differ.

    Metronome - goof off with ii-V-I using the 7ths this time. Hit the root of the chord on the one beat for whatever chord you're playing for that 4 beats. Play around with the rest of the beats but stay within the appropriate chord notes for that set of 4 beats.

    Now... here is the sick part.

    Remember way back in Major scales you noticed that the shape of every Major scale was the same no matter what individual Major scale you played? The shape never changes...

    Neither does a Major 7th chord shape, a minor 7th chord shape or a Dominant 7th chord shape.

    They don't change shapes!!!!

    If you start on G and play the Major 7th chord shape, you're playing the notes of the G Maj7 chord. It's really that simple.

    One other thing... because the Major scale shape never changes, the chord for the second note in the scale will always be a minor shape, the chord for the 5th note will always be a Dominant shape and the chord for the root (or I) will always be, you guessed it, the same old Major shape.

    So if you want to play the F Major scale, you can do that, you know the shape.

    If you want to play ii-V-I in F Major then all you have to do is:

    -Play the minor chord shape of the second note in the F Major scale (the ii)

    -Play the Dominant chord shape of the fifth note in the F Major scale (the V)

    -Play the Major chord shape of the first note in the F Major scale (the I)

    This works for any Major scale, anytime, without fail. The shapes do NOT change.

    What about modes? In all honesty you don't need them until you're far more advanced than this. I have no idea why they try to teach them so early because they just confuse the *(&!?* out of people who are trying to get started. :eyebrow:

    Instead, start all these steps from step one but now do them for the minor scale, still in C. Be sure to learn the minor scale shape without open strings so you can move it wherever you want.

    One simple chord sequence that you can start with for the minor scale is v-iv-i-i. That is, 5-4-1-1, all of these are minor chord shapes.

    By the way, there is a scary technical name for what I've been calling "chord shapes" here.

    They're actually called Arpeggios. Don't let the name fool you or scare you... you already know a lot about them. There are a few more arpeggio shapes, but you already know most of the important ones.

    To continue on from here, I'd suggest checking out Scott Devine's site http://scottsbasslessons.com/

    He puts all this technical stuff into plain, easy to understand English... and to really take your arpeggio mastery to the next level and beyond check out this lesson from Scott:


    My whole goal in writing this post is to give you the tools to have fun playing, so that when you get so frustrated with theory you don't quit playing entirely.

    Like I did... 6 times. Imagine where I'd be if I'd stuck with it 20 years ago. :meh:
  2. f.c.geil


    May 12, 2011
    Excellent lesson, thanks for sharing.
  3. Nashrakh


    Aug 16, 2008
    Hamburg, Germany
    My own humble advice to anyone out to learn theory is to play it, and not to just look at a screen or a book trying to make sense of it. It's all in its practical application, and that's when it truly begins to click.

    My $0.02.
  4. TwentyHz


    Apr 9, 2011
    Dayton, OH
    Subscribed! Will read better, and come back with Qs. Finally! I've been believing this same thing for years.

    Shape is the one thing that ties music to our more relied upon ways of being: you can hear and see it, and it's even tactile. And you can write it down (for some purposes - not sight-reading) without translation.

    And a friendly extension: I have encouraged 1st timers to first learn to make one pretty note (any) and then bend it, hammer it, vibrato ... Make it sing. Mix it up w/ the open string, add another note.

    I think about these combined as a 'whole language' (rather than phonics) approach to music.
  5. I don't know if reading a thesis will help anyone. Start playing intervals on your bass and learn to sing what you are playing. Find someone who can explain and show you how to play intervals if you need to. That will get you on your way and may god then be with you for the rest of your intrepid life long joirney into the world of music.
  6. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    The problem I have with this is that music is an AURAL art and experience, not a visual one. Learning "shapes" on the fingerboard is an obstacle to actually making music, whether in conceiving or executing.

    Feel free to do what you want, all I can say is that this approach led to a big brick wall for me. And I had to do a LOT of work to get around it, work that, had I perservered and done it at the beginning of this journey, would have gotten me much deeper into the music MUCH quicker.
  7. NCD


    Mar 19, 2011
    Thanks for the feedback! Sometimes I don't phrase things as well as I could have and please remember that after four hours of writing that post I had to stop somewhere. I couldn't put everything in it and some things are actually implied.

    It's implied that it should all start to click when you hear how it all comes together when you play along with the metronome or drum machine.

    Shapes are far easier to learn for a beginner because a beginner is often intimidated by the idea that after memorizing the C Major scale that you have to memorize a bunch of other Major scales... then minor ones, then blues ones, then pentatonic ones. Then you add the intimidation of wrongfully thinking that the C Major arpeggio has to be memorized in addition to all the other Major arpeggios. This idea scares the bejesus out of beginners. I know it intimidated the heck out of me!

    Shapes break this down into the Major scale, the minor scale, the Major arpeggio, the minor arpeggio and the Dominant arpeggio. That's the whole point of thinking in shapes.

    Beginners need to know that they don't have to memorize dozens of scales and arpeggios, they only need to master the shapes of these things and then move them around to whatever notes they're working with at the time. They need to know that they only need to memorize one Major scale, not twelve!!! (To be truthful, this doesn't include open string variations which will need to be learned separately but a beginner can just pick those up over time.)

    Many people who have been in music a long time seem to forget that beginners often think that the twelve Major scales all have to be memorized separately, and then twelve minors, then twelve Major arpeggios, etc. etc..

    This is a crushingly daunting task in the mind of the beginner.

    But if you break it down into one Major scale, one minor and three arpeggios... hey, a beginner can handle memorizing just five things! That's not crushing at all, that's just going to require some effort.

    And when a beginner isn't crushed under the fear of learning dozens of things, they can focus on learning to apply those five little things they do memorize. They can get into learning how it feels, how it all works together and get to working on it aurally much more quickly.

    Which is the whole point of this approach.
  8. phmike


    Oct 25, 2006
    Nashville, TN
    Just the opposite for me. Learning there was a pattern/shape and how to use it was a good thing for me. I then learned the how/why (theory) of what the shape was and that led to some big "light bulb" moments for my theory progress. I'm now comfortable with enough theory to play what I like and know where my strengths and weaknesses are. Everybody has their own way of learning and if one ain't git'n'r'done then try something else.


    Oct 13, 2012
    AWESOME, I`v been looking for something just like this, THANKS SO MUCH ! I have one question NCD, in step 6 you say set the chord to G and dominant(dominant what ? 7th,9th,7 b9th ?) Also at the end of step seven you say G Dominant triad(do you mean major triad? ) Did I miss something on the fretboard printer or in your explanation ? Sorry but I just lost my job, so that means no more instructor for awhile so I`m trying to understand this and get it right. It`s self teaching till I get back to work, the worst part is I`v had such a short time with an instructor, it`s going to be hard from here on out !
  10. Clef_de_fa


    Dec 25, 2011
    I see it more like learning a language like English. Sure we speak and this is the ultimate use but still, we learn a lot of stuff by reading.

    I know that I learned faster and stuff that we don't use anymore ( a shame if you ask me ) by reading music and also having a teacher ... not necessarily a bass teacher but a music theory teacher.
  11. Excellent post! That's how I learn, in 5 minute increments. I'll pick up my bass, fool around with it, then put it down after around 5 minutes or so. Sometimes I'll practice a bass line I've learned, other times I'll play along to a YouTube video, still other times I'll come up with a cool new bass line and I'll play around with that. Works for me!
  12. Kmonk


    Oct 18, 2012
    South Shore, Massachusetts
    Endorsing Artist: Fender, Spector, Ampeg, Curt Mangan Strings, Nordstrand Pickups, Korg Keyboards
    I have been playing bass since 1978 and still do not understand theory. I took a music theory course at UMASS last year and got an A but still do not understand it. I play with a keyboard player who has degrees from Berklee, the London Conservatory and the New England Conservatory. He teaches music at the college level. He once told me here is a quote: "If you learned theory you would be deadly and could play with anyone in the world". He said that I understand theory but I just don't know the terminology. Great compliment except that I have tried and cannot get it. I also played with an internationally known guitarist who told me that he was convinced that I could play anything. I still do not get theory and unfortunately, the OP's post doesn't help because I have no idea what any of it means. I can play by ear and can learn anything in a short period of time. I know what notes I am playing but do not understand how they relate to theory. It actually frustrates me quite a bit.
  13. I agree with you in regards to practising: if you're learning something new, it should be the first thing you practise, and not for too long (for the reasons you mentioned) be it a technical skill or a theoretical one. I don't have a problem with learning "shapes", but I think ear-training should be taught to students from day one. Learning to recognise intervals is one of the most important things you'll ever learn, and should be a priority for any new student (in my opinion).

  14. I'm all for musicians understanding theory, but it sounds you've done okay for yourself regardless. If you have a really good "ear" (and you obviously have), then I wouldn't worry about it.

    I've played with musicians who've had a great understanding of theory, and I've played with others who wouldn't know a pentatonic from a pencil. They were all great musicians.

    Let's face it, your ears are the finest instruments you have.
  15. Fergie Fulton

    Fergie Fulton Gold Supporting Member

    Nov 22, 2008
    Retrovibe Artist rota
    Great post, and always i endorse the short learning approach, split it up into small chunks, it makes learning so much easier, that's why books have sentences, paragraphs and chapters, they are defined places to end an narrative or ideas..that's why we can make sense of reading.
    It's easier to learn lots of small ideas then piece them together into a bigger one.
    The same applies to skills, playing is a combination of skills, each component will need to dominate one or more till it is learned, then a new one comes and dominates till it is learned..and so on.
    Once all these skills are even, then they work together, then you stop thinking about playing and just play.

    Shapes...you cannot not learn them, your brain will make the connection to shapes, and does make the connetion to shapes but you do not realise it, in your playing.
    Learn a song, play it often enough and your brain will apply a pattern to it, you cannot stop that happening and you cannot un-learn that skill of applying patterns.

    Anyone that learns using patterns is just doing first what the brain will do later on, the pattern is to reinforce the information....the pattern is not the information, the information are the notes and the theory that supports them. Because the pattern is easily moved, the danger is a student not finishing the lesson they started, they move the pattern on without learning the information. Because the patten stays the same and the information changes, they lose the focus to stop and learn the information related each time the move the pattern.
    Because, as Ed said "music is an aural art", the fact it sound good means the student wants to get on making music, rather than learning music. They just take the shape idea and find they can create great sounds and melody fast, so their brain justifies 'why do all the other stuff, this sounds good to me'.

    This is where a good teacher comes in, a good teacher keeps the focus on the learning. Sure you can go and play shapes, learn different ideas, even play your Xbox all day, go out with friends as often and as much as you want, then pick up your instrument when you feel like it and continue with what you were doing.
    But with a teacher you have a regular goal, a focus on not only learning the information, but presenting it to an acceptable standard at a given time.
    If you have not done the work it will show, the teacher will know you have been distracted, lazy, not committing the correct time to learn it etc...it will show in what you know and how you play it. If you have done the work, again it will show in what you know and how you play it.

    Any player that struggles to lose patterns has not learned the information they support..that is why the cling to the pattern, they refer to it, not the notes/options involved to be used.

    Remember, you do not have to learn music to play music....but if you do not play music, then what is the point of learning music? :
  16. catcauphonic

    catcauphonic High Freak of the Low Frequencies Supporting Member

    Mar 30, 2012
    Seattle WA
    ^^^ I found this approach to be so true when I was first trying to learn basic licks or fretting techniques . I did it until it became frustrating, then walked away for a short time ... when I would return to it, 9 out of 10 times it easily fell under my fingers.

    I'm really glad I came across this today ... particularly the part about stopping before the mistakes are starting to get ingrained. These past few months, in hindsight, I've been trying to plow through etudes making mistake after mistake. I need to reapply the simple 'walk away' technique. That makes total sense to me. Thank You for this important reminder. :)
  17. NCD


    Mar 19, 2011
    If you are seeing line break HTML code in my reply it's because I posted this from my tablet. The talk bass app on my tablet seems to insert code no matter how I try to prevent it from doing so. Sorry about that.

    In step six I'm still referring to the triad. One of the points that I make in that step is that the dominant triad looks exactly like the major triad. It isn't until you get down to step 8 that they begin to differ, when you begin to add the seventh for each of those arpeggios.

    The 9th and 11th of each chord is a bit more advanced than what I've gone into here, but if you're up to that point then more power to you!

    Two of the reasons that I wrote the post are that I struggled a lot with trying to understand chords and when I realized that they could be broken down into shapes that was a very serious breakthrough for me. Within 15 minutes I went from struggling because I thought that each Major scale and each different chord had to be memorized individually to being able to play any Major scale and all the notes of that scale's Major, Dominant and minor chords for any cord changes. That's an incredible leap in understanding in only 15 minutes!

    The other reason that I wrote the post is because I saw quite a few other people struggling with the same thing. Not so much on this site, but a lot of people I spoke to face to face were having the same difficulties that I was.
  18. willop


    Feb 7, 2013
    beaver, pa
    As a newbie trying to learn this was helpful.

    I equate learning to read/play/make music as like learning to speak say, chinese or russian or arabic fluently if you've never spoken anything but english.

    You can try and look up the funny letters/words in a dictionary or look up what you know and try to ask for directions...you'll spit out one word here and there and make little sense (you'll make noise, not music)

    Anyone can make 'notes' of sound on a piano (much easier than on a bass or guitar IMO). I bet I can get a 5 year old to understand the locations of C, D, etc in 10 minutes on a piano. It's a tad harder in my experience to do so on a fretboard.

    I played music in second thru 5th grade - piano, trumpet, trombone. I never learned 'music theory'. Which sounds fancy - but what are intervals? Part of music theory. What is a root of a chord? Again, you need some music theory to 'get' this.

    I had a couple of bass lessons when I first got my bass (time scored off my son's guitar teacher). I then have been practicing makeing clean sounds, time keeping, and playing 'simple' songs (clementine, saints go marching, etc) all over the fretboard. Very useful stuff.

    Been reading music theory books and absorbing all I can on all fronts - spent the other night reading up on the NNS for example.

    Things are beginning to come together - 'play 2 5 1' means NOTHING unless you know music theory. Sorry, but it doesn't 'mean' anything even if you're taught what to play.

    Think of a 5 year old - they can talk but have alimited vocabulary and can't read a book much less write one because they lack the knowledge of nouns, verbs, adverbs, sentence structure, punctuation, etc. Same for music - you need to know the structure of the language to do much more than emulate what you're heard.

    The teacher had me play a pattern on the fretboard in three different positions. NOW I understand what he was having me do - play the first, third and fifth notes of a triad in a 2-5-1 progression in the key of C.

    I may not yet see all four walls of the dark room I"m in but at least the light has been turned on!

    See, I've been told my whole life that music is 'math' - since I always got As in math I never quite understood why music was such a struggle for me to grasp. Still not sure the connection there, but the "pattern" on the fret board makes 100% sense - it can be played anywhere exaclty the same and you'll get the 1/3/5 triad, just in a different key.

    Still having issues grasping 'keys' but the NNS chart has helped a lot. The point here is if you don't 'get' it from one teacher/method/book try another. One of the explanations is bound to turn on your light.


    Oct 13, 2012
    Thanks for answering my questions and no I`m not up to that point yet but I`ll get there soon enough...Your so right about studying in small increments, it works that way for me anyhow. Just today I could`nt get the fingering on this riff, I had been trying for a hour, I set my bass down walked away for awhile and when I picked it back up BAMN ! got it the first time and now every time. Every ones learning style is different you have to find your groove and go with it....
  20. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    Ed, I'd be interested in hearing more about the nature of that brick wall, and what overcoming that brick wall entailed.