Techniques for learning music notes and notation


(Zombie Lennon) #1

I started training myself with memory techniques a little over a month ago. So far I’ve been using them to memorize a deck of cards, US Presidents and Vice Presidents, people’s names and faces, and mind mapping as a way of taking notes during class.
But one thing that I’ve really wanted to apply these techniques to was learning bass. I’ve been playing and learning bass for a few months now and can play a couple songs. The problem is that I took the easy way out and simply learned the tab notation and ignored the music theory. Learning the music theory is not that bad since a lot of teachers already use mnemonics (like “The lines are Good, Boys, Do, Fine, Always, and the spaces are All, Cows, Eat, Grass.”)
I just have trouble learning what the notes on the fretboard are. I was thinking of using the fretboard as my journey but I’m not sure how to assign images. Can anyone help me figure out a system that would help me assign images taking into fact that some notes have sharps and flats and appear in multiple places on the fretboard?


(Josh Cohen) #2

I would memorize the notes perpendicular to the fret board at the following frets, from highest note to lowest note: open strings, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12

  • open strings: G, D, A, E
  • fret 3: Bb, F, C, G
  • fret 5: C ,G ,D, A
  • fret 7: D, A, E, B
  • fret 10: F, C, G, D
  • fret 12: same as zero, or open string

The strings are arranged in fifths. If you learn the circle of fifths you can figure out the notes on those frets.

Circle of Fifths

(Image copyright just plain Bill under Creative Commons license.)

Mnemonic for clockwise:
Fat Cats Give Dogs An Endless Battle (F, C, G, D, A, E, B … Eb, Bb, F)

and counterclockwise:
By Eight All Dates Get Cold Feet (B, E, A D, G, C, F…)

  • open strings: G, D, A, E [... Give Dogs An Endless ...]
  • fret 3: Bb, F, C, G [Bb (Battle) ... Fat Cats Give ...]
  • fret 5: C ,G ,D, A [... Cats Give Dogs An ...]
  • fret 7: D, A, E, B [... Dogs An Endless Battle ...]
  • fret 10: F, C, G, D [... Fat Cats Give Dogs ...]
  • fret 12: same as zero, or open string

Here are a couple of exercises that might help:

Exercise 1:
Find a random note on the fretboard, and think of where it is in relationship to one of those frets. If you don’t see it right away, figure out where the octave is and if you can identify the fret where the octave is, then you can name the note.

Exercise 2:
Pick a note on the low string, like the first fret (F). Then go to the next lowest string and quickly try to find the first F on that string (8th fret). When you find the Fs on all the strings, pick a different random note and find them on each string up to about the 14th or 15th fret.

(I played guitar for most of my life until I injured my hands.)

EDIT: Simpler version of what I wrote above:

F, C, G, D, A, E, B, F#/Gb, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, F, etc… = Fat Cats Give Dogs An Endless Battle…

When going perpendicular to the strings from high string to low string, the notes will always follow that order, but just 4 notes at a time.

Spaced Repetition for Learning Stringed Instrument Scale Patterns

I know the mnemonic for the open strings in Standard G Tuning is Every Adult Dog Growls Barks Eats, but memorizing the frets can be interesting…

So, if we come up with a corresponding object/person to each note:

A - Alicia Silverstone
B - Berrnie Mac
C - Cat
D - Donald Trump
E - Carmen Electra
F - Tina Fey
G - George Bush
Flat/Sharp note = Pillow

Now, turn the fretboard itself into a loci, so, walking down the E string, you have Carmen Electra chatting with Tina Fey. Pillow. George bush is getting on with waring. Pillow. Alicia Silverstone is eating something vegan. Pillow. Etc.

You could even work out a PAO, which shouldn’t be that hard, because you only have eight letters.

My two cents. :slight_smile:


I’m a piano teacher and performer and have been interested in this idea of using memory techniques in music. The piano is diffrent from the bass. The piano uses the treble and bass clefs, one for each hand, so we read large groups of notes all at once. Is there any way of using the pao system and loci to help make sight reading easier?

(Josh Cohen) #5

I don’t think that the memory techniques would help much with sight reading, but they could help with memorizing music.

I’ve wondered if it would be possible to build a mnemonic system on figured bass notation.

For example, a second inversion of an F major chord could be notated like this:


Once you have a number, you could use the PAO system or Major System with the Method of Loci to memorize the piece.

In the major system, the number 64 might be an image of a chair. You would want to attach the note to it also (“do”). “Do” could be an image of a doe. So a doe sitting in a chair would be a second inversion of an F major chord.

For popular music, the chords could be converted into numbers, and then the sequence of numbers memorized:
Imaj7 VIm7 | IIm7 V7 | IIIm7 VI7 | IIm7 V7

That might be converted into 1-6-2-5-3-5-2-5, which could then be memorized with the Major System and/or PAO system.


That sounds like a good way of memorizing the harmonic structure of a piece. A thought I had, was taking a piece of music, say a Beethoven sonata and marking where all the phrases and themes are throughout the piece. Then associating a image with each section, maybe based on the overall basic chord progression like you said and depositing it in a journey or loci. So, that you remember larger sections of the piece. During a performance it can be a terrifying experience to have a memory laps. Unlike many other instrument’s recitals, pianist generally must have their material memorized, so that means we don’t have the sheet music in front of us. Being as prepared as possible is important too.

(Josh Cohen) #7

I think that would probably work very well, and probably wouldn’t take very long to do.

I used to listen to Mephisto Waltz every night when I went to bed:

It has a program, so I usually walk through the scenes when I’m listening to it:

There is a wedding feast in progress in the village inn, with music, dancing, carousing. Mephistopheles and Faust pass by, and Mephistopheles induces Faust to enter and take part in the festivities. Mephistopheles snatches the fiddle from the hands of a lethargic fiddler and draws from it indescribably seductive and intoxicating strains. The amorous Faust whirls about with a full-blooded village beauty in a wild dance; they waltz in mad abandon out of the room, into the open, away into the woods. The sounds of the fiddle grow softer and softer, and the nightingale warbles his love-laden song."

I don’t know exactly what Liszt intended, but there seem to be visual images in the music, even tuning the violin.

A lot of music hints at a program or ideas that could provide sources for some of the images…

Here’s another piece that immediately comes to mind where the composer has provided visual images to work with:


Great example! Thanks for all the feedback. I’ll keep investigating this topic and post any more thoughts.

(Zombie Lennon) #9

Thanks, everyone, for your help. I’ve decided to go with this method and use mnemonic devices to remember frets 0, 5, 7, 10, and 12 and use the circle of fifths to deduce every other note nearest to these.


I know this topic is pretty old but I tought I’d add another method. Basically here are all the chromatic notes you need to memorise’

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#
Bb Db Eb Gb Ab

Note that each sharpened note will have its corresponding flat note, so Bb and A#, which are actually the same note, will on the same fret.

So first off memorise this sequence.

Next memorise the open strings, E A D G B E, Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears.

Then starting on the open A string (which is the 5th string) we can apply the chromatic notes above to each fret on that string.
For example, Open string - A, 1st fret - A#(or Bb), 2nd fret B, 3rd fret C, and so on til we get to the 12th fret which begins the chromatic sequence all over again from the note A.

If we began on the open string G (which is the 3rd string) we would simply use the same chromatic sequence beginning on the note G.
For example, Open string - G, 1st fret - G#, 2nd fret - A, 3rd fret A(Bb), and so on.

Note that when you get to G#(Ab) you will simply return to A and keep moving through the sequence.

So for each string we just start on a different note of the chromatic scale.

Hope this helps!


As a piano player with a scientific background, I have always been frustrated with several aspects of Western musical notation which I believe make it far difficult not only to learn and memorize a piece but to understand the relationship between notes. We all know how to subtract 1 from 4 quickly and on the fly but it is not nearly as intuitive that F is C’s fourth (or three whole steps away). We have 7 letters for notes but 12 different notes per octave. There is no mathematical reason why E skips directly to F (and not E# or Fb) or B does the same to C, but this makes the entire scale irregular (although not irregularly irregular).
The best I could do was come up with a clock in which 1 o’clock was A, 2 o’clock was A#/Bb, 3 o’clock was C, etc. There is some symmetry that becomes apparent and like many memorization techniques, it uses something with which we are already familiar as an anchor or scaffolding. I present this idea along with an illustrated clock on my blog:

The system requires some memorization but has the advantage of being entirely, consistently mathematical. For example, if you can add 7 to 4 then you can find the fifth (7 half steps or keys or “hours” away from) of C (4) which is G (11). Going above 12 is no problem is you are familiar with the military clock (15 = 3 for example, just one octave higher).
If you must use the letter note system (and frankly most of us must), I find forming words or making up silly phrases is helpful. For example, the order of sharps appearing in different key signatures is:

For memorizing the notes in an F major 7 chord, it’s simply FACE, the same mnemonic for the ascending space notes of the treble clef.
The ACE (as in Red Baron) motif appears repeatedly, as in the A minor triad, and with a C# in the A major triad (AC#E).
Good Boys Deserve Fudge is the mnemonic both for the line notes of the treble clef and for the G7 chord (GBDF). You can add a “sh” sound for sharps and a “f” sound for flats to get, for example, Good Boys Deserve Fish (GBDF#) for the G Major 7 chord.
Unfortunately, musical memory requires “on the fly” instant recall so too mnemonics probably only will help as you are getting yourself set up to play a new piece of music or trying to recall an old one. There is a lot of muscular memory at work and the “feel” of different chords and patterns of notes.
Finally, since I like numbers so much more than letters, I like to write out the numbers of a song using the traditional I, ii, iii, iv, V, vi, VII notation except using Hindu-Arabic numbers which catch my eye more. Since so many songs are based on scales with strategic skips, if you know the key, you can often see numerical patterns right away whereas letter-based patterns are harder (at least on my brain). For example, the song French Folk Song (using the simply convention of A=1, B=2, C=3… G=7) can be written out as:
444 333 234 1__
777 666 555 4__
456 456 456 7__
567 567 567 8__
432 876 545 4__
You just have to remember it’s key of D (so every 3 and 6 is sharped) and that the first line is an octave above the one below, as is the initial 432 of the last line. But to my brain, this is far, far easier to understand and memorize than the letters (I use a trailing __ as in 1__ to indicate a half or whole note with the length of the note equal to the number of trailing _'s plus 1).
Those are all some thoughts.


Hi all, This is my first post here so take it easy on me :slight_smile:
I have played guitar and bass for over 30 years and also been a guitar teacher, I’m actually looking into memory techniques for music theory and guitar as I feel a lot of people have the same problem as Zombie Lennon has mentioned and give up.
I may be able to help a little bit with remembering the fret board note positions.
First, forget what Josh posted (no offence Josh) because in music theory the musical alphabet and scales are written from low to high, this means that the strings are NOT arranged in 5th’s from the bottom up but in 4th’s from the top down (top string being the lowest notes) except for the guitars B string that is a 3rd.
Second, learn the chromatic scale on the A string as suggested by Yogiz but have the scale in notation form in front of you and read, play and say each note aloud at the same time. Do in groups of 3 or 4 notes at a time using simple rhythm until it sinks in.
example say, A - A sharp - B and C - A - A sharp - B and C - A - A sharp - B and C - C - C sharp - D - C - C sharp - D - C - C sharp - D and so on.

Let me know what you think

(Josh Cohen) #13

Sure… everyone visualizes differently, and there is more than one way to do it. When I originally learned, it was easier for me to learn the frets that had the dots and orient myself from them.

I always called the higher-pitched notes “top”, because that’s how they are written, and when I look over at the fretboard while I’m playing it looks just like the notes or chords on the paper, with the higher-pitched notes closer to my eyelids (relatively: “up”, literally: “down”). :slight_smile:


I remember a blues piano player saying that “…all the best notes were to be found between the cracks!”
meaning the cracks between the piano keys, I guess.

Now that kinda stuck in my mind & made me think of the acronym ‘Everything Falls/Between the Cracks’

How does this help?

Well, ‘Everything Falls’ reminds you that you can see there is nothing between Notes E & F (they’ve disappeared down the cracks!)

Also ‘Between the Cracks’ reminds us that there is nothing between Notes B & C.

Still with me…?

So as long as you know your Alaphabet ( God bless Sesame St!) at least up to the G AND that you know to what notes you tune the strings of whatever instrument you are playing -in the case of the bass this will be either EADG or BEADG or BEAD or EADGF or EADGC but 80% of the time EADG- you are all set!

Let’s pick the E string frinstance:
Well, our first note is E, obviously, then we remind ourselves
“Everything Falls Between the Cracks” which means… what comes after E?
That’s right: F!

…so the next note after the open Estring, when you put your finger down between the nut & the first fret, you will be playing an F.

So what’s next?
Well, if you know your alphabet and you know that after E comes F then you’ll work out what comes after F and all the rest too!

IF there is nothing between E&F (Everything Falls…)
Then it must time for a note that is Sharp of Flat -an inbetween note, in other words.

It may be easier to think of the alphabet between A and G having an ‘inbetween note’ bridging each of the other ‘alphabetical notes’ ALL EXCEPT E&F and B&C, okay?

For our application let’s call these notes Sharps & name them as the ‘sharp half’, as it were, of the previous note. In our current example F#

Sharp is written ‘#’
Flat is written ‘b’ but more on this later…

In summary, then, the thickest open string on your Bass is an E then comes F then comes -ya guessed it- F# then, well what comes after an F in the alphabet? G of course, so we have E then F then F# then G then G# (now you’ve come to the end of your notes, so circle back) then A Then of course A# then B but here, now, we have our “…Between the Cracks” phrase so no # no flat or anything after the B & we go straight on over to the next alphabet letter which is C (as in “…Between the Cracks”)

Then we have C# then after a C type note we alphabetically have D then D# then E

Yep, now we’re back to an E again, where we started. Most instruments have two dots here at this 12th position or fret. You can consider this another Top Nut, as it were, & the cycle starts over again

Traditionally as we go up the neck we call our ‘enharmonic notes’, that is to say, our inbetween/non-alphabetic Notes: Sharps/#

As we go down the neck we (traditionally) call our ‘enharmonic notes’: Flats/b

So going up the neck, for instance on the Open A String, we have A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G# & then back to our ‘virtual’ double-dot 12th fret & it carries on as before until ya run outta neck!

Reversing from that 12th fret we traditionally call our ‘enharmonic notes’: Flats/b

So going down the neck on, say, that A String, where we are at the 12th fret, we go backwards from A, Ab, G, Gb, F, E, Eb, D, Db, C, B, Bb, then back to our actual Top Nut & we’ve run outta neck again!

1)Alphabet 7steps from A to G

2)Every note has its ‘middle’ note between it & its Alphabetical neighbour EXCEPT E&F and B&C

3)E&F and B&C can be remembered by reciting “Everything Falls Between the Cracks”

Hope this helps someone as much as it helps me :wink: