How Memorizing Scales Can Stunt Your Growth

Have you been unwittingly training yourself to be a kind of parrot that just plays the same licks over and over? It’s possible to do this accidentally, without meaning to. Beware.

Guitar Neck

Guitar Neck

For years I assumed that practicing guitar meant just training the fingers to wiggle in predetermined patterns. Every song, every chord, every scale: all just physical movements for the fingers to learn.

Somehow, I thought, after learning a bunch of cover tunes and poking at scales and just sitting down with the instrument often enough, surely I’d get good at the thing. Like somehow all that time spent holding the thing would add up to some level of skill, right?

I was so wrong.

Music is in the Mind, Not the Fingers.

You can learn a little by memorizing finger-wiggling patterns like cover tunes and scale exercises, but with that approach the learning is incidental at best. Progress is slow – then it stalls – then it stops entirely and you find yourself trapped at an intermediate level with a lot of confusion and no clear path to further improvement. It’s an awful trap, and during my early years I ran right into it.

If you want real mastery, you can be smarter about it than I was.

Memorization Isn’t Enough

When you learn a song, do you have a deep understanding of the chords, the melodies, the music? Or do you just mimic the finger-wiggles that produce that song?

What about when you learn riffs? New chords? Chord progressions? Do you understand that material, or are you just memorizing the motions?

When you play your guitar, do you know what note you want next, or do you just wiggle your fingers and see what comes spraying out the other end (of the guitar, I mean)?

When a great guitarist does his thing, you can see his hands at work – but the mental techniques, the gears turning in his head, those aren’t so obvious. The best kind of training teaches your fingers, yes – but it also trains your mind. It gives you deeper insight, which over the course of months and years gives you more and more creative control over everything you play.

When you mentally understand what you play, every little move you make will have an underlying reason. When you play a note, it’s because you chose that note.

Having chosen that note for heartfelt, personal reasons, you can play it like you mean it.

Understanding is the Secret Ingredient

Yes, there are times when you’ll have to memorize chord shapes, scales, etc. And there will be times when you’ll need to train strength and stamina into your hands.

But memorization isn’t study. It doesn’t really help you make music of your own or gain a clearer understanding of the music that you love. If it’s mastery you’re after, you’ll have to go deeper.

All my early learning was superficial. Learned by rote. I memorized a chord shape by obediently putting my fingers where the diagram told me to. I memorized songs by putting my fingers where the song’s performer had put his fingers.

Only later on did I realize that comprehension requires deeper study.

Your whole world changes when music theory knowledge begins to really gel in your mind. Armed with that knowledge, you understand the theory behind any given chord shape so well that the chord is faster to memorize, easier to remember, and you have the creative freedom to alter that chord form to create dozens of new ones. So when you learn one chord form, you’re really learning dozens of chord forms all at once.

Understanding Comes From Theory

Memorization seems like a tempting shortcut, all the more so because we’re often so hot to please friends and family. To learn something flashy to impress girls or impress boys.

Learning cover tunes is a relatively quick way to start playing things that sound very cool and advanced. But just being able to copy the performance of a song doesn’t help you write songs of your own.

That’s what theory is really about: understanding the connections that underpin chords, scales, and other elements of music. It means having a way to see and hear the relationships between notes and between chords–which means you’ll understand your materials and, like a true artist, have all the information you need to paint your own pictures in sound.

Through theory and ear training, eventually you gain such a fast and accurate ear that you end up with a fully-playable guitar in your own mind. You’ll totally untangle the fretboard and understand every piece of it. You can write music in your head, walk over to the guitar, and make it happen exactly the way you imagined it–without trial and error.

Naturally, this requires a period of awkwardness, learning, and mental strain. Quite a long period actually. In a way, for the intermediate guitarist who has to go back and learn the fundamentals, it’s like starting over.

But if that’s your situation, don’t despair. This time will be different. You won’t be a total beginner, after all–you’ll be a sophisticated beginner, one with some experience.

Besides, humbling yourself and going back to the fundamentals of music is actually soothing, in a way. It feels great to know that however simple the things you’re learning may be, those simple things are solid and true – and they lay a foundation for steady upward growth for years to come.

Nicholas Tozier (82 Articles)

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.