How Memorizing Scales Can Stunt Your Growth, Part 2

Guitarist and His Ol' Git-box

Read Time 5 Minutes

If true mastery is the goal

In a post called “How Memorizing Scales Can Stunt Your Growth“, I talked about why mere memorization of chord shapes, scales, and songs doesn’t do much for your growth as a musician. I caught a bit of flak for that article, but I stand behind it.

Guitarist and His Ol' Git-box
Guitarist and His Ol’ Git-box

If true mastery is the goal, and if we want to be able to write songs of our own, rote memorization doesn’t cut it – we’ll need deep, rock-solid understanding of each chord and scale that we learn. Just grinding a scale “box form” forward and backward doesn’t impart actual useful knowledge of that scale. That process will give you no clues on how scales are used to make music. Likewise, just memorizing a chord form is the tip of the musical iceberg.

Memorization is the process of taking something difficult and effortful, then working on it repeatedly until it’s fast and automatic. Here’s the problem, though: the moment something becomes mindless finger motion, we stop learning from it.

“Okay then, Mr. Smartypants, if memorization doesn’t cut it, how exactly are we supposed to get this supposedly deeper understanding of scales and chords, then?”

Below, I’ve listed some foundational skills that’ll help you get the most bang for your practice time. First, though, just to make sure we understand each other, I want to talk a bit about what cognitive psychologists call automaticity.

Automaticity: Your Best Pal or Your Worst Foe

Automaticity is the ability to do something without having to think about it or expend mental effort. Think of a chord you know so well it’s second nature – the open form G chord, for example. If you’ve been playing for any length of time, your fingers move quickly, accurately, and automatically to that chord. You don’t have to pause to think about it.

Maybe you’ve also experienced this feeling of effortlessness while playing a song you know really really well: while your fingers go on playing it just as faithfully as any Nickelodeon, your mind wanders anywhere and everywhere else… bills you need to pay, dental work you need done, things you need to pick up at the grocery store.

That feeling of effortless execution is automaticity. Automaticity allows us to work on a tough skill until it becomes fast, accurate and automatic – freeing our minds to take on new challenges.

Automaticity of a scale box pattern is just the beginning. Practicing those patterns can be great for helping you visualize the notes on the fretboard, build muscle, and train precision into your fingers. But once the patterns become automatic and mindless, you’ll need some new things to do with that information to keep yourself interested and keep training mentally – not just physically.

When training skews too far toward training the fingers while neglecting the mind, you end up with fingers that follow set routines and brainless habits – which might let you play some memorized licks that sound cool, but also can lead to a sensation of being trapped within memorized licks, riffs, and tricks instead of having absolute control over what you play, when you play it, and how you play it.

So, instead of making individual licks fast and automatic, I suggest we make some useful musical thought processes fast and automatic. Then, instead of being twitchy-fingered lick libraries that walk on two legs, we’ll be able to understand musical situations and make artistic choices about what to play. Every note will be deliberately chosen and played for musical reasons, not just because of habit.

Suggested Foundational Skills

These are some mental processes that I suggest ingraining in yourself any way you can. Each one takes a significant investment of time and energy – I’m still working on them myself – but trust me: if you put in the time and the effort, it’ll pay off tenfold.

1. Learn the musical alphabet and learn every note on the fretboard, using the 5th, 7th, and 12th frets as guideposts. Be able to sit down with a blank fretboard diagram and accurately label every note. Also, given a single pitch (F# for example), be able to find that pitch on every string.

2. Learn all of the musical intervals (half step, whole step, major third, perfect fourth, etc.) and train your ears to distinguish between them. Know how to play every interval on every string pair. Analyze melodies, chord shapes, and scales to find out which intervals are present (1, b3, 5, b7, etc.)

3. Learn how to construct major and minor scales. Know how to identify the tone centers, aka the tonic or root note, of every scale you play. Learn how to harmonize each of these scales with triads.

4. Learn the musical formulae underlying chords and scales, and be able to sit down with pen and paper to construct said chords and scales from scratch. Eventually, try to do this entirely in your head.

5. Learn how to read and write music notation – spending time individually reading pitches, rhythms, and both together.

6. Learn how to quickly transpose any melody or melodic pattern into other octaves and different keys. To make sure you’re really absorbing the character of a given scale, it’s always better to try to play it in many different keys.

7. Know how to move chord and scale forms onto a different string than the original fingering called for, being sure to adjust as necessary for notes that move to or from the B string.

8. Experiment with playing scale and arpeggio notes in all kinds of different melodic patterns. Be able to play ascending and descending patterns based on 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, and 7ths. To internalize the sounds of scales and modes, sing each tone and mentally identify the scale degree (R, b3, 5, etc.) of each note while you play.

9. Use each scale and arpeggio to write melodies and licks of your own from scratch.

10. Compare chord and scale formulas with one another. Write out the degrees for each scale and mode so you can see what some of the scales share in common and what distinguishes them.

All this stuff is easy enough to list out, but just that list of exercises could keep you busy for a few months. Practice them, especially the ones you find hardest – then practice them more and more and more until each process is fast, accurate, and automatic. Go as slowly as you need to at first – accuracy must come first; once you’re accurate you can begin to speed the process up.

This probably means you’ll have to sit with a notebook and write out many of these processes by hand, kind of like doing musical long division. This has the added bonus of allowing you to check your work to make sure it’s accurate.

Accuracy first, speed second. Always.

If practicing any of the above exercises is difficult, that’s a good sign – that means you’re making progress. Keep going, and slow the process down as much as you need to.


Merely automating patterns is not as good as automating musical thought processes.

Sure, memorizing is much easier than struggling with the things you’re murky on – but it also benefits you much less.

The key to really mastering each scale and absorbing its character deeply is to keep tackling new mental challenges related to that scale – if you play the same set of exercises over and over from the same approach, eventually those exercises will become automatic and effortless, being entirely played with the fingers – and thus useless.

Keep mixing it up, making yourself think, striving for more understanding. Run toward the things you don’t know. Run toward the things that are tough. It may feel awkward and unnatural at first, but so does anything else worth learning – and once you find a practice groove, you’ll come to crave the new insights that this deeper practice brings.

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Nicholas Tozier

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.

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