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Thinking in Intervals vs Thinking in Notes

Thursday, July 08, 2010
Music and Math are attached at the hip it seems. Pitch frequencies are certainly expressed in the purest of math terms. And the shorthand system for pitches and their relationships is also expressed by the very simple math of what we call "intervals".

There is an entire system called the "Nashville Numbers" that assign the numbers 1 thru 7 to the notes of a major scale. The chords based on those notes are then refered to by those numbers.

So if you change keys, nothing about the notation changes when you're using the Nashville Number system.

The nashville number system

The same principles can be applied to single notes. It just requires a change of thinking... or better yet it requires a simpler way of thinking.

You go from memorizing notes to memorizing intervals (the simple mathematical relationship of the notes) in any particular scale or chord.

For instance, if I first played the Pentatonic scale trying to always know what note I'm playing, it would be a torturous path to me when I started trying to solo. I would have to know all the notes in the scales, and where those notes are located on the fretboard. I would also need to know what relationship they have to the root. It would take too long for me to calculate this all out in my head.

So I might find myself sticking to patterns that are boxy.

But what if I started just "thinking the intervals" as I play scales and patterns? For instance, with a pentatonic scale I say to myself "Root, Fifth, Fourth, etc." This becomes much easier than memorizing all note names. Because I know that chords are built off of intervals, it's going to make everything much easier.

If I know that I am soloing against an A, D, and E chord sequence - and I know where a root note for A, D, and E is located - I can quickly find a fret pattern that works with that root note - and then the intervals I need are automatic. No need to find note names or do any mental translation or anything - I just play intervals.

For example, I know that in a Dominant Seventh chord you should solo using primarily the root, third, fifth, and minor seventh - and I know where all those are located in all the fret patterns now. I might have to slow down significantly to tell you every note I am playing, but I can play them more intuitively when thinking in intervals.

Even on songs that I learn from sheet music - I quickly convert them into intervals after I get to the point of having them memorized. This allows me to play them in any key starting from nearly any position on the guitar.

And a side benefit is that once I'm thinking intervals and numbers (instead of chord and note letter names), I can change keys instantly, painlessly... because the intervals are all the same relationships, regardless of the key I'm in.

Think intervals. Play easier.
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