Learning note sounds for the tone challenged

So in this other thread How much can we rely on muscle memory?, some of us have been discussing ear training and aural learning.

It is a bit of a detail for that thread, so I thought I would open the topic here.

Not so much about “ear training” as just learning to hear and identify notes. Finding notes by sound.

I am learning the notes on the fretboard, slowly succeeding, but the technique I am using is heavy on muscle memory. I suppose that is important, saints I want my fingers to find the note in the fretboard without thinking, but it occurs to me that before my fingers can find the note, I need to be thinking that I need it myself and currently I am learning them by name.

That seems like it is not exactly what is best. Rather than thinking “I need a C# to go with the cord being played” I feel I should hear the sounds and my fingers should go to C# because I know that is the sound that works.

Any thoughts on how to train that? I suppose it is pretty advanced, and prior to it, one must just find them by name, but I do want to head in that direction.


Very few people can name a note just by hearing it. Using intervals to identify notes is easier. For example if you play a C then an E it’s easier to hear the major 3rd sound than it is to hear C to E. If you play a C then an Eb your ear will immediately know it’s not a Major 3rd but you canlearn to hearing it as a minor 3rd.

So if you practice interval training you’re on the way to learning to identify notes by name. It’s also easier th identify chords by name than single notes

E to C Rick ?

with interval training you will not need to know the note names, but you will be able to train your ears and your muscle memory so that as you think “from this note I need to go up a major 3rd” your fingers will know where to go relative to the starting note. There used to be an excellent interval training tool on the website, but it’s been taken down as it’s not compatible with recent changes to the site, but Justin does have an inexpensive paid app for the same purpose. I haven’t used the app, but if it’s similar to the website tool it’ll be very effective in conjunction with Justin’s standalone module on ear training which, in addition to any benefit to my guitar playing, massively improved my singing!

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@TheMadman_tobyjenner 6th. In the key of C but you already new that. How many nightmares did you have of yellow boxes :thinking:

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This comes together when theory and notes on the fingerboard becomes sounds in your head. If you keep studying music and associate those concepts to sounds the relationship eventually will work in both directions. Instead of thinking “I need a C# to go over this A major cord being playing” you think “I want this sound which is located here”. You just happen to know that it’s also a C# and the major 3rd of the chord.

The way to build this is to associate names and concepts to sounds.

  • What do all of the intervals sound like over the chord being played (do they fit in, stand out, extend, or clash)?
  • What sound out of those do you want (there isn’t a right or wrong answer maybe that #4 is really what you are looking for)?
  • What scale degree is that sound?
  • What note is it?
  • What octave should that note be played (over the chord, under it, in the middle of it)?

For sure. But in your reply you quoted C to E twice. Just wondered if it was a typo or perhaps just playing the two notes without context against playing them in their relation to the C Major scale and it’s “Intervals” ? 1st Major 3rd as you say.

And the positional relationship between the intervals, so you can always find them regardless of what Key you are in and all over the neck.

Hi Joshua,
Others here are talking about theory, but the skill you are asking about isn’t necessarily about theory.
Have a look at the Re-Active Listening lesson in the Major Scale Maestro module in Grade 4. It isn’t advanced if you already know major scale pattern 1 and if you don’t know it, the module starts with learning the pattern.

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I guess I don’t make my point very clear. I was trying to say it’s easier to hear C to E as a major 3rd than it is to hear them as the notes C and E.
If you play these to notes most people could hear the major 3rd relationship but not very many prople would say the first note is C and the second note is E. But if you know the first note is C you should know the second is E not because you hear a E note but you hear the major 3rd interval.

Yes that makes sense :+1:

If you don’t already have perfect pitch (which I assume is the case), then you’re not very likely to be able to name a random note you hear like “it’s an Eb” or “it’s an A#”.

I think it would be more efficient to focus on the context of what you play, knowing what key you’re playing in, and then finding the right note(s) based on that.

It is quite advanced indeed.

But, I think you are asking the question from a flawed perspective.

If you are thinking this … “I need a C# to go with the chord being played” … I think it fair to assume that you are describing a context in which you are playing single notes over chords, in other words playing a melody or a lead part or a solo or something improvised. That C# note must then be just one note of many - either the first, the last or somewhere in the middle of a group of other different notes played over the same or different chords.

C# is a note within the A major chord.
You are describing a situation of playing over an A major chord and thinking “I want to play C# now. Where can I find C#?”

If you switch your perspective to one of thinking “I want to play the major 3rd of the chord now” then your ability to do so will be enhanced.

That might seem like a subtle switch but it is vital in allowing you to think for any chord in any key over any progression at any time.


CAGED and triads.

The chord is A major. Where can you find that chord when thinking of CAGED shapes?
The triad is A, C#, E. Where can you find A triads on the guitar when thinking of three adjacent strings?
On any given three adjacent strings, there are only three triad shapes for major triads. Each shape has each of the chord tones on a different string. C# is the major 3rd of an A major triad. It can be found as shown here:

Triad knowledge includes knowing which of the three notes within a triad shape is the root, the 3rd and the 5th. For minor triads that would be root, b3rd and 5th.

The note you mention, C#, could equally be the 5th of an F# minor chord. Then your thinking would focus on F# minor triads and knowing where the 5th is.

Remember that these triads are subsets of bigger CAGED chords. Remember also that these triads sit within scale patterns. Shapes and patterns and CAGED come to the rescue again! :slight_smile:

Yes, learn the notes on the fretboard - over time, not in a hurried manner. But for lead guitar playing and wishing to target certain notes tied in with underlying chords, think of the note quality and where it sits within shapes and patterns.

You could start here perhaps. Triads & Soloing & Targeting Chord Tones Part 1 - getting started


Hi Joshua, given that I’m not probably understanding properly what you’re asking, and that maybe that is too advanced for me to understand, what David says makes much sense to me; if you suppose to be tone challenged then you shouldn’t be further complicate it with theory: just start from direct experience, grab your guitar and try to work out easy melodies by ear, IMHO, as “simple” as that…naming the notes is very good to me, probably not ideal but it helped me a lot…one thing I should mention is: since it’s not something that comes easy to me I stay only on the first position and that makes things way easier.

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major Should that not be the minor triad shape as per your diagram Richard ?

Fixed. Thanks Toby.
C# is the 5th of F#m and F# triads. I chose minor on purpose to be able to show different shapes for minor triads in the diagrams.

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Silvia, you don’t have to know major scale pattern1 for Re-Active Listening. The first Re-Active Listening lesson is in module 11 and uses the open position.
You are quite right about finding melodies by ear. It’s a great exercise. I sometimes just play around with the scale, not trying to find a melody, and I’ll hear something that sounds familiar and then see if I can find more of that melody.

Re-Active Listening is all about finding chord tones…BUT it’s about finding them by ear…NOT about finding them by using the theory knowledge. Knowing the theory is obviously good but as Justin says in the Grade4 re-active lesson, you simply don’t have time to think about all the theory when you are actually playing.

Re-Active Listening is by far the best lesson, the most influential lesson that I’ve found so far in amongst all Justin’s great lessons.
I don’t do enough of it but what I’ve done with it so far has shown me what the possibilities are or could be. I think it’s HUGE.

That said, I’m not sure whether it’s this re-active thing that Joshua is looking for or something else.

Wow, glad to start a big conversation. I guess I hadn’t thought to far through this. Of course it would be lovely to have perfect pitch and name the note by sound alone, but that would happen in this life.

I guess what I am looking for are what Richard posted and a bit of just tone recognition, such that I know about where I am on the fretboard a little.

I have struggled with figuring out simple melodies on my own because my “aural memory “ for lack of a better term this early in the morning, is having a hard time figuring out where even to start.

I find it a little encumbering that although I know where notes are, cords are and can play some songs, if someone were to play a note, I feel like I would struggle to figure out where to even start to look for it.

I think I will go back to the reactive listening, triads and intervals.

I have soooooo much I need to do!:scream::grin:

Here’s a simple exercise that maybe worth trying. Record yourself playing for example a couple of individual notes on the low E string. Put the recording aside until it’s out of your memory. Then play the note and hum the note your hearing. Then pick up your guitar and play a note on the low E string. Is the note you played higher or lower? Play another note and ask the same question until you match the note.


Lovely, maybe. Useful? Not as much as you might think.

Knowing the function of a note in the context of a song is, generally, far more useful than knowing the actual name of the note.