What should I memorise


I I’m a beginner but would like to understand the fretboard the fretboard and theory to apply to my songwriting in particular,

My goals are to be able to write in any key, major or minor, know common chord progressions, like 1,4,5 etc etc to enhance my songwriting. Know which chords go with which keys.

I wondered what I should memorise, I’ve written down the major scale for each key and memorised what notes are in each. What else should I memorise, I’ve got a good memory just don’t know where my time is best spent applying it.

Should I write out the minor scale also in each key on a grid and remember that. Or should I be able to work it out in my head by knowing the 3rd note is flattened. It’s a bit heady for me to do this, but I can do it slowly. Should I know which notes are in the minor scale on the fly?

Should I know off the top of my head which is the 1 3 5 in each major or 1 flattened 3 5 in each major and minor key, or even in all the variations of different minor scales, melodic etc it seems like such a large volume of information to remember at this stage, but if thats what people do so be it, just don’t want to waste my time.

Obviously memorise the notes on fretboard.

Should I learn the scale formula’s off top of my head for all the minor keys, or just know patterns?

I find patterns a lot easier.

I’d love to be able to do this on the fly on guitar, but not sure I can get to that level. I am happy but just slowly working it out as I go, to enhance my songs with different chords, I’d also like to know how I can branch off into chords which aren’t typically in the key but still work,

Is patterns the way to go or memorise everything off the top of my head?

I just want to have the knowledge to enhance my songs, know which key I am working in, what scale I can play over my song, and even to slowly be able to work all this out.

Does everyone get a bit overwhelmed or is it all easy once you get into it.

Every Major key has a relative minor(the 6th degree of the scale) that share the same notes know as the narural minor or minor scale. So you already known the minor scales.

What I would suggest is to take Justin’s Practical Theory Cousres. It will teach you everything on you list.

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Hey @davidwildey,

‘Should’ is a strong word, it always depends on your goals. Should you? Depends. Would you benefit from it? Almost certainly.

I think there are 3 levels of learning a theory concept:

  1. Knowing the formula. e.g. if you know C major and that A minor is the 6th mode of it, and I ask you what the 3rd degree of A minor scale is, you can start by counting from A and tell me. Would take you a few seconds. This is useful when you are alone, have all the time in the world to achieve something. It is useless when collaborating with other musicians.

  2. Memorising: You memorise everything and are able to tell it after a short pause. This is quite useful when you are alone as you are now quite efficient having to think a lot less. It is also somewhat useful when talking to other musicians as you can respond after a short pause, but useless to make music as when making music, you can’t think.

  3. Internalising: Knowing it as you (assumedly) know table of multiplication. If you had to think what 3 times 2 is every time, solving math problems would be very difficult. If you are going to do complex maths, you would want to have internalised stuff.

And of course there is a lot of benefit in internalising music theory as it is infinitely useful. e.g. if you have internalised what I’ll list below, you could play a song you know note-for-note, when the singer asks you to play it in a different key, without going home and re-learning it. Or you could instantly think of infinitely many ideas to enhance your musical ideas when composing.

Now onto the list, in increasing complexity:

  • Scale formulas major and minor
  • Some commmon chord progressions I-vi-IV-V etc.
  • Chord formulas: major, minor
  • Circle of 5ths
  • Formula of chords within a major or minor scale e.g. 3rd chord of a major scale is a minor chord
  • Major and minor third of every note
  • Chord formulas: Dominant, 7th, 9th, and other extensions
  • Common intervals: e.g. 4th of A is D, 5th of B is F# etc.
  • Every degree of every major and minor scale
  • Every interval e.g. what’s #9th up from a Db? Also in reverse.
  • Every note of every chord: e.g. what notes does Bb half diminished consist of?
  • Every degree of every scale mode
  • Above for fancy scales like harmonic minor, chromatic, full-tone etc.

Guitar specific:

  • Every note on the guitar fretboard
  • Every interval on the fretboard
  • Every scale and mode on the fretboard, starting from any note of it
  • The above implies this but every pentatonic and diatonic (and 3 note per string) scale shapes
  • Every triad and its inversions
  • Every arpeggio starting from any note of it

There’s probably more but these are what I can think of right now.


Hey David

Alot to unpack here.
As @stitch suggests, I’d strongly recommend doing a structured theory course. Honestly, you wont find a better one on the planet than Justins Practical Music Theory.

This will allow you to build solid, structured foundational knowledge, and then progressively incorporate new practical knowledge over time.

Just memorising stuff on its own is not really going to give you that - although a good memory will certainly help you out.

Cheers, Shane

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Hi there,

Honestly, I don’t think you would need to be able to compose in “any” key unless you’re a full-blown composer and want to write pieces like these. But if you’re interested, there’s no harm in focusing on that.

As others have mentioned, Justin’s theory course covers a lot that you will be able to use to write “harmonically sound” music.

Memorizing each major/minor scale is a bit futile in itself so you should apply them in practice, like working out the chords for typical “guitar keys” (see “CAGED system”) and trying out various chord progressions. That will lead you closer to your goals than being able to recite the notes in F## minor or something like that.

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Can you write songs, or parts of songs, with what you know right now? How far along are you with Justin’s courseware? You only need to know a handful of chords to write all kinds of songs. If you know about I-IV-V, you can write songs in that form in any major key, by transposing or with a capo. Your ii-iii-vi chords will be minor chords in any major key if you are feeling crafty.

Start writing songs using your ears and when you hit a snag you will know that you have to dig a little deeper. Pour a cup of tea instead of drinking the whole ocean.

Just reinforcing what Shane said about Justin’s theory course, it’s the best! I took a college theory course and without Justin as a resource I would have been completely lost!