Scale Spelling Wheel and the Circle of Fifths

Scale Spelling Wheel — Exterior: All Note Names, Interior: Degrees of the Major Scale

Table of Contents

When broaching the subject of the Circle of Fifths and other learning tools for music, it usually elicits two reactions: “Yeah, what about it? That’s basic,” or “I don’t get it at all, it’s super intimidating.” One crowd learned it a long time ago, the other managed to avoid it for as long as possible. As a music teacher, I live somewhere in between those two extremes every day: between those who are fluent in the language of Western music theory, and those with a sincere love for music but without the ability to participate in the exchange of musical ideas.

I certainly have my pet peeves with aspects of Standard Notation, a system we’ve inherited from hundreds of years ago from a dude named Guido. I find myself turning various ideas over and over every day: Are naming conventions for chords and scales too prescriptive? Do enharmonic equivalents help more than harm? Why do we still cling to the bottom number of time signatures when it doesn’t always mean what it says? But I still come back to it in the end; I recognize the immense value the Euro-centric tradition of musical deconstruction holds, and that bridging the gap between these kinds of thought and those who have successfully avoided them is worth the trouble. Ultimately, the ability to access, transmit, remix, and challenge musical ideas across different musical cultures inevitably leads to a net gain. And it may be a while before we see a much needed cultural shift in Western music education, but I digress.

My most recent attempt at bridging the gap has been to make the Circle of Fifths and the spelling of scales and chords a little more interactive. It’s a circular sequence of the twelve note names, and spinning it around and noticing how it lines up with what relationships are on the inside of the circle helps with visualizing the underpinnings of deeper concepts. I call it the Scale Spelling Wheel.

The full concept came as a result of working with students who were having trouble with a more linear approach to spelling out scales and accounting for sharps and flats (a common problem, especially for guitarists who came into music through chord shapes, positions, and tabs). It can break the Circle of Fifths down, as well as make names of intervals, scales/modes, and chords feel more intuitive.

Whereas the Circle of Fifths feels like an esoteric, inscrutable music axiom to many today, it was originally about making life easier for those writing and reading music. Ironically, it was a tool for empowerment. It helped students of composition — which is just a fancy word for songwriting — clear the mental hurdles surrounding sight-reading and interpretation, enabling quicker analysis and innovation, bringing it closer the speed of intuition. With the Circle of Fifths, writing the kind of music that went wherever it pleased and understanding all of the modulation — with accidentals flitting this way and that, shifting from tonal center to tonal center, dancing through evolving aural landscapes — was made more attainable.

The Circle of Fifths was a really clever diagram, initially seen as a composers’ tool. I love it. My former assistant even bought me one of these for a birthday gift, and when I saw it, I laughed like I heard a good pun. And then I immediately started criticizing the pedagogy behind its design to myself silently.

If I had to explain the Circle of Fifths to a complete beginner, without a visual, I would describe it as a diagram resembling a clock, but with twelve note names instead of the twelve hours. At the top, it starts with C in the 12 o’clock position, reads G, D, A, E, B, F#, and C# clockwise from one to seven o’clock, and reads F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, and Cb from eleven to five o’clock, counter-clockwise. The note names running in opposite directions join up again at the bottom with both F# and Gb sharing the six o’clock position, whereas the C# and Db co-habitate at seven o’clock, and the Cb and B occupy the five o’clock spot together.

Beginners, did that help? Whew, that was hard.

If you recognize the Circle of Fifths, you know that this is not the Circle of Fifths. Instead, it’s a way to flesh out what exists in between the Circle’s points. There are certainly a number of musical situations in which having the Circle of Fifths handy might be more helpful than this. This Scale Spelling Wheel is about something more fundamental. If you’ve seen the Circle of Fifths but never understood it, you might understand it better after playing with this Wheel.

Through eleven years of teaching music theory, I’ve encountered many I might describe as functional musicians; these are people who play music in their day to day life; they play guitar covers, improvise with pentatonic scales, play in a friend’s band, record basic solo material… but they don’t understand the nuts and bolts of basic songwriting. They’ve usually skipped over spelling out scales and chords entirely, and they were able to get by. The situations in which note name spelling came up were avoided. Situations like…

  • figuring out which notes to avoid in a given section,
  • working out which notes belong in a chord,
  • finding the right notes for a solo/melody, or
  • transposing a given melody or chord progression.

(This is to say nothing of the confusion surrounding why notes like E-sharp and C-flat exist and why they help us in the bigger picture of understanding music, but that falls a little bit outside the scope of this post*.)

I preach to my students that if they can mentally combine just two things, they’ll make a quantum leap in their musicianship, and join the conversation. If they can spell out scales, using only

  1. the twelve note names, and
  2. the relationships of the Major Scale,

they can not only spell out the notes of any key, any chord, and therefore, identify the notes they want to play or notes they wish to avoid in any given situation. They can even re-create the Circle of Fifths mentally using just their working memory.

Amidst the more common ways we approach writing and making music today, we entirely overlook or intentionally avoid stuff like the Circle of Fifths and the whole idea of committing theory concepts to memory in general.

We don’t expect Kurt Vile to give us sheet music (it would probably just say, “Play something that sounds really shimmery or hazy and mumble. Everyone will love it.”).

We don’t dare to dream of Dave Knudson coming to our doorstep to detail his thought process, step-by-step, for how he comes up with his whammy-pedaling, two-hand-tapping, melody-harmony-rhythm-all-in-one riffs.

We don’t imagine Thom Yorke handing us the recipes to his so-dark-they’re-basically-joyous sounds…

We’re not even sure the musical innovators we love write any of their methods!

Instead, we buy piano/vocal/guitar books written by a third party, watch YouTube tutorials (which are often just glorified tabs), and check Ultimate Guitar for the user submissions with the highest star ratings… after all, when it comes to merely mimicking our favorite songs, there’s nothing better, right?

But the hard truth is, that if gaining access to the insights of our favorite songwriters matters at all, then there is no denying that outsourcing our musicianship to others is a crutch. And people on crutches don’t run.

There is no substitute for identifying and understanding the musical ideas in the music we love for ourselves, a.k.a. “musicianship.”

When making music, the crutch is probably most clear when theory-avoiding, functionally-oriented musicians run out of ideas. Sincere expression comes out sounding like a cliché. In the same situation, the more ear-aware/theory-fluent musicians have a different problem: there are too many good musical choices I can make here, which one is best?

I’ll take the latter over the former any day.

My hope as a music teacher is really just about convincing you that musical fluency in music grows out of tiny decisions. Things like:

  • making a habit of identifying your favorite musical moments,
  • paying attention to the ideas embedded in them,
  • making connections to other songs/albums/artists/genres intuitively,
  • asking questions about broader songwriting principles, and
  • renewing appreciation for the ground already covered by our favorite songwriters (not to mention all of the timeless work already in the “canon”).

The gems of music theory and the beauty of musical expression overall shouldn’t feel like terraforming Mars; they should be within arm’s reach.

Nothing delights me quite like seeing a functional musician dipping their toe in, and developing themselves to be their own bridge.

Understanding what happens when we move between keys is a great start.

These two interactive YouTube videos are meant to help us navigate the sharp and flat side of the Circle of Fifths, respectively, and are just the first of several potential applications for it.

To interact with YouTube’s keyboard functionality, view these two videos on desktop.

Use your keyboard numbers from 1–7 to “spin” through the notes of the wheel, one ascending fifth at a time. In the top left, observe the key changing with each video skip. The corresponding number of sharps in that key is visible in the top right, and the specific sharp notes are identified in the center of the image. I traced a thin line between the sharp notes in the center and each new sharp note every time a new sharp is introduced. It was a bit of a struggle trying to work out what might be too little and what might feel like too much visual information. I welcome feedback. And yes, the font around the circle is the same font used on all Dharma Initiative labels from ABC’s hit show LOST.

Use your keyboard numbers from 1–7 to “spin” through the notes of the wheel, one descending fifth at a time. In the top left, the corresponding flat key changes with each jump. The number of flats in each key is now visible in the top right, and the specific flat notes are identified in the center. Note the thin line between the flat notes in the center and each new flat note every time a new flat is introduced. The new flat appears on the “4” of each key, rather than on the “7” in the sharp keys.

The Scale Spelling Wheel as I’ve made it arranges the note names, clockwise, from C to C (low to high), with all twelve tones in between, in a circle. It makes life easier by translating what was occurring in working memory into a visual.

As a wheel, it alludes to the cyclical nature of pitch; but in this application it’s about visualizing the pitch relationships represented by the different points around the Circle of Fifths. As useful as the Circle of Fifths can be, it doesn’t do anything for those of us without the fundamental skill of spelling out scales (recalling the note names in order from lowest to highest including the sharps and flats in their appropriate places) already in place. Without the context of notes existing in between the points of the Circle of Fifths, the cleverness of the original design (and charts that follow it like the ones listing relative minor scales) loses its meaning, and it becomes one more thing to which nobody relates, except for the ones who don’t need it anymore.

This Scale Spelling Wheel occurred to me when students exhibited particular difficulty starting from memory. I realized that with a “brad,” (also known in French as an “attache parisienne”) and some transparent sheets, this could help fill in for those moments our minds go blank, and we need a little boost.

Remember these?

With the Scale Spelling Wheel, one can actually interact with the concept physically, half step by half step. An otherwise functional musician can now get into the mind of a songwriter/composer, seeing which notes belong and don’t belong in any given key.

You can have one in your hands, too.

Here’s how it works:

(You can receive full resolution images for free when you opt in to receive my newsletter.)

1. Print this image out on white paper. It represents the twelve tones, enharmonic names in the double-rowed boxes, and the degrees (1–7) of the Major Scale running along the interior of the circle.


2. Print any of the following three images on transparency sheets or tracing paper (all note names, flat key note names, and sharp key note names, respectively):


All Note Names (except for E-sharp, B-sharp, C-flat, and F-flat which are relevant in F-sharp Major, B-sharp Major, G-flat Major, and C-flat Major, respectively)

Inner Row with Note Names relevant to Flat Keys

Outer Row with Note Names relevant to Sharp Keys

3. Superimpose the transparent layer over the white paper layer. You’ll get something that looks like this image below. You can then punch a hole through the middle and fasten the brad and spin your way to music theory enlightenment.

All Note Names with Degrees of the Major Scale

Instead of the Circle of Fifths, what you have is something more fundamental: a wheel with the twelve note names on the outside, and a wheel representing the permanent relationships of the Major Scale on the inside. Fix one, spin the other.

To spell out a scale, simply line up whichever key you want by spinning until the tonic (home note) corresponds to the “1”/twelve o’clock. For example, you can see I’ve lined it up with “C” at the top. This means that we’re in the key of C Major, with the subsequent scale degrees lined up to their respective note names: the second degree with D, the “3” of the key with E, the “4” with F, and so on.

This will work on any of the twelve tones. Read the outer row of note names to spell out the sharp keys, and read the inner row of note names to spell out the flat keys. Note how many sharps or flats there are, and note which sharps or flats show up in that key. Before long, you’ll be mimicking in your hands what composers/songwriters have been doing in their heads.

To visualize each point around the Circle of Fifths, you can spin it counter-clockwise so that whichever note corresponds to the “5” moves to the “1” spot. Each time you do this, you move along from point to point on one side of the Circle of Fifths, in this case, the sharp side. To move in the other direction, spin it clockwise so that whichever note corresponds to the “4” (which is a fifth down, instead of up like on the sharp side of the Circle) moves to the “1” spot. When you do this, you move along the flat side of the Circle of Fifths.

If you’ve got the interactive video pulled up, you’ll get additional info that isn’t in the layers just above, the kind of observations that you could make if you memorized it like it were a multiplication table. 

The inner circle from 1–7 indicates the Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half relationships of the Major Scale. And yes, the interior wheel with the Scale Degrees 1–7 could be swapped out so that the degrees follow any scale/mode you may wish to spell out in the twelve tone system, from the Church Modes (including the the Minor Scale and its variations), to pentatonic scales, or a chord definition, or any number of other concepts that require naming a note.

This is what I meant when I said this Scale Spelling Wheel is bigger than just the Circle of Fifths.

Happy Scale Spelling!


*The F# Major Scale is spelled with a E-sharp instead of its enharmonic equivalent, F-natural. The C# Major Scale is spelled with a B-sharp instead of its enharmonic equivalent, C-natural. If you want to know why, study up on what music theory nerds call “enharmonic equivalent” notes.

P. S. — I can print a high quality wheel with transparent layers ready for assembly, ready for spinning. If you are interested, please fill out this short form so I can gauge interest and take pre-orders. Thanks!

Why Should We Care About Music Theory?

What place does music theory have in songwriting? Can it be helpful? Stifling? Maybe both? Why are we looking at a picture of a pie?

In an interview I conducted last month, I had the opportunity to explore these questions with Prof. Brad Osborn, a music theory professor from the University of Kansas and the author of “Everything In Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead” from Oxford University Press.

Prof. Brad Osborn, Music Theory Professor at University of Kansas and Author of “Everything In Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead”

It was so great to steal Prof. Brad for a few moments between classes. As an independent music educator, I sometimes don’t know if I am crazy or just an alternative thinker when I talk to others about traditional music theory and methods of analysis. But I definitely learned a few things from Brad and felt deeply affirmed at the same time by our mutual appreciation for holistic musicianship.

I thought Brad would be the perfect person to ask this simple question: as fans of Radiohead and musicians ourselves, why should we care about music theory? At its core, his answer is really rooted in a deep appreciation for songwriting, and I think it’s worth a listen.

We touch on ideas like the “Euclidean Algorithm”/“maximally-even” rhythms, the idea of the “Goldilocks Zone,” and the concept of “Ecological Perception.” We ask aloud whether Thom Yorke’s opinion matters as it pertains to analysis and interpretation of Radiohead’s music. We wonder whether artists are trustworthy when they talk about their intentions. And it was quite the music nerd thrill.

What did you think about the interview? Would you be interested in seeing more content like this? Share your thoughts below!

You can read the article Prof. Brad Osborn mentions in the interview below:

“Nine most thought-provoking moments in Radiohead

You can buy Brad’s book “Everything In Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead” at the OUP Store (no, he did not pay me to put this here, I just think it’s cool).

Everything In Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead

And finally, check out this cool little web app for quickly creating Euclidean-style rhythms and start making some maximally-even rhythms of your own now.

E-909 Elements Euclidean Rhythm Composer

A Sober Self-Assessment

Motivation, Musicianship, and Being Holistic About It.

This was taken from the 20th or so video I filmed for my recent cover and topical video on Radiohead’s “Videotape.”

Some days, I just get into a funk. I start to feel very un-motivated. When this happens for too many days in a row, I start to stress out, thinking about how little I’ve accomplished. Then, when I begin to look at my next task, I just shut down (even when the task is a small one). Simple challenges feel convoluted and impenetrable. And there I am. Stuck.

Call it anxiety, depression, frustration, writer’s block, procrastination, whatever you like. We all know the feeling. Anyone with a goal or hobby does.

Maybe you’ve experienced it while learning guitar, or writing a song, or recording an album. We know these pursuits are worthy of our efforts and time… but sometimes, we just get overwhelmed.

I’ve been in this place many times. Most recently, with numerous failed attempts at covers, challenges in the production of the WARRENMUSIC Series, and even the simple act of getting through the day in the wake of monumental changes in my personal life (I got married and moved across the country). Each of these things took an emotional toll, and together, molehills quickly became mountains.

I got the old band (Phonofield) back together. Ellen sang backing vocals!

I’ve seen it in my students, too. They get down on themselves after flubbing a few notes or chords, as if it were a mark on their character. They beat themselves up when they can’t finish writing a new song, and start to backpedal on their intention to write new material. They feel frustrated at themselves for “wasting” our time because they didn’t practice that week, and cancel their lessons. In the worst times, they even bail on their musical goals entirely. We usually recover and move forward, whatever it is, and quickly. But sometimes, when warranted, we go deeper; we really explore the problem, and work together to describe the real issue, the thing that’s keeping them from moving forward. And it almost always comes down to one thing: their view of themselves — the ways in which they (don’t) feel up to the task, or the ways they see the setbacks as evidence of the underlying negative view they have of themselves.

Lots of cancelations. Some of them from feeling burnt out.

I know both from personal experience and from working with students over the years that ignoring setbacks or dismissing negative attitudes does work… for smaller tasks. Writing a song with soul-baring lyrics or putting together an ambitious live set, though — or even pursuing any project that comes at significant personal cost, for that matter — is difficult work in part because it flows from the intangible depths of one’s emotional world. And so, casually brushing aside a more persistent feeling of incompetence or overlooking a pattern of getting stuck when it comes to more significant musical goals is a mistake that can even worsen the issue. Hoping to gloss over deeper issues is only natural, to be sure, but ignoring a lack of motivation only delays and deepens the problem.

What is needed is a sustainable solution. Something holistic. A sober self-assessment.

Forlorn Ambition

Last night, a student told me about a $1500 acoustic guitar he purchased on Craigslist. A vintage guitar of about twenty years, it was being sold for half its original price by a gentleman who was clearing out his garage. In his garage, there were other musical possessions he had accumulated. They seemed largely unused. When asked if there were any problems with it, the seller confessed to having picked up the guitar a total of three times for the three guitar lessons he took over the course of twenty years. He confessed that he couldn’t get over his fingers hurting and realized that it wouldn’t be as easy as he initially thought. And so the gentleman considered it a forlorn ambition, and my student became the beneficiary. When he told me this story, it struck me as one of the most sadly mundane stories I had heard about learning the guitar.

1264 guitars for sale… how many sales are the product of forlorn ambition?

Without knowing more about Craigslist Guy, I surmised that he simply didn’t have the motivation to get over the hump, and sniggered arrogantly. As a guitarist, I felt a strange mix of happiness that my student got a great deal and stab of pity for the guy who never got to experience the joy of playing guitar. But when I turned it back on myself, I had to wonder: Am I so different from this guy? When it comes to the tasks I find overwhelming, don’t I also put them aside, take a break, come back, go at it, get frustrated, stress out, and quit for a longer period?

In Search of a Solution

I’ve listened to podcasts from successful people, read fitness blogs, talked to entrepreneurs, and even consulted faith leaders in search of a more sustainable and holistic solution to the motivation problem.

I loved hearing that people who were aspiring marathon runners that struggled with motivation started their training by making their goals easy, like sleeping in their running clothes, or putting the alarm clock on the other side of the bedroom. “Yeah, that’s good stuff,” I thought.

I learned about S.M.A.R.T. goal-setting (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely); I debated punishment vs. reward as conditioning for behavior (there was no clear winner); I made “Just Do It” and “‘Done’ is better than ‘perfect’” my motivational mantras.

I laugh at these motivational posters, then ponder their messages deeply, then laugh at them again.

I remembered another story about a fitness blogger who instructed his friend to make a donation to a hate group on his behalf if he didn’t publish a new blog post every week. “Too extreme,” I thought.

I turned to friends and asked them to hold me accountable. I tried being more transparent with customers over email. I posted publicly about my goals.

But none of these things brought relief. I would eventually fall back into the awful cycle. Productivity would grind to a standstill again. And through all of it, I found my view of myself and what I was capable of sinking under the weight of it all.

A Sober Self-Assessment

It was at this point (well, multiple points, really) that I realized that I had a big problem with how I was viewing myself.

Whenever I had a rough day of writing, I found myself wondering whether I could really accomplish this video series I had in mind. Whenever I saw that sales had slowed down, I felt myself getting hesitant about my goals, and whether they were truly attainable. Or whenever I read a negative comment on a video of mine, I noticed a sliver of doubt over whether my community could really be relied upon for support. I became less and less certain of my abilities.

Warren Lain’s identity had gotten tangled up with WARRENMUSIC.

Any perceived flub of my brand became a stain on my person. Any setback in my project made me wonder if I had aimed too high.

You would think that someone who is constantly in the business of motivating others might recognize the same problem in themselves. And you’d be wrong.

So I began to ask myself questions that I was almost afraid to ask:

Did my work suddenly change and become more difficult? Are my goals really so unattainable? Did my community, my base of supporters really desert me? Did I somehow become less capable?

The answer to these questions was a resounding, “NO.”

It wasn’t the work that had changed in my periods of high and low productivity, it wasn’t the goals that were somehow too lofty, it wasn’t a fickle community of supporters around me that had come and gone, it wasn’t that I had somehow become less capable.

By any objective measure, none of these things changed. What had changed, and changed very subtly, was my perception of myself. I found that I was in need of some sober, self-assessment.

Keep It in Perspective

I’m just one guy. But I am a unique mix: I love explaining things, I love deep analysis, I nerd out over music theory, I am passionate about making music, and it energizes me when I see the light come on for others. All of these things are true. I also struggle with deadlines and organization, I obsess over tiny details in my creative work, I find it incredibly difficult to be brief, and I go numb when looking at raw numbers. All of these things are also true.

Being fair-minded about it, I am a normal person with strengths and weaknesses. Naturally, my brand will reflect those things as well. But what can I do about my weaknesses without punishing myself for them? How can I see my weaknesses more clearly, and not regard them with suspicion, as if they make me less of a person? And how can I celebrate my strengths without getting cocky? And what can I do to structure my working habits so that they highlight them?

I’m still looking for the answers to these questions. I’m trying new things. And while I still have a ways to go, I’m encouraged… because I don’t feel stuck anymore. And I think that’s what’s different. I can draw a harder line between my setbacks/failures and who I am as a person.

Though it took a much deeper level of self-reflection, I find I am more able to move forward, and try something different. I feel more free to try out new ways of structuring my work, new ways of approaching a project, new ways of strategizing for business. Setbacks and failures are starting to lose their sting. But I am still the same music theory nerd who obsesses over details.

Are You Progressing Well Enough At the Guitar?

…If your long-term goal is to improve as a guitarist and more generally, as a musician, just be sure to include some music theory in there, and get your ear involved. You’d be surprised how many people learn to play songs, but never learn to play music!

Find out how well you’re progressing on the guitar and read my full response on Quora.


Guitar Six: A Little Theory Boost

Have you ever wondered how to play any scale or mode? And in any tuning?

Thanks to the awesome community at Reddit, we’ve got a nice little theory boost that will help you visualize just that: scales and modes that suddenly appear on the fretboard!

I know I preach about music theory and ear-training, and how there is no real substitute for developing musicianship in the long-term. Very holistic approach, yes, blah blah blah. But there is room to have a little extra help on the side. Hop on over to Guitar Six to check it out.

It’s awesome and inspiring when amazing people put their hard work and thought into something like this. The Internet is truly beautiful. Nice find, Reddit.

And when you’re ready to take it to the next level, check out my explanation of how modes work and how to make your fretboard do whatever you imagine.

When the Tutorial Fades Away, Hear This

Let’s talk about your musical goals.

Everyone desires something from their musical journey.

Many of you started your musical journey by learning your favorite songs. But as you continued to progress in your skills, you began to realize you wanted more: to write your own songs, to write better songs, to improvise, or to gain more insight into the music you love, or play by ear. Some of you want to become a better bandmate, and to be more musically fluent and aware of what’s going on during band practice. Some of you want to make music more freely, jumping from musical idea to musical idea, eliciting and expressing emotion sonically, with conviction and intensity.

All of these are GREAT GOALS!

But allow me to be very direct for a moment.

The hard truth is that none of the above will happen for you if where you turn to first is a tab, a tutorial, or song-by-song lessons from a private teacher. It won’t even happen for you if you understand some things about music, but don’t have an ear for Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm to pick up on the things you’re hearing in your favorite music. It definitely won’t happen if you have an ear for Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm, but lack the musical insight to process any of it or make something new.

If any of the above describes you, it simply WON’T happen for you, unless you make a change.

The main problem with learning music today isn’t that there aren’t enough tabs, tutorials, or teachers. In fact, there are tons. And tons of great ones. I know this firsthand. I make tutorials, after all!

The problem is hoping that tabs and tutorials can do anything more than teach you single songs. They can’t. Or the problem is finding a great teacher who is affordable. Good luck…

Ask a tab to do more than teach you that one song. It can’t. Ask a tutorial to show you how to improvise the way the artist does, to play the song differently every time while retaining its essence, or give you general insights into songwriting, or how the song relates to other songs like it, or how to make the ideas in the song your own. Odds are, it can’t.

Most private music teachers would probably LOVE it if you ask them the about deeper stuff like music theory, ear-training, how to think about and how to approach music the way musicians do, how to communicate better with your bandmates, how to create new arrangements of existing songs, how to find inspiration to write music. But few of these teachers would be very affordable. I also know this firsthand.

But there’s another way: Invest in yourself.

Invest in building your own musicianship. Not in more tabs and tutorials. But in yourself.

And be smart about how you invest. If you can, sign up with a great teacher at the best value you can possibly find.

Musicians can play by ear, compose, improvise, write inspired songs, and find ways to continually grow because they did one thing above all: they prioritized the development of their own musicianship.

Start building the bridge between the music you LOVE and the music you want to MAKE.

The WARRENMUSIC Series will give you the tools you need to grow your musicianship, to train your own ear, and build your own understanding of music. Invest in yourself today.

Pre-order the Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm Modules together at a discount*.

Get ready to UNLEASH the musicianship within!

*Rhythm Module is available as a pre-order. Melody and Harmony are available for access today.

What Are You Hearing? (The Core Of a Song)

WARRENMUSIC Intro Module, Episode 05— “What Are You Hearing? (The Core Of a Song)”

Episode 5 of The WARRENMUSIC Series is now live! It’s titled, “What Are You Hearing? (The Core Of a Song).”

This video asks the question that snaps everything into focus. Watch as I explain the difference between how casual listeners hear music, and how musicians listen to music, and talk about what three things lie at the musical core of a song.

There is so much going on in the music we love that it is easy to get overwhelmed by all the details. No wonder so many of us turn to tabs, tutorials, and other forms of pre-packaged music information to sort it all out for us. But the problem of outsourcing listening and thinking about music for ourselves is clear: we become dependent on something outside of us, and we rarely connect with anything beyond the single song or musical passage the tab or tutorial is teaching us. But fear not: when we learn about and listen to the Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm of a song, we gain the essentials that translate directly to music making.

There will always be free educational content on But for those who wish to challenge themselves in greater ways, premium content is now available in the form of in-depth modules, visual theory aids, and ear-training exercises using a wide range of musical examples. And with that said, you can pre-order now. Watch this blog for more updates and follow me on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram.

As always, I strive to add value to your musical journey. My sincere hope is that what I am putting out there sparks something in you. Drop me a note, comment, email, and share your stories with me… I’d love to hear how musicianship has changed your musical life!

From What We Hear to the Music We Make

(A.K.A. Fretboard Certainty)

People often ask me how I know my way around the fretboard. Perhaps I should call this the “people often ask me” series. Haha. Anyway, if you want a real answer, I am no virtuoso. I am far from it. Guitar fretboard speed is not what I excel at especially when compared to the likes of, say EVH or Greg Koch. Now, there are many programs people look at to build speed: CAGED, the Guitar Grimoire, etc. For shredding and sweep picking, there are plenty of instructional videos. I myself, though, have never really desired to build up virtuosic speed. If there was anything I wanted… it was to just KNOW the fretboard–to have what I hear be one with the music I make. So I set out to understand how the fretboard works based on my foundation in music theory. And now, if I excel at anything with regard to the technical aspect, it is fretboard certainty. I realize exactly where the note I want is at all times without having to guess. How, you might ask? It is the intersection of two concepts:

  1. The Scale (the C Major Scale in this case)
  2. My guitar’s tuning (standard tuning in this case, EADGBE)

Have you ever been in a situation where you are fumbling around the fretboard, hunting for the note that sounds right? Trying to figure out a song by ear, only to have the melody confounded by clumsy movement? I hear of students who have all but given up on ever learning their way around the fretboard, turning most of the time to online tablature and tutorials. But eventually, there will come a day when that student finds a song so obscure or an online tab so inaccurate, that they must brave that cool guitar riff on their own. And they simply don’t know where to begin. I’ll explain how I do it.


Step One | Apply the scale to the guitar’s tuning.

C Major Scale + Standard Tuning

Study the above. On the whiteboard you will notice:

The Major Scale at the top, a set of tones that, when ordered from low to high, show the relationships, Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half, from low to high, and in two forms:

the degrees of the scale, i.e.

1 _ 2 _ 3 4 _ 5 _ 6 _ 7 8,

and the corresponding note names in the key of C, i.e.

C _ D _ E F _ G _ A _ B C.

(We use the key of C because it is the easiest; it is the only major scale where there are no sharps or flats.)

And their relevance to the six strings of the guitar, in standard tuning from low to high, or E-A-D-G-B-E.

Here it is in grid form:

C Major Scale + Standard Tuning
The big matrix-like block of note names you see is the result of the combination of the two concepts.
Take the 6E string for example.
When you look at the C Major Scale, you will notice that E comes one half step before F, and then a whole step to G, and another to A, and so on, and so forth. The 6E string also follows this pattern up the fretboard, starting at 0 (open) for E, 1 for F, 3 for G, 5 for A, and so on, and so forth. The C Major Scale, therefore, helps us map out each string until we have all 48 natural notes (6 strings x 8 notes to the octave) in 12 frets.
We could keep going to the 13th fret and beyond, but it would just be repeating what we have on the 1st fret and on, up an octave.

Step Two | Examine the musical relationships between the strings.

Look for/observe the following:

  • intervals like Octaves, Perfect 5ths, Major 9ths, Minor 6ths, etc.,
  • points where strings overlap (the 5th fret for every string except from the 3G to the 2B string, in which the overlap happens at the 4th fret).
  • the relationships between strings (from 6E to 5A is an interval of 5 Half-Steps or “5HS” in the image, from 5A to 4D is an interval of 5HS, and so on, and so forth),
The half-step relationships between the notes of Standard Tuning.
  • where the same note occurs in multiple places (take any note, move back 5 frets and up to the next thinnest string, or 5 frets over and down to the next thickest string, except over the 3G and 2B strings, in which the note is doubled over 4 frets),
  • and many more ways musical relationships beckon us to look from one string across to the next or previous string. What about simple chord shapes like parallel Major and Minor 10ths (“Reckoner” by Radiohead, “Blackbird” by the Beatles, “Youth” by Daughter), to name one of almost innumerable melodic and chordal relationships.


A simple way to check to see whether you understand this is to think of a number of half steps you want to travel up/down or a musical interval you are familiar with, and play a note on a random string and a random fret, and then proceed from that note to see if you can locate the next note without guessing, but with fretboard certainty. Or an even better way (or see Step Four below): if you know a tune well enough to play on the piano or any other western instrument, try playing the same exact tune on the guitar without a wrong note (take your time!). Think of the number of half-steps, or if you can, try to figure out the scale degrees you’d be using, which are simply the much more musical ways of marking off half-steps (Do-Re-Mi is the same as 1 _ 2 _ 3).

Are you seeing where we’re going with this yet? If not, don’t worry. Take the time to read over and identify the parts above that remain unclear. This is probably the single most confusing subject for beginning guitarists and, I am convinced, the biggest reason students rely on someone else’s tabs and tutorials rather than developing their own musicianship directly. What happens when one is certain about their way around the fretboard? Well, they will be training their own ears and fingers to play what they hear. And that’s what every guitarist wants, isn’t it? To make the music they want to make?

Here’s another way to look at the overlap between strings, this time in TAB form.

The straight lines around the 5th, 5th, 5th, 4th, and 5th frets show two strings that yield the same pitch as the next open string (the corresponding pitch is named below).

And check out the pretty diagram I drew! Music Theory & Ear-Training are the “bridge” between What We Hear and The Music We Make.

Step Three | Work through the nature of the guitar’s relationship to pitch.

Four different directions of melodic/harmonic motion on the guitar.

Guitar works in a way that really messes with the mind, but it’s for good reason. Human beings like to focus on one thing amidst a multitude of things, and organize things in a linear fashion. This is why so many students thrive when learning piano as a first instrument (beside the fact that one only has to press a key vs. fret notes which hurts one’s fingertips). But making music on the guitar, and specifically playing melodies in this case, requires us to understand the four different ways musical motion happens on the guitar.

For example, how would I ascend from one note up to another to play the first two notes of the famous melody: “Some-where…. over the rainbow?” Two ways:

  • across the fretboard, or
  • “up” the strings (the direction your hand moves from the 6E over towards the 1E).

For your information: “Some-where…” is an ascending octave, or a distance of 12 HS. (You’re welcome.)

How do I descend from one note down to another, like in the first two notes of the punishing bass-line on Radiohead’s “The National Anthem?” Two ways:

  • across, back the way you came up initially, or
  • “down” the strings (the direction your hand moves from the 1E back towards the 6E).

The first two notes of this song, which showcases one of Colin Greenwood’s finest moments, are F# and D, a descending Major 3rd, i.e. 4 HS down. That one’s for free.

Now, this is fundamentally different from the piano, which is linear: move your hand left and the notes get lower; move right and the notes get higher. Not difficult. But guitar has, again, four different physical directions for musical motion, i.e. movement in pitch. The piano only has two. It’s easier on the piano, but as I mention again below, this is the very thing that allows us access to 29 distinct chromatic notes in a minimal space.

I believe this very thing is the essence of what overwhelms and confuses beginners and intermediate players alike when they try to play what they hear by ear. Somehow, one can move “up” one string and move “back” 4 frets and still be ascending by a half step! Visually, it looks like you are moving quite a bit backwards (lower), and yet the sound is higher. Weird, but that’s exactly what we’re getting at here. Here’s another specific example you should play so you can hear it for yourself:

  • play your 6E string, 7th fret, then
  • play your 5A string, 3rd fret.

You just ascended by one half step, but it looked to the untrained eye as if you were dipping “lower” on your strings!

Now note the exception between the 3G and 2B strings… there is only a distance of 4 HS there:

Moving across the strings in Standard Tuning yields 5HS between neighboring strings, except between 3G and 2B.
Bonus theory question: ever wonder why the shape of a G Major barre chord, 355433 is the same as the C minor, x35543, one string higher, yet one is major and the other is minor? The contrasting interval between 3G and 2B compared to every other string relationship in each barre chord is your answer.

At this point, we can pretty much agree that the person who figured out what we call Standard Tuning was pretty clever. Not only for the chords they create (we will need a little bit of chord theory to fully flesh this out), but simply because we can reach a total of, again, 29 chromatic (natural and sharp/flat notes) without moving our hand beyond the first position on the guitar (index on the 1st fret, middle finger on the 2nd fret, ring on the 3rd fret, pinky on the fourth fret). You definitely can’t do that on the piano!

Step Four | Take a simple melody and work it out.

As I mention above, all this theory is best when worked out. We can talk all day, but until we contextualize these concepts in a song on a real fretboard, it won’t take on any meaning. In this example, we’ll try to play the song “Twinkle, Twinkle” in a random key (F Major this time). Before we do that, we must process the raw soundinto scale degrees. This is a subject I will delve more deeply into in the near future. But for now, I’ll give you the answer.

The song starts on 1, or “Do.” And the first two lines go like this:

1 1 5 5 6 6 5

4 4 3 3 2 2 1

Or for you who come from a standard notation reading background,


Bb Bb A A G G F

For the record, relative pitch is better than absolute, a.k.a. “perfect” pitch. You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen.

Now you can take this simple theory representation of the melody, and work out how to play it across one string. Start with the 3rd fret 4D String for your 1 or “F.”

Where is your second note, or “C?”

If you referred to your prior knowledge of where a “C” can be found, or if you sneaked a peek back at the fretboard note-name matrix in the beginning of this post, you have failed to apply theory to the fretboard. You have only referred to something other than your own working theory knowledge.

Here’s how it’s done:

The 1 (scale degree) ascending to the 5, or “F” ascending to “C” is an interval of 7 HS. From the 3rd fret, 4D string, there are a few ways to do this. The most obvious one (though in nature more mathematical than physically efficient) is to take your third fret, add 7 half steps, and end up on the 10th fret of your 4D string. You will find that you will have moved the right amount up the string and fretboard to play the first and second twinkle. Sing along if you can. It will reinforce it!

But nobody plays the entire “Twinkle, Twinkle” on one string. It’s just inefficient if you know how the guitar works.

So try ascending 7HS by using two strings: the 4D string and the 3G string. Where do you place your finger on the 3G string?

If you said “the 5th fret,” you’d be correct! How did we do this? Simple.

The musical relationship between the 4D string and the 3G string, as I’ve mentioned several times now, is an interval of 5 HS. So when you move from the 3rd fret, 4D string to the 3rd fret, 3G string, you have ascended 5 HS. But wait, we wanted an ascent of 7 HS, didn’t we? Yes! So we move across from the 3rd fret, 3G string to the 5th fret, 3G string to complete the 7 HS the melody requires. 5 HS + 2 HS = 7 HS. The 5 is from moving from string-to-string, and the 2 is from moving across the string to the note we were looking for.

Now try to skip over a string! Instead of the 5th fret, 3G string, where else might we find the note “C,” the 5 in our key of F Major? Try the 2B string and see what you get.

If you said 1st fret, 2B string, then you win a prize. The prize is…

FRETBOARD CERTAINTY. Sorry, I don’t have any monetary prizes.

Here is the first line of “Twinkle, Twinkle” in all its whiteboard glory in TAB form (note the straight lines to denote the note doubles):

Note the two different melodic paths of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” from the 4D to the 3G/2B strings.

Observe the different melodic “paths” you can take over your fretboard to achieve the same tones. Your brain is now making the connection between what you are hearing and the music you’re making. And that’s what it’s all about!

Now check out the second line. This should be easy by now:

Note the two different melodic paths from “what” to “you are” from the 3G to the open 3G or 4D strings.

Now, to really, really own it.

Step Five | Take a more difficult melody in another key and do the same.

A student and I chose “Who Knows, Who Cares?” by the band Local Natives today. Since it was a more challenging melody, I drew a line going up and down in pitch, from left to right in time to show how my mind works when I determine intervals:

Once I figured out where the 1 or “Do” was, I played the song starting on on the 3rd fret, 6E string… my “6” in the key of Bb, i.e. the note “G.” I quickly found out that it was pretty difficult to play without a capo, and that it made more sense to play with G shapes while capo’d on the 3rd fret. I haven’t looked at any footage of the band playing the original. But I’m pretty confident I’m right, unless they used some strange alternate tuning for a reason I didn’t discover (I only listend to the first 20 seconds of the song). Was I right?

P.S. — In case you didn’t know, the cool thing about taking lessons with me is you get to learn the songs YOU want to learn.

Step Six | Take five melodies, and do it five ways!

Your brain is now hurting, and in the best of ways. New connections have formed. Your ability to play a melody on the guitar without playing a wrong note has increased by a lot.

I hope this has been helpful to you! I know my fretboard, not because of rote muscle memorization or a musical map in my head, but because I have taken the time to bridge the music I hear with how my instrument actually works. I hope you can too.

Bonus homework: notice how everything we learned is, in principle, also applicable to an alternate tuning… just change the string relationships where relevant. Now nothing can stop you from connecting a melody you hear with any alternate tuning apart from your aptitude in processing a melody.

Hope that was helpful!


Add me on Skype: warrenlain. I teach via webcam, wherever you are in the world! Or watch the entire Melody Module where I break down these concepts in greater detail.