The Time Unit Box System and the WARRENMUSIC Grid

The Time Unit Box System vs. Standard Notation (and Tablature)

In TUBS, the boxes of a grid represent equal units of time, consistent from column to column, and from row to row. This is how MPCs, MIDI sequencers, and many DAW piano rolls work today. If there is an event in a Time Unit Box, play it. If there is no event in the Time Unit Box, don’t play anything. The process is repeated for the next box, and so on, and so on.

As you can see, I struggled with this graphic.

In Standard Notation, with respect to Rhythm, musical events are represented by a combination of note heads and stems, as well as their respective rests which convey explicit note durations and silences according to the composer’s idea of what the performer should play. The composer instructs not just when music happens, but how long it should be when it does, and how long it shouldn’t be when it doesn’t. The performer is expected to read and decode the symbols and excel at it if they wish to have full access.

But what happens if the reader does not excel at reading and decoding? What happens if the reader has no access to the composer’s transcription?

I sought out an alternative.

In the first example, I have transcribed something breakdancers know and love, James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” in TUBS format.

In my transcription of this timeless break by Clyde Stubblefield, “o”s represent open hi-hats, “x”s represent rimshots, “…”s represent buzz strokes.

This how I think about Rhythm. This is how I organize what I am hearing, Melody and Harmony included.

In the second example, I’ve transcribed an old bass line from my middle school days by Cake. This is a modification of TUBS, where notes are instead represented by Scale Degrees, placed in rhythmic context without obscuring their melodic function.

In a throwback to the nineties, I chose to transcribe the bass part for “The Distance” by Cake, organized by song form and lyric. All Scale Degrees represent degrees of the E Minor Scale. The lyrics (not pictured) are shown line by line beneath.

In the third example, I’ve transcribed a classic chord progression from Bill Withers, placing his broken chords in their rhythmic context without sacrificing their harmonic function.

A snippet from my transcription of “Aint No Sunshine” by Bill Withers, where chords are shown as Chord Numerals. The dots refer to the broken nature of the chord, and the chord legend (not pictured) follows beneath the chord chart.

TUBS is an intuitive, fast, communicable, and modular alternative. It gives Clyde Stubblefield’s snare buzz strokes, each of Gabe Nelson’s (I had to look his name up) bass notes, and every Bill Withers bass note and broken chord a location on the grid, a kind of rhythmic address. The result, taking from what James Koetting and Philip Harland saw back in 1962–1970* making it a theoretically instructive and listener-centric alternative for our modern purposes, is what I call the WARRENMUSIC Grid. It’s my attempt to bridge the gap between the rich history of the Western European tradition of music, and the new music of today.

This is how I learn new songs, and how I share what I learn in a digestible way with others.

If nothing else, TUBS is simple, and unassuming. I would argue that it is more universal. After all, music has gone digital.

Where I use Scale Degrees for Melody, you can easily use Note Names instead. Where I use Chord Numerals for Harmony, you can easily use Chord Names. Now it’s yours.

Check out the full transcriptions, along with note-for-note MIDI clips and video breakdowns of four other songs I’ve selected, transcription exercises, visual aids, and more in my upcoming Rhythm Module.

WARRENMUSIC Series — Rhythm Module, Episode 03: “The Time Unit Box System and the WARRENMUSIC Grid”

OK Podcast

Since my last video interview with Prof. Brad Osborn (check that out here in case you missed it), I’ve been blocking out the noise and working hard on the Rhythm Module, a video course that introduces ear-training and music theory — a.k.a. musicianship — as it relates to Rhythm. It’s the third part of a three-part series (following the Melody and Harmony Module) that explores ways to build a lifelong bridge that connects The Music We Love with The Music We Make. Stay tuned for when that drops!

Today, I’m writing to share something I managed to squeeze into my incredibly tight schedule, which vacillates between dreading the release of my video series and complaining about the weather here on the East Coast: an appearance on “OK Podcast” by Sean Perrin of Clarineat.

Sean is a great interviewer with crazy podcasting experience as his other podcast on the clarinet has proven (it has listeners in 90 countries), and it shows. He’s also a huge Radiohead fan, and I was thoroughly amused to hear that he learned a few Radiohead songs from my tutorials.

So when he asked me to be the inaugural guest on his new podcast, I was super hyped and honored. Going at this YouTube thing now for 10 years plus, these kinds of things are still unreal to me (that people read and watch and listen to something I am shouting into the Void). But then I remember that, yeah… this passion we have for music connects us to something bigger than ourselves. Duh. Still pretty unreal, though.

Sean breaks down all of the topics we touched on in the podcast’s blog entry. Go check out OK Podcast and show him your support if you dig it!

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

“The Secret Rhythm Behind Radiohead’s ‘Videotape’” — Vox Pop: EARWORM Premiere

I had become obsessed with one of the craziest songs I’d ever heard.

I listened to it on repeat in the car, at the gym, while grocery shopping. Even when I wasn’t listening to it, I thought about it. I played it on the piano, I played it on guitar. I sang, I hummed. I sequenced its 808 drum samples, recreated its synth bass recipe. I superimposed a metronome over it so I could learn how to count it. And I still have some difficulty counting it.

I sought out live performances. 2006 Hammersmith Apollo. 2012 Kindl-Bühne Wuhlheide. The 2005 solo performance, From the Basement. The drummer-less Scotch Mist version. The Mephisto Mix. Each version and its various idiosyncracies were burned into my brain. I shook my head dismay when I saw misguided attempts by cover bands; there was just too much going on in this song.

2012 Kindl-Bühne Wuhlheide, originally uploaded by YouTube user Ollie Fabeck (since removed). Look at Colin’s face! He’s reacting to Clive playing a hi-hat on Beat 1 (or what much of the audience thinks is Beat 1), but we know now that Clive was playing on the “& of 4,” and that this delighted Colin.

I read the message boards. AtEase. Mortigi Tempo. /r/radiohead. The Wikia discussion page. I was amused at the fervent claims that the 2006 version was the best, and enthralled by the controversy over the syncopation that remained in the album version… or did it?

I read more interviews and quotes, and dug even deeper. Phil couldn’t find Beat 1? Thom was inspired by a post-rave trance track? Colin kept dancing in their live performances during a slow song? It was bewildering, exciting, and frustrating. I was on the edge of a huge abyss… and it felt like there were only a handful of people discussing the intentionally buried treasure. You might even say it was purposely hidden.

It all culminated when I posted my cover, along with a video essay on “The Hidden Syncopation of Radiohead’s ‘Videotape,’” and hours, weeks, months, and years of thinking and playing and talking about this simple, yet utterly mindblowing song finally found their outlet.

Amazing responses followed.

But I never anticipated a response like this next one.

An amazing storyteller and illustrator behind awesome videos like this approached me because, apparently, she too had connected with my story.

The creator behind videos like this one, Estelle Caswell!

Estelle (who is now being nominated for four Emmys) emailed me a few months ago and had this crazy idea to re-craft this story centered on two things: what the hell was going on in this song musically, and why it was so cool to me. I was on board immediately. Call it the music appreciation train, the theory train, or whatever you like. But she was passionate that there were other viewers out there who needed to hear more of the insights behind some of the best music out there today. And I am proud to say that I’m featured in the first episode of this upcoming series.

Now a YouTube channel with two million subscribers will be exposed to this awesome concept buried deep within one of my favorite songs, along with my face and voice. Uh. Yikes. Woo.

Anyhow, it’s been such a crazy journey. Thank you for being here and supporting me along the way.

Now go watch it! And when you’re hungry for more…

Dive deeper into the Hidden Syncopation.

See the rhythm breakdown I created for Vox:

Can you think of any other songs that use Hidden Syncopation? Hint: Radiohead has at least two more from The King of Limbs era…

Hear it for yourself.

I put everything I had into this cover. Three live drum tracks, piano, synth bass, vocals, guitars, claps, and some live 808-style sequencing and tweaking. But while you were hearing one thing, I was listening to another. I was listening to my own metronome track in my earpiece, just like Thom Yorke has in his ears when performing this song live.

Um… what?

Confused about rhythm? Don’t despair. My upcoming Rhythm Module will cover rhythm in depth; it’s going to be awesome.

“Lift” by VERYDEADLY feat. Warren Lain

A timely tribute given Radiohead’s upcoming OKNOTOK, a 20th anniversary commemorative album that promises the unreleased cult-favorite, “Lift.”

I rarely make music with other people.

“What? You totally did a few with your buddy Brian.” Yes. But he’s a childhood friend.

“You had a band.” Yes, and it was awesome. But so weird for me at the same time. And it really sucked when we disbanded. It troubled me for years. That was a rare group and a really interesting season of my life.

“But what about that Bon Iver cover with Vincent?” Have you seen Vincent? The dude is really chill. Huge props to him. But me? I was on edge the entire time.

Maybe there’s something wrong with me. Or maybe you can relate. But here are a few random facts about me you probably didn’t know:

  • For someone who likes to play guitar a LOT, I don’t enjoy playing “Wonderwall” or “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” “More Than Words” is okay.
  • For someone who likes to improvise, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of a jam session. Getting together with some other dudes casually while I pour out my heart musically is not my idea of fun.
  • For someone who is very outgoing, friendly, and confident in my own musical expression, I feel really weird performing in front of others, or even releasing my own music. (I don’t like being in the room when other people listen to my stuff.)

Making music — with sincerity — is a really private area of my life. I have a strange relationship to it. Am I the only person like this? I somehow doubt it…

So when Joel (a.k.a. VERYDEADLY) reached out to me a few months ago and asked me if I’d be interested in contributing to his cover of Radiohead’s “Lift,” I was skeptical.

I mean, who covers “Lift” and gets away with it? Naturally, the song choice had me intrigued: an unreleased Radiohead cult favorite, I knew a proper cover of such a beautiful song was, inherently, a tall order.

So I took a deep breath and clicked. And I’m so glad I did.

When I actually listened to it, I immediately realized that Joel possessed rare talent, as both a brilliant musician and a gifted songwriter/producer in his own right.

In a most serendipitous turn of events, we both learned that Radiohead themselves would finally be releasing their long-awaited studio version of “Lift” as well. I mean… talk about timing!

So it is our sincere hope that you’ll enjoy our little tribute in advance of what is sure to be a very cool, global listening party for Radiohead fans.

Huge credit to Joel for this beautiful track (on which I played only a small role), and for considering me in the first place.

And without further ado, I present to you:

The Power Of Musicianship

WARRENMUSIC Intro Module, Episode 03 — “The Power Of Musicianship”

Episode 3, titled “The Power Of Musicianship,” is now live.

What does musicianship actually look like?

Musicianship is the difference between just regurgitating someone else’s pre-packaged instructions and making the music you love your own. It’s the difference between just following a tab or a tutorial and using your own ear and musical insight. It’s the difference between faking it and thinking/behaving the way musicians do.

In this video, I take you through a few examples of what musicianship looks like in the real world. My hope is that you’ll be inspired to go beyond tabs and tutorials, and seek out, no, DEMAND a more substantial connection between the music you love and the music you want to make.

See what musicianship can do for you! And while you’re at it, catch a snippet of a previously unreleased song from my forthcoming album…

Introduction To the Bridge

Watch Episode 2 of The WARRENMUSIC Series now:

If you recall our first video, we talked about the GAP that exists between the music we love, and the music we make. This video speaks to the BRIDGE between those two things: Music Theory, and Ear-Training.

Quickly defined, Music Theory is a language that describes the connections, patterns, ideas, and larger concepts in music across songs, albums, artists, and genres. And Ear-Training is pretty self-explanatory: it’s getting our ear to the place where we can identify what’s going on in the music we love.

When we combine the two, there is an explosion we call musicianship!

Stay tuned. We’ll soon explore exactly what MUSICIANSHIP can do for you.


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.

Modes Explained

I get a lot of questions about music theory. I thought it would be great to tackle some of these questions and post them on this blog for anyone who might want to chew on ideas in music theory and use them as a jumping off point for making new music or gaining some clarity on the songs they are already studying. So here is my first attempt! Keep in mind, this is a tough one, so until you have a good grasp on the Major Scale, I’d suggest holding off on this explanation until after you learn about that first.

The Scale Degrees of the Major Scale, transcribed in grid form.

I am often asked questions like, “What is a mode? How does it differ from a key or tonality or a scale? How do modes and keys interact?”

I’ll unpack a few of these terms.

A “key” is the term for a group of specific notes. If you tell me we’re going to play a song in the key of D Mixolydian, it means chiefly two things:

  1. “D” is the main note in the song, or home note, the note from which the rest of the song’s melodies and chords originate, the note that makes us feel like the song has reached resolution. Some people call this the “tonic” or the “Do” in Do-Re-Mi of Moveable Do Solfege.
  2. When we play a Mixolydian scale from “D,” we’ll hear all the tones used in the song.

That’s a mouthful of music theory that fits in only a few words.

So what does it really mean to play a scale? Well, the “scale” is just a simple way to lay out all of the notes presented in a piece of music in order, typically from the lowest to the highest. We refer to the scale as if it were a dictionary, and we apply the scale in myriad ways… we can transcribe melodies into the degrees of the scale, create lead guitar parts from a scale, write bass lines; the scale is also used to show the relationships between chords or entire chord progressions, to help us see the connections between different songs across the whole spectrum of artists and genres we encounter, to provide a basis for improvisation, to aid in re-arranging, etc. Again, it lays out all of the notes we might hear or use in a song in a clear way. A scale, in this sense, is maybe not so different from a painter’s palette with its colors arranged in a gradient.

The term “tonality” is more loose… it has more to do with the mood/flavor/feeling the musical tones give the listener; it describes the experience of the listener. The idea of the tonality of a piece is, in this sense, distinct from the word “key,” which is a more specific word: where “key” refers to the actual set of notes, “tonality” refers to the way we perceive those same notes. They are by definition closely associated, so their meanings can have some overlap.

Now for the crazy part: a “mode” is a way to think of a particular key or tonality as a subset of another key we are more familiar with; but in actuality–once introduced and grasped–is experienced as if it were distinct from that key. For example, one can listen to a song in the key of G Mixolydian and another in the key of A Aeolian and never recognize that they are at all related even when, in fact, these two scales are comprised of the exact same set of notes. They are known as the fifth and sixth modes of the key of C Major.

The C Major Scale and its Modes, source —

These modes can also be rendered more simply using any equal-width font:


C Ionian:
C _ D _ E F _ G _ A _ B C
D Dorian:
D _ E F _ G _ A _ B C _ D
E Phrygian:
E F _ G _ A _ B C _ D _ E
F Lydian:
F _ G _ A _ B C _ D _ E F
G Mixolydian:
G _ A _ B C _ D _ E F _ G
A Aeolian:
A _ B C _ D _ E F _ G _ A
B Locrian:
B C _ D _ E F _ G _ A _ B

And so the “Key of C Major,” which is usually the first big concept any serious student of western music comes across, is actually much greater than it seems. In practice, most of us learn about C Major and play the C Major Scale when, in truth, we are really only playing C Ionian, the first mode of C Major. So, let this be our introduction to the real C Major, this set of notes with subsets of notes that yield amazingly different results. Become familiar with C Major and its modes (D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, etc.) which, by definition, use the exact same notes (the white keys on the piano) to produce wildly varying tonalities.

To hear what I’m talking about, try playing only with the white keys on the piano, or natural notes on any instrument. But start and end on G, and then try again with A. You’ll notice G Mixolydian sounds familiar; rock and folk seem to be full of examples of Mixolydian.

Here are some quick Mixolydian examples:

A Aeolian sounds totally different… it sounds melancholy or dramatic. Just take a listen to

So, while the fifth and sixth mode of C Major are experienced subjectively as something entirely different from the first mode, they are, on an objective level, the SAME as C Major! Indeed, the same set of notes used to play “Happy Birthday” and “London Bridge” can also yield the tune to every one of the songs listed above (ignoring the fact that the songs are in different keys, which we will get to next). This is why the term “mode” is a challenging idea, but an amazing one. It alludes to both an objective and subjective musical reality in one word.

So modes and keys? What’s the difference?

Any given piece of music may change keys. This becomes obvious when one set of notes succeeds in describing one section of the song, and then fails in describing another. But even when this happens, the mode may remain the same. For example, if I play in the key of C (and the first mode, a.k.a. Ionian, is always assumed when I say “key of ”), I can change in the middle of the song to the key of A, and still be in the same Ionian mode, I would just be in A Ionian (with three new sharps, F#, C#, and G#). I can also change modes within a song without changing the key. Yes, a song that doesn’t change keys can still shift your perception of its tonic! There are a few songs that come to mind on this subject:

Let’s take “Untitled 8” by Sigur Rós, one of my all-time favorites.

It starts out in what appears to be D Major/Ionian (but never gives it away fully, so we are left guessing), but eventually reveals itself to be D Mixolydian. You see it when the main guitar part drops to C, revealing a b7, the key of D Mixolydian (the fifth mode of G Major) in what you might call the pre-chorus of the song. And then in what you might call the chorus of the song, it flirts with G Ionian! And eventually, it migrates to E Aeolian and stays there for the last brooding, powerfully dark section of the piece that still gives me chills a decade after I first heard it. And the glory of this is that you can play one scale, G Major, and capture every single note in the epic journey of the 11:45 minute song. D Mixolydian for the verse and pre-chorus, G Ionian in the chorus, and E Aeolian in the build-up to the song’s climax… three different tonalities, but all one scale!

It’s incredible what range of emotions can be captured by only seven tones.

The best-selling jazz album in history employed heavy usage of modes.

Another love of mine, Miles Davis’ legendary album, Kind of Blue, is famous for having used modes as a jumping off point for improvisation. Miles simply gave his band some manuscript paper with basic scales on them and indicated which notes were the tonic in each (mode) and then they played some great tunes to contextualize these improvised modal explorations. To this day, people still call that album an example of “modal jazz,” and the term is very accurate. It also became the best-selling jazz album of all time!

So… in sum, the study of modes gives us an incredibly deep appreciation for how when different notes are treated as the tonic, the same notes can be experienced in different ways. But we had to go through the key of C Major to understand it.

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