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There are three types of musical memory…

…that I can think of: namely; (1) muscle memory which enables the fluent playing of the guitar, (2) that which enables aural recognition of intervals when hearing them and, (3) that which enables recall of which chords are diatonic to which keys, their voicings, and their placement on the fingerboard. All three need attention on my part, for sure, because it strikes me that if these three memory sets are optimised then I could say I could really play my guitar, improvise, and write.

Muscle memory is a double edged sword. Sure, it’s essential. Without it we couldn’t play a damn thing with any fluency. Indeed, we couldn’t remember how to finger even the most simple chord. When it (muscle memory) is performing at its best, it enables you to focus on the performance while your fingers go where they’re supposed to, as it were, blindfolded. But it’s a curse if you’re trying to correct some mistake that’s become ingrained through repetition. I can’t recall who, but some smart player or teacher opined that too many of us spend all our practice time practicing our mistakes. Re-educating your fingers is hard, hard work. It’s like digital boot camp.

Recognising musical intervals when you hear them is a faculty which I’ve never spent any time concentrating on. This has resulted in my only being able to differentiate major and minor triads ““ easy if they juxtaposed next to each other ““ and major sixths, which seem to have a distinct aural flavour. Well, come to think of it, dominant 7ths with augmented 9ths rarely pass me by unnoticed. Augmented 5ths, also. Well that’s quite a few, you might think. But I couldn’t tell you which key they might be in, or what keys might be involved in a modulation.

Clearly, I’m talking about music I hear. If I’m playing it, I only have to look at my memory challenged fingers.

The recall of what chords are diatonic to which keys is a matter of sheer repetition of playing in different keys ““ or learning by rote. This might seem trivial in “guitar keys” like G major or C major. But do you know which chords are nominally diatonic to E flat minor? Can you list them? Or even A flat major (without thinking) even though it’s only a half-step away from G?

Not being fluent in these areas makes me feel a bit like a cheat. Sort of like I had landed an engineering job with a fake qualification. I keep meaning to set some time aside to practice all of this. Even try writing down in notation things I hear in my head. The trouble is that there is no time and I don’t hear new music in my head, anyway. I’m a noodles sorta guy…

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Chord voicings and “broken” chords

For a couple of months, I will mostly be learning and figuring out chord voicings. It strikes me as dumb and lazy to imprison myself with the root-at-the-bottom cliches that seem to be the foundation of the vast majority of my songs. Certainly, when I have used alternaltive voicing in the past it has been the result of serendipity-like accidents during the course of absent-minded noodling or commonly used inversions. Chord voicings and voice leading is opening up seemingly limitless opportunities for harmonic development for me. All basic stuff for jazz guitar players, no doubt, but that’s not my”¦ erm”¦ pedigree.

Having only four usable digits to finger five – or more – note chords means that all chords of that type will be “broken”, ie., have notes missing. That’s all right apart from the confusion that arises (in my little brain) when many chords with missing notes can be interpreted as voicings of entirely different chords – with missing notes. I’ve known this for years (oh, yes I have!) but it’s only an inconvenience presently since I’m trying to commit these voicings to memory by it’s name based on the supposed root – which in itself is interesting when oft times the root is also missing! Piano players, with ten fingers at their disposal, will play broken chords through choice based on a desired sonority – but us guitar players often play them out of necessity.

In truth, a bunch of notes can be called as many names as there are notes in the bunch – although it gets nonsensical and unhelpful after a point. In the end, chord nomenclature is only a means to an end and the fact that broken chords can be so easily interpreted as belonging to different tonalities provides an ambiguity that can be entertainingly exploited!