Last week I showed up at my student’s house only to discover that he’d put tiny little masking tape note name labels all over his fretboard.
Just like I preach on this blog, this student has been working on internalizing the name of every note on the guitar.
The reason is simple:
Note illiteracy (innoteracy?) is the single biggest impediment for guitarists looking to make sense of the fretboard.
And in a world where anyone can learn to play a whole lotta guitar with only TAB, chord grids, and scale shapes, this is a widespread problem.
(In case you missed it, the series on learning the note names starts here.)
Why Those Labels Are Counterproductive
While I have to admire the initiative he took in making those little labels (that must’ve taken forever), ultimately they’re working against what he was trying to do.
This is because being reminded more often is fundamentally different than forcing yourself to remember more often.
Active Recall vs. Passive Review
Maybe they teach this in school these days, but it definitely wasn’t on the menu way back when.
Passive Review is rereading your notes before the test, or playing a song repeatedly from a chart.
Active Recall is quizzing yourself using flashcards, or trying to teach someone what you’ve learned without consulting your notes.
Passive review, although enduringly popular as a form of studying, flat out sucks. It feels like you’re getting a firmer grasp on the material, but it’s more of a placebo effect than anything else.
Active review on the other hand, creates stronger connections and memories inside of your brain. Where there’s more struggle, there’s more permanent learning.
More struggle = more permanence.
Active review also quickly exposes the areas where your understanding of the material is somewhat lacking.
In addition to the how of studying, we also have to pay attention to the when, or more specifically, how often.
There’s a natural curve to how long your brain holds on to information.
If you learn some small fact, but don’t have any need to recall it, you’ll quickly forget it.
But if you force your brain to access that information before it’s forgotten, you’ll retain it longer.
And not just longer in total, but longer each successive time.
With each subsequent recall, the amount of time the fact is held in your memory increases.
In other words, by accessing that information at ever-increasing intervals, you will eventually remember it forever.
You’re Already Doing This
For the most part, I’ve already built this into much of what we’re doing here.
It’s the reason that the assignments from the note names posts are split up over several weeks (with plenty of review).
It’s the reason that I think practice consistency is more important than practice duration.
But judging from the masking tape labels on my student’s guitar, it looks as though some of you might want another resource.
Help On The Way
There’s a software program I love called Anki. It’s built directly on the ideas of active recall & spaced repetition.
It’s like a flashcards app, but on steroids.
It adjusts itself depending on how well you’re doing.
Let’s say you’re using it to learn Spanish. You always struggle with the word estuvieron, but el techo is no problem.
Anki will ask you about el techo less often than estuvieron.
The program uses an algorithm to predict when you’re just about to forget something, since that’s the optimum time to ask you to recall it.
Then (provide you get the answer right) it’ll increase the length of time before it asks you again. Super slick.
And mostly free.
Do This Now
If you feel like you need a little more help getting those note names fully internalized, you can use this “deck” I made for you.
- Install Anki on your computer. Maybe buy the app if you’re still using it regularly a few months from now.
- Download the deck called “Guitar Notes w/Audio–Fretboard Anatomy.” You can find it here.
- The front side of the “card” gives you an instruction, like “4th String F.”
- Play that note. Then click to see the answer (or in this case hear the answer).
- If the note you’re playing matches the note I’m playing, good work.
- Otherwise, take a minute to see if you can find the right note.
- Either way, mark how well you did so that Anki can make adjustments specifically for you.
- Don’t forget to tune your guitar first!
To Sum Up
Passive Review is for chumps.
Active Recall is where it’s at.
Use Spaced Repetition to take advantage of the way your brain is wired.