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This question is going to seem weird, so I will do my best to describe the problem. Are musicians able to jump to any arbitrary note without giving it much thought and not go out of key?

Assume for this entire post that we stay in one key.

My problem is this: I've played the guitar for so long that I can rifle up and down any scale, arpeggio, exotic weird shape, you name it, and it always sounds fine. I see in patterns and shapes, and I know how every pattern stitches itself together. This means when I'm coming down a major arpeggio and want to transition into a scale, I know the shape that I want to play based on the melody in my head. I'm also at the point where I can map the melody in my head onto the nearby notes without any problems. This is very nice, but I can only do this in the current region of where I am.

However, the patterns thing is a bit painful in one area. If I'm going down some scale and need to do a large note shift (like dropping down at least an octave and then some), unless it's exactly a full octave or something with a tangible marker, there's a chance I will screw up and land on the wrong note. This is not a technical problem, it's a "oh crap I don't know what note to play" and since it's done while I'm letting the melody play out in my head, I have to make a split second decision. Mostly it works well, but this is unacceptable if I were to improvise live because a wrong note is bad.

Things I've done to work around this are to bend if out of tune, or vibrato if landing on the note correctly (like a preemptive bend just in case, but vibrato if it's correct). This is only masking the problem.

While I can figure out what any note I'm on within a few seconds due to various reference points, I really need it to be much faster.

This made me think "properly learn all the notes this time instead of only knowing a few strings off by heart" because then I would go to a note I require to land in key... however this doesn't solve the problem either. I would need to know all the notes ahead of time, since knowing every note on the fretboard, while useful, does not solve the problem entirely.

Suppose I'm playing C minor, and I know the place I want to shift to because after decades of playing my instrument, the sound I want is within an area of 3 notes. By three notes, I mean I have my "target note" that I feel it is, and then the notes that are immediately beside it. For example, I'm about to shift down to an F. Next to it are E and F#.

Problem is... which of the three are in C minor? I feel like it's F based on many years of experience, and I could figure this out if needed given a few seconds, but I cannot solve this in the 200 milliseconds or so that I have. It feels like it almost has to be reflexive that I know which of those three notes it is. I would need to instantly know on the fly that F is the note that I want, and to not touch the other two adjacent notes or else it will sound quite bad. Sure, in this instance I guessed the right note, but I could just have easily shifted down one too far and end up on the wrong one, and this happens.

As such, this problem can be stated with: How can I learn to pick a random set of three contiguous notes on the fretboard, and select the proper one in key?

The only way I could see this being done is to know every single note instantly, know every single note in the target scale instantly, and then use this information to pick the right note, all in the span of a few hundred milliseconds at most.

Is this how musicians do this? Or what is the best way of doing this? Or is this not possible? How would you do it?

I want to be able to say "I'm going to freestyle in C minor today" and never hit the wrong note. When I stay in my local area, this is no problem and I will stay in key all the time without question. However, when I do a large shift like, say, 17 "notes" down, that is when I run into problems.

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  • Note that in addition to the usual variation between individuals, this will vary dramatically between instruments. Aug 30 at 7:40
  • Wrong notes in improvisation are only wrong till you repeat the pattern! Aug 30 at 10:54
  • @LukeSawczak - often, yes, but not E or F# in key Cm...
    – Tim
    Aug 30 at 12:48
  • @Tim Those notes lead to wonderful modulations in Cm! But of course one has to work to get there. What I mean is you can build a structure around any choice in improvisation. I find often if I hit a note I didn't intend, repeating the context and note, or a slight change, makes it sound intentional and interesting. But it's beside the point if OP is having lots of trouble hitting intended notes, I guess Aug 30 at 13:39
  • @LukeSawczak - well aware of that. The problem is, the other guys who are playing along at those moments may have vastly different ideas! Yes, to get to an F harmony either can work - E (leading note), F# (tts), but if the harmony goes somewhere else, it'll sound like what it is - a mistake. True, OP is searching for notes from the key.
    – Tim
    Aug 30 at 14:00
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It sounds to me like you can instinctively find the notes you need within certain small intervals, but once you go beyond an octave or so you start guessing at speed which may or may not work.

You could possibly improve this by improvising with a metronome at a slow tempo, ideally with some kind of a looping backing track with possible. Choose a scale, like C minor, to improvise over, with an emphasis on big jumps every phrase or couple of phrases. The point of the metronome is to force you to play in time and therefore think in real time, rather than pausing and going "uhhhh where's E again?" If you can't make a jump in time with the metronome, slow down the metronome and try again. Find the first BPM at which you can improvise like this comfortably for a couple of minutes, and don't worry about sounding good. Focus on nailing those jumps in time with the metronome.

Then, when you get more confident with your jumps (this might take a while but it's worth the sweat), try and increase the BPM a little bit more each time. And make sure you cover all the different keys/scales, don't get too comfortable in just a couple of them. The hope would be that over time you would develop the instinct to make the jumps at normal playing speed without having to think.

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  • The OP says he doesn't know which of the notes is in-key for C minor: E, F or F#. Which is a problem. In the context of C as a tonic, E has to mean "major third" and "4 frets, 4 semitones", and F immediately has to mean "fourth" and "5 frets, 5 semitones" and "distance between two strings except between G and B strings it's plus one fret". And F# has to mean at least "blue note" and "tritone" if not more. These have to be completely instinctive, instantaneous, no thinking and no figuring out. Aug 31 at 10:34
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica I would also find it worrying if a seasoned player didn't immediately recognize that F# and E natural aren't in C minor. A way for OP to improve this is by messing it up enough times in practice to realize that F#/E will sound "bad" when trying to limit your improvisation to a particular scale (in this case C minor). Another thing OP could do is just play the C natural (or melodic?) minor scale up and down at first w/ metronome, then start jumping around the scale to build fluidity. There is the possibility that OP just doesn't have the ear to hear this naturally.
    – yerman
    Sep 26 at 10:44
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My sense of the core issues is first one of ear training and second of making the physical associations between ear and fingers.

There are also two issues getting tangled up: playing entirely in a single key ("I'm going to freestyle in C minor today") versus playing over changing keys or with out-of-key (i.e., chromatic) alterations ("I'm about to shift down to an F. Next to it are E and F#").

However, these can generally all be handled by the same — or largely similar — practice techniques.

Are musicians able to jump to any arbitrary note without giving it much thought and not go out of key?

Yes — many, with enough training and experience (or natural ability, for the lucky ones).

And musicians — even the best — miss, and know how to recover, as described in the question.

How to improve

  • Transcribe: learn to play songs you like just by listening. In this case, try to gravitate toward songs that force you into large leaps. Toward this end, you might find How can I slow down a YouTube video I'm trying to analyze or transcribe? helpful.

  • Exercises: play scales "in ninths" (or "in "). So, practice C minor by playing, for example, C4 – D5 – D4 – Eb5 – Eb4 – F5 – .... This will work for any interval in any key, and it will also work for chromatic intervals — say, for example, "in minor ninths": C4 – Db5 – D4 – Eb5 – Eb4 – E5 – .... And, of course, this can be done descending as well. The scales and/or the intervals can be both ascending or descending.

A similar exercise can be used with arpeggios. Precede each note of the arpeggio with a) a scale tone; b) a tone a fixed interval away. Thus, for a C minor arpeggio, the exercises might be a) Bb – C, D – Eb, F – G, Bb – C; b) B – C, D – Eb, F# – G, B – C.

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You say you can go up and down scales/arpeggios etc with alacrity. So you know the shapes. If that was true, you'd know that in C minor, there's no E or F♯. The target would have to be E♭ to stay in key. In the patterns you know and play, you'll never be fretting an E or an F♯ while playing scales and notes in C minor. All that if I read the question right.

So, if that's true, you need to brush up more on notes in scales, and if it helps (it should), say the note names out loud as they're played.

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If you are, like me, at ease with patterns and shapes (like you seem to tell in the question), my advice is to start with the local before you extend to a broader dimension.

For example, if you know the position of the note you want to play in your current position, start by that, then extend to the octave. You'll know on a bass that for example on the upper string it will be 7 frets in direction of the neck. (I take example of the bass because it has the same interval between each string, on a guitar you'll adapt for the special case of the B string)

Practice this slowly, and with time, this will get more and more natural for you to see all octaves of the same note on the neck so when you think of the next note you want to play, you instantly know all the positions on the neck where you can reach it, being an octave upper, lower, or the same on a different string..

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I had a few thoughts that might be useful while I was busy misunderstanding your problem. As a player of a fretless instrument, I'm always dealing with the need for physical hyper-precision in shifts. Sure, I can do an arpeggio, but a piece with huge unprepared leaps is challenging. For this, I'd encourage you to think of the physicality rather than the note theory. If I think, "I have to memorize what it feels like to go from a low B to a G 3 octaves above," then I also have to separately memorize a C to an A, and have a slot in my memory for every single combination of the 12 chromatic tones times four octaves of my instrument's range.

Instead, I find it more helpful to describe how my hand and fingers are actually moving in physical space. I say "I'm shifting up four positions, going over three strings, changing from my second finger to my third, and extending that third finger." Then a shift between different notes might still be the same distance for my arm, even if different fingers are involved or the extension doesn't happen.

The main point of your question seems to be "how do you know which note to play when improvising," which is a common question here. I would answer your question "Are musicians able to jump to any arbitrary note" by saying "Well, maybe it's not all that arbitrary." Outside of true free improv, in which absolutely anything goes... then, as you've noted, there's a reason you're looking for a certain note and not another. It might be a "surprise" note, a non-chordal note, a pivot note, a note that subverts the obvious expectation—but it does it for a reason. Yes, studying theory will help (Oh, guess what, it's just part of a diminished 7th), but ultimately time will help, as these patterns continue to become engrained. You already point out that you're fluent in lots of chordal and scalar patterns; you're just looking to extrapolate those skills across octaves.

I'll also make the somewhat obvious suggestion: Ease into a new skill. If it's improv, why do you have to make a big jump? Start out getting used to jumps of about one octave, then two, then three. Take what you already know and build on it, then build on what you've built.

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    It's easy to think of playing an instrument as only those moments during which we're actually creating a pitch. It's valuable to remember that the physical movement between pitches is at least as important.
    – Aaron
    Aug 30 at 15:28
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Yes, I think you want to be able to move freely from one octave to another.

From your description it sounds like you may be "stuck" in fretboard boxes.

Maybe one way to think about it is: you can do what you train. If your training is predominantly ascending/descending scale and arpeggio patterns in fixed positions, starting on the tonic, then you cannot get out of position easily. Practicing basic scale and arpeggio patterns that way isn't necessarily bad, but it maintains the same fingering position constantly. Eventually you want to be able to get out of one position and into another with flexibility to combine different patterns. Or, in the case of your question to change octaves. So, train for that specific skill.

Try thinking about how a figure could be alternately fretted with "lower", "middle", and "upper" positions. (I made up those three names. The idea is based around the E on string 5, fret 7 with all the other fretting being lower frets, the E in the middle, or all other fretting above the E.)

enter image description here

Each of the three is a different fingering position. You could change the rhythm a bit to make the changes continuous and then need to do something for a "transitional" fingering to get into the next position, like this, with a slide...

enter image description here

Those two examples just repeat a figure in one octave, so you might be wondering what that has to do with moving to another octave. The connection is being able to change fingering positions flexibly instead of being stuck in a basic scale/arpeggio box pattern. If we repeat the pattern at the octave, notice how we can use one of the lower/middle/upper fingerings to execute the jump into the upper octave...

enter image description here

Two other ways to get out the scale/arpeggio box patterns are:

  • practice scales and arpeggios in "broken" patterns
  • don't start a pattern on the tonic, start on another tone like one from the dominant chord and then end on the tonic. This helps develop the ability to sort of "jump right in" to a new position...

enter image description here

You can vary the broken scale pattern many ways by direction or using another interval, like fourths instead of thirds. You can also do broken patterns with arpeggios, just skip tones, like up a fifth down a third, up a fifth down a third, etc. etc.


... I have my "target note" that I feel it is, and then the notes that are immediately beside it. For example, I'm about to shift down to an F. Next to it are E and F#. Problem is ... which of the three are in C minor? ... It feels like it almost has to be reflexive that I know which of those three notes it is.

This is very different from the question posed in the title.

I think the short answer is: yes, you need to make this a reflexive action.

It seems to set up a conflict between changing register for purely timbral reasons versus harmonic reasons. I don't mean to suggest you would never change register, or the main purpose for such a change would not be about timbre, but confining the target area to just three frets - that's a range of a single whole step - it too restrictive harmonically. If your ideal timbral location is around the fifth of the chord, but your really want to play the chord's third, you don't have enough lee way in three frets to reach it. That suggests a kind of indifference to harmonic targets and I think you don't want to do that.

But, this is where I think we can get back to your original question in the title about jumping between octaves. If you widen the timbral target zone, you could think in terms of one or two octave shifts. Then, assuming you have really learned the harmonic structure of your scales, you hit the tone you want harmonically. Or, you might visualize a segment of the scale in the new register, like ^3 ^2 ^1, around which a lick is based.

How can I learn to pick a random set of three contiguous notes on the fretboard, and select the proper one in key?

You don't move randomly. You do need to know where you are moving harmonically. But you have options. There isn't only one right target. But that isn't the same as random. A lot will depend on the harmony style. I think you want to at least know where the tonic and dominant of the key or in terms of chords the root, third, and fifth.

All that should be easier to manage if you work in relative terms. Instead of thinking like: I'm in C minor, where is F. Try: I'm in C minor, all the roots are in these places, and all the perfects fourths these points, those fourths are the subdominant, the ^4 scales degree, or FA in solfege. When you know the generic interval pattern you can do it relative to any tone, any key. The specific letter names are then the incidental details of a particular key. You don't really need to know those letter names to play the pattern right on the spot.

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