By my count there are 3 natural ways one might think about a simple melody - I'll use "row row row your boat" as an example.
a) notes:

b) scale degrees / distance from tonic:
11123 32345
00024 42457
P1 P1 P1 M2 M3 M3 M2 M3 P4 P5

c) differences from preceding notes (I'm not sure how to denote descending vs. ascending intervals, but typical ear training methods seems to encourage this kind of thinking, so I'll include it):
+0+0+2+2 +0-2+2+1+2
+P1+P1+M2+M2 +P1-M2+M2+m2+M2

When professional-level musicians want to write down/play/communicate such a melody, is there a tendency to think in one of these 3 ways over the others (or perhaps some 4th way)?

Update: Maybe the answer, if there is an answer, depends on instrument. I'm a guitar player.

  • 3
    I find this almost impossible to answer. It's as hard as trying to answer "how do I think about the word 'the' if I want to write/say/communicate it". In both cases, "I just do it." Obviously there was a time when I didn't know the word "the" or how to recognize a simple tune, but I honestly can't remember that far back in my life.
    – user19146
    May 26, 2016 at 23:14
  • Isn't the most natural way to think of a melody as the sound of the melody itself?
    – user39614
    Mar 12, 2019 at 4:03

5 Answers 5


Because music is an abstract language, I'm not sure your question can be answered easily or in any of the ways you described. For me, it's a combination of my mental image of the notes on the staff, vague mental image of those notes on the keyboard, and muscle memory of how both images are supposed to sound and feel. I don't know that I consciously think of the letter names or intervals (or chords, or whatever technical things). To me, the actual names are not as important or necessary as the notes themselves, if that makes sense. It's kind of like a close family member for whom you no longer need a label or name, they are who they are. I certainly don't think of the physical intervals. If anything, I think of the patterns in the music and how those patterns feel underneath my fingers, and how they sound. Maybe this wasn't helpful.

  • 1
    These are great points. To further, it's like asking someone what they are thinking about when they are talking in a native language. They aren't thinking about their speech at all - the language is a natural extension of them now. The meaning/expression behind the mechanics is the focus for a professional. May 27, 2016 at 19:19
  • 1
    Right, which is why we study those scales, Czerny, etc., so that they're as ingrained in us as speech. It's really about the patterns, big and small, and our physical and mental memory of them all.
    – Max Finis
    May 27, 2016 at 21:34
  • Actually, speech is the best example. You should write your own answer and elaborate on that. I've answered several unusual questions on here, and even though I feel like I'm talking to myself most of the time, codifying stuff like this helps me to understand what I already know better.
    – Max Finis
    May 27, 2016 at 21:55

It's going to vary, and you have to remember that there are also a lot of pros that learned by listening and copying what they heard on records without learning to read music. Notes can be known "personally" and this includes knowing all the various chords and scales as they relate to them. There may be no names or functions involved--I think of it as a kind of direct hearing the function. Every functional relationship has its own identifiable sound.

I recall reading a Herbie Hancock interview where he spoke of not thinking about Jazz chords with all the alteration notations as such, but rather by being able to directly hear in his mind's ear the scale that was being used, and the accidentals or alterations were the determinants of the path through the scale.

Another doubler and Jazz improvisor (a retired pro) I recently met spoke of the importance of not thinking about fingerings or notes when you play or improvise, but work on hearing what you want to play, with the fingers doing their best to catch up.

A lot of classical musicians, especially amateurs, will be thinking in terms of the note names. As you move up into the pro classical musicians, there will be more that are thinking in terms of the function, or at least will be aware of the function. Partly, this is because functional listening is explicitly taught in many (most?) music programs and conservatories, and part because the function affects how you are going to play or inflect a note. For example, if you know you are playing a 3rd or 7th, especially the leading tone, there are often going to be slight pitch variations made off of equal temperament to help the chord "ring" optimally. This is much harder to do if the musician doesn't know where the note fits in the harmonic scheme of things.


Previous to learning scales, for me it was very much hit or miss. Certain notes following each other became familiar, rather like using the same few words in several sentences. When I knew scales, it changed rather. Listening to a piece, a key is established, the sort of scale used is recognised, and the fingers (usually) tend to follow the tune automatically. As in - this is a blues in D, therefore all, or at least most, of the notes will be from the D blues scale, and will be found here. Or put another way - these particular notes WON'T be used, probably, so don't even try to play them.

Players who have only ever learnt from dots will most likely have the musical names somewhere in the concious mind, but after a lot of playing this changes to interval recognition and scalar runs and arpeggios, or at least part of them.

Players who learn by ear often take longer to assimilate tunes, although again, it comes down to 'muscle memory', but of a different kind to that in the second para.

Instrument knowledge is another factor, with some guitarists thinking 'tab', which obviously wouldn't work for most other instruments. A lot of players - sax, flute, blues harp, to name a few, cannot rely on eye to brain co-ordination, so there's going to be a different approach there. And that's before one considers the voice.

Jazz players may think a scale per chord, so their mindset is very different, but they certainly won't be thinking 'I've just played a D and the next three notes will be E, F and then C#'. I think after a certain amount of time, which varies for each of us, the thinking part of the brain ceases to influence what we play. I've often told students off for thinking!! My analogy is try examining what you are actually doing, while running - heel or toe down first, which arm moves with which leg, etc. You soon won't be running - you'll be in a heap on the ground... So we often surpass the academic stage, to actually produce music, which is far more than the sum of the parts.

Simple answer is there's no one answer, but we all use different techniques, and often a combination of several, dependent on instrument, experience and ourselves.


Someone asked me to convert and elaborate a comment to an answer, so here goes:

I believe that once a level of mastery (being a 'professional', as was termed in the question) is obtained there isn't much thought really, more just expression.

To explain, asking someone what they are thinking about when they are talking in a native language would likely yield a result that they aren't thinking at all, just doing. At this point in their development, the language is a natural extension of them. Any mechanics involved in the process are 'automated' and they are naturally able focus on the meaning/expression.


As a guitar player, I learned notes by shapes and positions. The same note can sound in various places on a guitar so guitar players learn to find sweet spots on the guitar where a particular melody can be played without shifting position too much.

Which shapes? The standard set of shapes are found in the CAGED system but I found that a little too complex, rigid and sometimes difficult to play.

Instead I use a combination of pentatonic major/minor shapes and chord shapes. For any particular chord shape on the guitar I already know the notes so I'll just think in intervals (frets) above and below the pentatonic or chord notes. Chord shapes are particularly useful when playing melodies that have a lot of arpeggios.

Actually "think in intervals" is inaccurate. At this point, I "just know" that a note is one or two frets above or below a pentatonic or chord tone.

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