Whenever I heard solos ,especially phrase solos that goes along with some phrase of the song, I wonder how you guys(experienced and professional musician).

Imagine a certain tune or "hum" and translate it to well a spell-boundin music on guitar's fretboard? How do you know whatever sound you imagined corresponds to the particular fretboard? Is it trial-an error complemented by your past experience

I ask this Because although I am a beginner who know only few chords and couldn't practice much due to certain circumstances. I had a habit of devoting atleast spending an hour just jamming up any notes on any string and with time -being I developed a certain intuition and I can now vaguely anticipate what a particular fret of the string will sound like ,how it will go along with other note's and most importantly I can now make rough but quite good approximation of tune or hum I imagined(not complicated but simple one) But I always have feeling that there' something missing(some note or tc)

Does this happen with you guys and how come you fix that 'missing' piece?

Maybe my lack of training and knowledge of music theory the reason?( I didn't know a even basic things like intervals,scales until 3 days before when I started reading the literature on it....)

  • 1
    They do it the same way as you transform an idea that you imagined into your native language - in other words, they just write it down (in music notation), with no more thought than you use when writing words. Of course a five-year-old who is just learning to write can't do that very effectively, and as a "beginner who know only few chords" you are probably in the same situation as the five-year-old, until you learn more!
    – user19146
    Apr 3, 2017 at 14:34
  • >Is it trial-an error complemented by your past experience. Yes, as someone who can play music by ear, you've pretty much nailed it! But I'll give a more detailed answer below.
    – Some_Guy
    Sep 24, 2017 at 22:40
  • 1
    A fun "party trick" is to play and sing the same thing at the same time, that's generally a sign that your by-ear playing is getting pretty decent when you can do it reliably.
    – Some_Guy
    Sep 24, 2017 at 22:44

4 Answers 4


It comes with experience. For example most improvisors have the goal of eventually having a direct connection between their brain and their fingers. A common refrain in jazz study is that you need to learn everything (your instrument, the theory, etc) so well that you eventually forget it—or more accurately no longer need it because you've developed that connection along the way. But it requires a lot of practice and a lot of people never truly get all the way there. That's ok and as Stinkfoot put it "that's what musical growth is about".

But there are few things that will help:

  1. Transcribe—not necessarily in the notation sense, but listen to things you like and figure out how to play them. As you get better, try longer and longer phrases and relying less on tools (ex. ones that slow the music down).
  2. Ear training and sight-singing. Being able to identify melodic intervals is key. Musictheory.net has free ear training exercises. And doing the opposite—singing known intervals—helps as well. A proper solfege course/book where you're singing from notation is great but if you don't read music or don't want to go that deep at least try singing a bit. Sit at a piano or with your guitar and try singing things like intervals, arpeggios, scales, or short melodies that you already know how to play (or once you learn them). Sing it first given only the starting note as reference and then play it after see how close you came.
  3. Melodic (scales, arpeggios, etc) training on your instrument while singing along. Knowing how to identify intervals is not much help unless you connect that to your instrument by playing them. And singing the note name and/or chord/scale degree helps make the mental connection between what your fingers are doing, what you're hearing/thinking, and the theory (the note name, the interval, the arpeggio, etc).

A good exercise is to train your ear to recognize intervals. Have someone play an interval while you're not looking. Name the interval, and play it on your guitar. (There are most likely apps that will play random intervals for you.) If you get to where toy can recognize and play intervals just by hearing them, you're well on your way to playing the melodies in your head.


For me, anyway, it's mainly practice and experience.

Practice, because your pitch recognition gets better and better. This can not be overemphasised. Sitting down and trying to work out how to play "twinkle twinkle little star" or "Oh Christmas tree" or something like that is incredibly valuable to your musical development. Translating familiar melodies (the more familiar and simpler the better) is a great place to start, in training your ears to relate your subjective experience of pitch and melody, to an objective understanding of what those notes actually are.

That's something that comes with practice; the more you use it, the better your pitch recognition is.

So for example, if you sing me any 2 notes in sequence, then I'll be able to tell you what the interval between them is. That comes with practice. If you play 8 random notes at me, one after the other, then I'll be able to play them back to you. That's practice. If I hear a song on the radio, I'll be able to play the melody back to you, more or less the first time. That's both practice and experience.

Practice because that gives you good pitch and interval recognition as I outlined above, but also experience, in that the more you play and work out music by ear, the more you start to recognise patterns that notes often fall into. On top of that, as well as hearing each note in relation to the one that came before it (which is what I'd be doing with a series of 8 random notes), you relate it to the music context it comes in. It's easier to work out things that fall into patterns you understand and recognise.

Put it this way, imagine you were trying to acquire the skill of copying photographs. You would obviously get better at painting in general over time, better at manipulating the brush, better at understanding how to produce the colour and lighting that you want with paint. But you would also get better at painting specific things, better at painting trees, better at painting water, better at painting sunlight etc. Because you'd be doing the same sorts of shapes each time. Reading books about how to paint trees certainly would help you progress faster, but most important would just be the practice! And of course, let's say I give you a photograph and you have to copy it from memory, without looking (which is more like what working out music is like, unless you are spamming the replay button like a m*****f***a). A painting of something you recognise, and know how to paint would be much easier to reproduce then something you'd never seen before!

So, to give a simple example, if you listen to a lot of blues music, you'll notice that there are certain licks that are often used to end a phrase, and certain chord changes and flourishes which pop up again and again, and with different little variations. So then when you go to play along with a blues song, when you hear a phrase that's the same, or similar, or related to something you already know well, you don't have to work it out from scratch because you already know what it is. More abstract from that, you start to notice more more generalised principles of what kinds of notes tend to go together in what context, and what those contexts all sound like, and so as well as recognising specific note patterns, you also recognise a sort of "framework" of possibilities based on what the music sounds like.

Formal music theory can help this of course, you might here a melody and go "oh that's an ascending major scale starting on the third, with a flat 7 passing tone" or whatever. But it still all comes down to playing real music by ear, and theory is only as good as how it relates to your actual subjective understanding of the music you're hearing and playing. Theory can then give you ways to abstract and analyse and make sense of that music, which is of course useful because it allows you to see even more patterns, some of which you might not have noticed on your own.

The real benefit of getting good at playing by ear, is that you get music theory lessons for free, all the time. Whenever you properly listen to music, and pay attention, you notice notes and chords as they come, and so it's impossible not to learn a little about ho music works just from hearing music played. Of course, I'm not saying you hear every single note of every complex piece of music, and the more complex and more unfamiliar music is, the less of it that you pick up just from listening, but of course, that's where the practice part comes in!


Does this happen with you guys and how come you fix that 'missing' piece?

I think it happens to everyone, each on their own level. For both musicians and composers, that's mostly what musical growth is about: Figuring out how to express the music in your head on your instrument, or capture it in the form of notes to be written down and played by musicians, in order to express what's in your musical mind. "Find the missing pieces" and capture them, as it were.

There are lots of ways to "fix it". As a musician, ultimately everything you learn about music is to facilitate your ability to express yourself eloquently through your instrument.

Having said that, ear training, as mentioned by @Xasel is a very important skill.

Another very good thing to do in your case is to copy on your instrument parts that you like from recordings. Get down that lick or solo that you like and absorb it - understand how it sounds and how it works when you play it. When you do your own thing, those memories will be there to help you navigate.

Transcribing, which requires the ability to read and write music well, can also help you a great deal, as many have attested to.

Maybe my lack of training and knowledge of music theory the reason?

(Pretty obvious, but perhaps worth saying anyhow: Training and theory are not necessarily the same thing. You can be trained in how to play without learning much theory. )

I don't want to open a whole can of worms by delving into your question on theory, but training and knowledge of theory certainly won't hurt you if you don't let them get in your way (take them as guidelines, not rules) but they don't guarantee anything either.

The only guarantees are your innate talent (since you intuitively know that "something is missing" you clearly have musical talent) and your motivation to leverage that talent.

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