So I was a (mostly Funk/Jazz) bass player for a long time, and as a bass player, I had a strong understanding of music theory. The reason that I had such a strong practical/intuitive understanding of music theory on the bass was because intervals between notes on the bass is always clear when playing a song. For example, a perfect fourth from any note is always one string over on the same fret, no matter what note you are playing. This made it really easy and fun to improvise chord progressions because you don't have to change your fingering to play the same chord type or the same scale type on the bass.

Then I started to learn piano, and I found it really frustrating because, although I know the theory, improvisation is extremely difficult for me still because "seeing" the intervals and the scale patterns/chord patterns on a keyboard is much harder than "seeing" them on a fretboard.

I have been practicing "seeing" the pattern for a chord/scale for a few months now, and although I have gotten better at it, I still find that I am way too slow to do live improv of chord progressions (which I could do on the Bass) because of the nonuniform nature of the piano. It is difficult to keep track of quick scale changes and to immediately identify the pattern for a chord/interval jump in the same way I would be able to on the bass, because the fingering is different for every root note. Seeing chords and inversions is equally as hard as a result.

So my question is this: do pianists actually memorize the note names of every single chord/scale (e.g. memorize Db Major7 Add13 is Db F Ab Bb C) and think about that while improvising/playing live? Or are pianists able to "see" the chords and intervals by quickly being able to "see the pattern" like you would be able to on the bass? If its the latter, then what are some things I can do to get faster at "seeing the patterns" of chords and scales?

  • 2
    To an extent, you have provided an answer. You played bass for years, piano for a short time. Were it the other way round, you may be asking the same question vice versa., Time's a great healer, and it's also good for reinforcing things. Hence - much more playing/practice!
    – Tim
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 7:24
  • 1
    To use the common cliche, Why Not Both? Commented May 10, 2018 at 15:16
  • 2
    This comes from practice. Finding intervals on the piano is not hard, and whether you use note names as an intermediate is up to you. At some point, it becomes "second nature". Get used to practicing everything in every key (especially if doing jazz). I know no better shortcut than actually playing songs in all keys... Commented May 10, 2018 at 15:25

6 Answers 6


A few hints :

  • Get used to practicing everything in every key. This is very hard at first, but the sooner you get used to it, the better, and it pays off very quickly. Especially for jazz.
  • Practice voicings, not chords. Try to memorize what function each note of the voicing has (eg. 3rd then 7th then 9th) rather than the name of the note, and what interval go between them. The whole interplay between names of notes, name of chord, intervals between the notes, etc will settle automatically with experience.
  • Being able to quickly add eg. a b9, a 13 or a #11 to a chord is very useful, so you want to practice this too, and whether you need to find the name of the note as an intermediate step (as opposed to "seeing" the interval on the keyboard) is up to you. Also, tricks like upper structure triads require you to actually know how to find intervals quickly. Keep in mind that this becomes second nature with practice, so do whatever works for you.

As to your question : "do pianists actually memorize the note names of every single chord/scale", I'd say yes and no. Of course, any decent pianist can name you the notes of chords they play in real time. But as you get better, you don't really think of the name of the notes (at least most of the times), you just "play" them.


I suspect many keyboard players see it 'a bit of both' ways - After all, the nonuniformity of the layout gives you reference points to help you see what note name you re playing, and despite the layout being a little bit kinky, it's still basically linear, and the intervals are still basically there in front of you too.

I never really considered myself a keyboard player - I just 'had' one that I used to input midi and work out the chords of tunes - but I did get quite good at seeing the intervals on keyboard and being able to transpose the same piece to different keys.

I think part of the reason for this was that when I was learning songs, I always consciously tried to think of the chord roots as intervals from the tonic, rather than in absolute terms what their names were. So every chord I hit was basically reinforcing where these intervals were in different keys.

The skill I noticed myself improving at was always being able to instantly spot a minor third, a major third, or a perfect fifth from any note - and of course an octave is easy, and using those reference points as a scaffolding, it's fairly easy to pick out all the other intervals.

So I guess one exercise you could do would be something that would reinforce that - play parallel thirds and fifths up and down the keyboard, so your hands start to get the necessary 'sea legs' ('keyboard fingers'?) to cope with the slight undulations in the layout.

Another would be to choose a piece that has a fair few of the chords diatonic to a key, and just practice playing it based on each of the 12 possible different tonics.

If you are learning to read the dots too, you could also try to do some interval identification exercises - the layout of the staff corresponds to the piano keyboard well enough that learning to relate absolute positions to intervals on paper should help you with the same skill that you need to do it on the keyboard.

Do give it time - perhaps I'm a slow learner but I always found it took a few years for these kind of things to really bed in!

  • I personally think of notes as letters, intervals and finger numbers (for some odd reason) Commented May 10, 2018 at 15:43

I think you could ask the same question your self with bass. If somebody asks you the same question about bass, how would you answer?

If somebody asks me the same question about my instrument, I would say "everybody does things in different way, but everything comes with repetition and practice - that is the same for everybody".

Since you have very strong bass background and good understanding of music theory, it will probably come a lot sooner, but, you know, you just have to practice a lot and find the pattern that works for you - just like you did when you learned bass in the beginning.

For more direct answer

  • Yes, a lot of pianists practice scale and chord everyday to master those different fingering for different keys and chords, so those thing do not become problems during performance.
  • Pianists see the patterns also - it is just more complicated because how black keys and white keys structures, which makes fingering pattern more complicated in a relative way.
  • Get the code and scale patterns (you can find tons if you google them) and practice.
  • I've never fully understood how knowing the fingering for a particular scale helps much when performing a piece in the same key.
    – Tim
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 11:09

I think part of the issue might be that you're playing an instrument that doesn't require a large amount of difference between different keys. I mean, if I ask you to play some music written in D, but play it in Eb? You're simply sliding up a bit on the strings. But on a Piano, playing something in D versus Eb is worlds different, especially for someone relatively new. Suddenly, instead of the 3rd and 7th being sharps; the root, fourth, and fifth are now flats. That's quite a difference on the hands and how they'll pluck out notes!

One of the best ways of dealing with this difference is getting in practice on playing songs in different keys. Take a relatively simple song that you understand on a theoretical level - you know the chord progression and relative locations of the notes - and practice playing it in different keys - especially keys that aren't similar to the one you're familiar with it in (you don't get a lot of credit playing a song in C in the key of G, since all you have to do is sharp the 7th.) Then, after awhile, it becomes second nature - you're not actively thinking "Ab + C + Eb = Ab Major Chord" - you're simply thinking "Ab chord" and your mind/fingers make the connection for you.


As a pianist, I read and play more through recognizing patterns. I know the feel of the piano and where the notes are in relation to each other. You have to teach your hand what the spacing feels like. Practicing is the only way to get this, just like on any instrument. However, there are things you can do to help things along.

  1. Play all your chords in all positions. Start with triads, then get more complicated. Since you know theory, you will know the interval structure of the different inversions. You could start by doing this with a song you are trying to learn. Just break it down one chord at a time. Why not start with a blues progression to keep things easy? Really get to feel those dominant 7 and minor 7 chords in several different keys before doing something more complicated.

  2. Play lots of different kinds of scales. Again, try blues in several different keys.

  3. Play your scales raising the size of the interval each time. For example, 1-2-1-3-1-4-1-5-1-6-1-7-1-8-1.

  4. Play parallel intervals up and down the keyboard in half-steps. Do this with every kind of interval. Figure out what is the easiest fingering to get from one to the other.

  5. Look at a Hanon book. There are several exercises related to these in the back.


I was trained to read numbers. Although difficult at first, it becomes easier with age. The benefit of reading numbers is that you can sight transpose in any key. For instance, "Joy To The World" is 87654321 56 67 78. Go ahead, try those numbers in any key. Not only can I read many songs in any key but, anything I hear, I can instantly play. Whereas, letter readers, well, letters are absolute. Letter readers are somewhat "musically illiterate."

Reading numbers also makes memorization much easier since the ear takes over half of the cerebral duty. Through a lifetime of osmosis, I can look at music and see the patterns but my fingers are always thinking in numbers.

I listened to a church organist hunt and peck "Happy Birthday" the other day and on the third "birthday" she fumbled for the correct note. I was thinking "It is the octave, the fifth of the scale. Can't you hear it?" Guess not. Musically illiterate.

Although, the greater question is why did she think we needed accompaniment for "Happy Birthday?"

  • Don't ever see 'music' written like that where I am. Where's the timing?
    – Tim
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 11:10
  • It is not but you can "see it that way." If you see CEG in the key of C, I see 135. In the key of F i'd see 579. In the key of C, C is one. In G, G is one, etcetera. It requires knowing all keys and their numbered pitch. Then, you just see it that way. Commented May 12, 2018 at 14:01
  • Mary Had A Little Lamb can be read by the letters but, if you see the numbers instead of the letters, you can play it in any key. Here, try it by starting on the third of any key: 3212333 222 355 3212333322321 The hard part is relearning to read numbers instead of letters. Commented May 12, 2018 at 14:03
  • So, when you come to a tune with say, a two octave range, the numbers go up to 15? Starts to get unwieldy. And let's say we're in C, but the tune starts on the G below C. Could that be -2..?
    – Tim
    Commented May 12, 2018 at 14:29
  • I don't think there is an official pedagogy for this. It is how my first teacher taught me. I only go as high as a 13th but often when I cross octaves, I will think in terms of kybd range: Sub-contra, contra, great, small, one lined, two lined . . . five lined. Predominately, your EAR tells you that you are changing octaves and starting numbers anew. I don't delineate much more than an 8va that often because my ear still hears a sixth, but an 8va higher, for instance. So, if needed, I will think 6(1) or 6(3) aka A1 or A3. But, mostly regurgitate octaves. Commented May 14, 2018 at 10:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.