Choosing Notes 3.1: Creativity, Ear Training & Literacy for All Musicians by M.J. Murphy - Read Online
Choosing Notes 3.1
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Are you a performer, teacher or student looking for new ways to approach sight-reading, chord construction or improvisation?  Are you stuck in a musical rut? Do you have gaps in your understanding of music theory? Are you interested in exploring new ideas for writing charts, playing by ear, composing, songwriting? No matter what instrument or style of music you play, this book will help you get to that elusive next level. 

The knowledge and talent we seek is already inside of us, but can only be unlocked when we decide to use the key. That key is simply our attention, nothing more, nothing less.

Choosing Notes is not a traditional music theory book; it is instead an excellent companion to one, because it focuses on the reasons the terminology, numbers, signs and symbols exist to begin with.

Whether you play guitar, piano, bass, flute, saxophone, or specialize in Classical, Country, Rock, Jazz or Pop, this book will help you discover your own unique, creative voice and inspire exciting new ways to learn, practice, and most importantly, perform with confidence on your chosen instrument in the real world.

Includes tips on: sight-reading, studying scores, composing tunes, songwriting, the secrets of chord symbols, modes, intervals, tuning to a recording, learning music by ear, memorization, transcription, learning riffs and solos note for note, stage presence, and the lost art of listening.

No matter what instrument or style of music you play, this book will help you get to that elusive next level. It is a synthesis of over thirty years of experience in playing, performing, and teaching, and is inspired by the author's belief that music itself will forever be our best and wisest teacher.

Published: Twilight Storm Media on
ISBN: 9781501462276
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Choosing Notes 3.1 - M.J. Murphy

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Copyright, 2014, M.J. Murphy

Twilight Storm Media

All rights reserved

Created in the United States of America

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in cases of digital copies for personal use, or in brief quotations embedded in critical essays or reviews.


06.27.2014 (3.1)


Excellence in Electronic Publishing

St. Louis, Missouri


To my friends, family and students.


This book is intended to get you thinking about music again. Remember how excited you were when you first discovered what a chord symbol really meant or how to read your first few notes? When something once mysterious and scary turns out to be easily understood after all, you start to get a sense of how powerful it can be to really comprehend how music works.

Musicians never stop looking for new ways to look at things. We are seekers. We read countless books on theory, technique and harmony. We search for interviews with our favorite artists and hang on every word for their secrets. We slog through books of scales and exercises with the hope that this next book will be the one that provides the missing piece of the puzzle and puts everything in perfect perspective. We listen for new sounds and techniques on recordings and on the radio hoping we can gain some new insight or inspiration for our playing.

We are all like a bunch of musical scientists looking for the one grand unifying theory that explains everything musical in the universe. With age and experience comes a certain wisdom and a hunch that maybe a musical theory of everything lies in its very simplicity. We think that if a simple music theory exists, it sure is well hidden in that maze of chord symbols, modes, scales and harmonic progressions.

The knowledge and talent we seek is already within us, but it can only be unlocked if we decide we want to use the key; and that key is simply our attention - nothing more or less. It is our curiosity and willingness to play the game. This is revealed in the famous Buddhist proverb, When the student is ready, the master appears. This statement does not refer to separate individuals. The student and the master are one and the same. The master waits patiently within each of us for the moment we become willing to acknowledge his presence.

The purpose of this book is to help you understand and apply three essential elements of music: literacy, creativity, and ear training. These three areas contain everything you need to be a successful musician: reading, writing, performing, transcribing, structure, memory, technique, composition, improvisation, listening skills, chords, scales, modes, intervals etc.

In the real world, a musician does not learn music theory in a strictly linear fashion. Like the roots of a tree growing slowly around rocks and obstacles, it is learned in stops, starts, detours, dead ends and occasional spurts of growth and insight we like to call epiphanies. But understanding complex concepts does require grasping basic concepts first. So even though it is true that we don't actually learn theory in linear way, our growth as musicians tends to follow a more linear progression, from beginner to master.

This is why we so often seem to hit plateaus, peaks and valleys in our careers. A rut means there is a gap in our understanding of something and so we stall. When we fill in those gaps we quickly accelerate. By keeping an open mind and working toward being well rounded we can streamline the process of bridging those gaps one by one.

If your understanding of theory is limited, this book will help you and inspire you to study further; if you are advanced in music theory, my hope is that you will benefit from the creative perspectives offered here. Either way, this is not just a book on theory; it is on how you can creatively and effectively apply that theory and make great music. Remember, the key to understanding is simply the light of your attention. Given this attention, the light will surely reveal the true master within.


From the moment we pick up an instrument we begin to dream about being an accomplished musician. Lucky for us all, there are many levels of accomplished. One thing is for sure, learning music never ends anyway, it ends up at a place where we can feel satisfied that we have achieved a certain level of success either professionally or as an amateur. Like the universe itself music is an ever expanding mystery. There are many areas of music that, no matter how far you have advanced, you will continue working on the rest of your life.

In the beginning, there are the facts and figures, nuts and bolts of learning the basics. This includes the core of what we call music theory, the knowledge of notes, chords, scales and intervals. These things can be learned for the most part by reading and studying about music theory. They are slowly but surely assimilated into our overall understanding of how music works. These mechanical and mathematical things become the givens of our music education. They are things every musician is expected to know. It is up to us to integrate these things and then do something creatively with these tools. A versatile musician continually and consistently develops and applies this knowledge by applying his or her individual creativity in the routine of daily practice, performance and teaching.

I hope you will consider this book to be a combination road map and checklist for achieving your goal to become a well rounded musician. At the very least, I hope it will be an inspiration towards that end. The chapters that follow are very different from a conventional music theory book as they examine the practicalities of being a musician in todays technological world. Our goal here is to get under the hood and explore some of the underlying logic that fuels all of this complex theory, and discover how we can use that information creatively in our roles as students, teachers, composers and performers.


Writing about music is like describing a tree to someone who is standing right next to you looking at the same tree. - Anonymous.

You may be familiar with the phrase theory follows practice. It is usually used sarcastically when someone is pontificating on and on about this or that explanation about why something is the way it is. When the constant questioning eventually gets annoying, someone may say, theory follows practice, as if to say, be quiet and get busy with your work! Sometimes the person doing the pontificating is yourself. As a beginning musician, how many times have you asked yourself questions such as, why is this called a minor chord? or how can the same note have two different names? You know that you should just accept the rules and names of things and get busy learning the piece, but you wonder, who made up all these names and rules anyway?

This pretty much illustrates the role of music theory. Theory comes after the fact. It has followed along behind the actual practice of music, like a bespectacled, lab coated scientist with a clipboard jotting down observations about how this chord is put together or why this note is wrong or that note is correct.

The first definition of the word theory in The New Harvard Dictionary of Music is:

Music Theory: The abstract principle embodied in music and the sounds of which it consists.

It goes on to explain that this was the original, scientific concept of music theory. It refers to the more physical examination of the properties of sound and vibration. Music theory for the early philosopher/scientists like Pythagoras was the study of physics and mathematics and how materials like tubes, strings, skins and reeds vibrated and produced harmonics. Later on, the dictionary explains that music theory became:

...the teaching of the fundamentals or rudiments of music...the contemplation rather than the practice of music.

This definition points towards a more artistic and performance based use for music theory: the ins and outs of how to create, play and relate to musical concepts such as technique on an instrument, harmonic progressions and compositional structure. This is largely the music theory that we know and study today. So it seems that yes, music theory is after all just like any other theory that tries to explain whats going on after the fact. My favorite illustration on the nature of music theory comes from something I once read (and is used at the opening of this chapter) Writing about music is like describing a tree to someone who is standing right next to you looking at the same tree. although I think this quote was aimed at music critics, it can apply to music study in a sense as well.

Despite the bad rap that music theory often gets for being so much jive talk, there is gold in them thar’ hills. Studying the ins and outs of music theory can open up whole new ways of looking at things and stimulate your creativity in exciting ways.

In this book, I draw a distinction between music theory and music literacy. I think they are two different things and should be treated separately. Music theory involves all the conceptual rules behind chords, scales and harmony and why things are the way they are, while music literacy refers to the ability to read and write music. They are closely related, but you can easily have one without the other. You can be extremely knowledgeable about music without actually being able to sight read or even play an instrument, and you can be an accomplished sight reader on several instruments and know very little about music theory.

Studying music theory is a lifelong endeavor. It is the scientific and theoretical part of music that can both inform and inspire it's art. This type of study doesn't have to be void of creativity. Creativity and imagination absolutely inform the science. This is how theories come into existence in the first place. It can take just as much creativity and imagination to come up with explanations for why something works as it does to compose a symphony, a Rock song, or a Jazz tune. The analysis can in turn inspire new forms of music. In this way, analytical theory and raw creativity can be seen as being complimentary - like two sides of a coin. It is in this new understanding that we are seeing an unprecedented coming together of the arts and sciences in the world today.

I highly encourage you to explore with equal passion both the art and science of music. The creative combination of these two areas can exponentially increase your overall awareness, technique, creativity, and musicianship.



Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. - Scott Adams


Creativity is the soul of the arts. It is the word we use to describe how an artist invents something new, whether it is music, poetry, prose or pictures. This newness is what we call creativity or originality. It represents the fact that we have not heard or seen anything