learning music secret

Learn Classical Guitar Pieces Faster with this Secret Code

man_spying_with_shorthand_451Are you old enough to remember the days of shorthand? If not, let me fill you in.

After that, I’ll give you an easy “code” for learning your guitar pieces that will help you to master them more easily and more quickly.

Ah, the Old Days…

Shorthand is a special alphabet of characters that secretaries and transcribers used to quickly take dictation.

Think: 1950s, office, man in suit, secretary, man:”take down this letter!”, secretary whips out a pad and pencil and captures every single word that follows.

Sure, a handful of men probably knew how to write in shorthand, but it was primarily used by female secretaries.

Each little mark represented a sound. People who wrote with shorthand could transcribe entire conversations in real time. Then they could go back to their typewriter and type it out in full. It was very convenient.

This shorthand is pretty much dead now. We don’t really need it anymore. In fact, I am transcribing the rough draft of this article by voice transcription into the Evernote app on my iPhone sitting in a beautiful park overlooking a snowcapped volcano. Though I’m still in a three-piece suit. Just kidding.

Codifying Classical Guitar Music

“This is very simple and easy to use.”

In our music, it can sometimes be very convenient to use a type of shorthand to quickly jot down what the left hand is doing.

Often, the left-hand is playing some sort of combination of notes that resemble a chord. We may not know what chord it is, but each finger is on a different string, and it could be looked at as a chord or chord “shape”.

On the page, the music can look like a sea of notes. Thousands of black dots filling the page. This shorthand can help us to simplify sections of music into simple left hand shapes or positions.

These left hand chord shapes can be remembered using a simple combination of numbers.

This is very easy and simple to use.  I use this little shorthand notation in almost every new piece of music I am learning.  Of course I use other devices (such as theoretical analysis) as well, but this “code” is a great tool that requires no other knowledge.

This chord could be  written "XXO231".

This chord could be
written “XXO231”. Awesome!

Your Secret Decoder Ring:

In the “code”, there are six characters. From left to right, they represent the strings (low E on the left to high E on the right).

  • An X means that you do not play that string it all.
  • An O means that you play the string open, with no left-hand fingers touching it.
  • Numbers represent which fret is to be played.

That’s it.  Told you it was simple.

So…in a piece of music, this first measure

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 5.50.58 PM




becomes  simply:  “32000X”.

You can jot 32000X under that bar in your music and lump all those notes into one easy shape.  You still have to learn the right hand pattern, but the left hand is all set.

The downsides to TAB and shorthand chord notations

This shorthand, like other shortcuts to reading music (like TAB):

  • doesn’t tell you which finger to use, only where on the fretboard notes are be sounded.
  • doesn’t tell you the rhythm
  • doesn’t tell you the order in which to play the notes
  • doesn’t tell you anything about how loud or soft to play
  • doesn’t tell you anything about the mood or character of the music
  • doesn’t help your music reading skills

In short, it only tells you what notes are to be played and where.  Because of this, it is incomplete.  It is a tool to help you, not a complete package.  You still have to do the work.

How to use chord shorthand in your guitar practice

This could be written "6X564X"

This could be
written “6X564X”

There are many ways you can use this in your practice.

In arpeggio pieces, where the left hand is basically playing a chord shape the changes every measure or two, you can use this shorthand to quickly “map out” how your left hand will move. This is especially useful for the higher positions on the net if you are not completely comfortable reading standard notation in the higher positions.

Just jot down the “code” above or below the measure it represents in your music.  Easy Peasy!

Next, one of the best ways to memorize music is to explore the music from several different perspectives or directions.

Some common ones are:

  • Right-hand alone
  • Left-hand alone
  • Rhythm alone
  • Bassline alone
  • Melody alone
  • Theoretical analysis

There are countless others we could add to this list. And this shorthand chord notation is one of them.  Just as we may remember, “First I go to a G chord….Then I go to a D7 chord…..Then I go to this scale….”, we can also remember these shorthand chord abbreviations when the shape is wacky or when we don’t know the name of the chord.

We can simplify a vast ocean of notes into a couple of simple symbols.

But what about learning to actually read music?

“A professional is a person who has the right tools and knows how to use them.”

Of course, there are those that will insist that students should use the standard notation and become more comfortable reading notes all over the fretboard. I agree with this. It is an essential skill.

However, sometimes we just want to play the piece. If the standard notation is making it more difficult for us, then we have to balance improving our reading skills with getting the gratification from being able to play the piece.

And after all, one definition of a professional is a person who has the right tools and knows how to use them. This simple chord notation is a tool to help us learn music faster.

Quick Review

As a quick review, here are the basic rules:

  • From left to right, the six characters represent  notes on the six strings, from low to high.
  • X means you don’t play that string.
  • O means you play the string open, no notes fretted.
  • Numbers tell you which frets are played.

That’s it!

When you are learning a piece of music and come across a sea of notes, quickly jot down the chord shapes using this form, and notice how much faster you learn the piece.

Over to you: weigh in!

Do you have other forms of shorthand or code that you use when learning new music?

Have you “fired the secretary” in any other ways in your classical guitar practice?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

allen mathews classical guitar

About Allen Mathews

Allen Mathews learned guitar as an adult, and has been a full-time guitar teacher for almost two decades to students age 4 to 96.  He has taught classical guitar at Reed College and Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and has been a guest lecturer and clinician at schools and universities throughout the U.S.  Allen is often praised for his creative teaching abilities, and his dedication to helping adults learn classical guitar.  He has a popular Youtube Channel offering regular classical guitar tutorials, and has gained fans worldwide for his weekly emails and articles at ClassicalGuitarShed.com.

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