How to Memorize Musical Formulas and Theory

music theory for guitarists

If you’re struggling to remember musical formulas, or if you’re at, or have ever been to, Music College, it’s probably dawned on you that there’s a ton of information to digest as far as scale, arpeggio and chord formulas go—and pretty much music theory in general. I would often get frustrated and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff there was to memorize until I discovered the memory technique known as chunking. Let’s check it out.

What is Chunking?
If I ask you to memorize this number: 7492304975, and recall it in about five minutes, how would you do it?
Quite naturally, you probably started to break the number down into small chunks such as: 749-230-4975, or as a number: 7,492,304,975; these are both examples of chunking—breaking a piece of information down into 3 or 4 smaller chunks in order to memorize it. This is all around us in the form of serial numbers, phone numbers, company slogans (3 or 4 words—Just Do It), mathematical numbers, credit card numbers and so on.

Chunking Scale Formulas
Music theory contains an abundance of formulas and sequences that we can now break down into smaller chunks to aid memorization. Let’s take scale formulas; these contain sequences of around 7 bits of information. For example, the scale formula for the Lydian b7 scale is 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7, which can be chunked into:

1, 2, 3 | #4, 5, 6 | b7

You would say to yourself, “One, two, three | sharp four, five, six |flat seven”, so that it starts to sound more like a phone number than a linear sequence of numbers.  

Chunking Extended Chords
You probably find it easy to remember the intervals for major and minor triads, 1, 3, 5 and 1, b3, 5 respectively, as these are only one ‘chunk’. For extended chords, you simply build on the chunks you already know. For example, a Major7#11 chord contains the intervals 1 3 5 7 9 #11, which can be chunked to:

1 3 5 | 7 9 #11

Or a Minor 13th chord, which contains the intervals 1 b3 5 b7 9 11 13, can be chunked down to:

1 b3 5 | b7 9 11 | 13

Chunking Key Signatures
It’s useful to know the chords/triads that make up a key signature, but not in a linear sequence as you probably won’t be required to play them that way too often. I personally found it much more useful to remember them in groups of similar chords. Chunking’s best friend is categorization, so I group each key signature into major chords, minor chords, and the one that’s left over. For G Major, the chunking would be as follows:

G, C, D | Am, Bm, Em | F#° (1 4 5 | 2 3 6 | 7)

So, I have a chunk of major chords, a chunk of minor chords, and the odd one out. This may only work in my twisted brain, so feel free to find your own ways of chunking key signatures!

How to Memorize a Lot of Information
As you can probably imagine, this technique can be used to memorize stacks of information, and to do this you should follow this sequence:

Memorize the first chunk, memorize the second chunk, review them together, memorize the third chunk, memorize the fourth chunk, review them together, and so on.

I hope this has provided a useful tool to help you memorize these formulas, or at least feel less overwhelmed. Be sure to also check out the article, ‘How to See Music Theory on the Guitar Fretboard’.

About Graham Tippett 301 Articles
Compulsive guitar blogger and writer of many innovative guitar books.

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