Embodied Cognition, Sight-Reading & The Fretboard

How do you get a guitarist to turn down the volume? (Put sheet music in front of them!)

An old joke, but with the ring of truth. Guitar students do seem to struggle more frequently with sight-reading and notation than other musicians (Elmer, 2009Ward, 2011Beaumont, 2015; Stickford, 2003 p.66; Balistreri, 1995 p.3; Berard, 1998 p.31). Not being able to read well can be problematic, especially for students entering university-level studies, where technical proficiency is expected and required (Odegard, 2004). Since most instrumentalists seem to acquire a certain measure of facility early on (after all, jokes about the sight-reading ability of saxophonists are rare) – are there factors specific to the guitar that are at play?

Some ideas:

1. A late start. With the exception of classical music, most popular styles that guitar students want to learn (rock, pop, folk & blues) do not use notation (Ward, 2011; Elmer, 2009; Degner & Lehmann, 2003, Fraser, 2013). This can manifest in a lack of interest in the classroom when notation is presented (Ward, 2011; Beaumont, 2015 p.102; Stickford, 2003 p.66), and a reluctance from teachers to insist on it – especially since visuomotor transformations (chord charts, tablature and scale patterns) can result in more immediate musical results for both student and teacher. And if learning to read music and memorizing the fretboard can be considered neuroplastic processes that require considerable time investment, learning to read later in life may present difficulties.

2. Sight-reading research infrequently features the guitar. Hundreds of papers have been written regarding factors in sight-reading: personality, musicality, self-efficacy, amount and type of training – the list goes on. However, it is important to note that very little of this research features the guitar, so it is not known whether these factors operate differently for guitarists. Beaumont, 2015 writes that in his university-level class the guitarists were quick to learn how to read (despite a distinct lack of interest), but struggled to connect the notation with places on the fretboard (p.98-105).

3. Embodied cognition and fretboard layout. It can be argued that a musician’s performance is mediated by the instrument they play (De Souza, 2013). Essentially the physical features of an instrument will come before any musical considerations, in a concept called embodied cognition (for more on this idea read Iyer 1998 & 2002). To my mind,  the complex layout of the fretboard is the genesis point of many problems commonly encountered in guitar skill acquisition. James Sallis notes in his book The Guitar Players: “The guitar is, physically, a difficult instrument; to get past its cumbersomeness to the music inside requires considerable application. Things other musicians take for granted—legato playing, dynamics, even simple reading—can become awesome problems on the guitar.” (as quoted in Matone, 2005, p. 1)

As jazz guitarist Mick Goodrick wrote in his method The Advancing Guitarist, on the guitar “… the average note has 2.8 locations and 9.2 possible fingerings …” (p.93). In addition to this range and diversity, the guitar tuning system was initially designed to allow chords to be played with ease, which results in a non-symmetrical layout that is less intuitive for single note lines. The fretboard is a blank grid – not colour-coded and directional, as with the piano. Notes also ascend and descend in pitch counterintuitively to the direction of hand motion. As your hand moves ‘up’ the fretboard, not only is your hand actually moving towards the floor, but the pitches can ascend or descend depending on string choice. With this complex layout, the finger mechanics of which of the four fingers plays which note in any given context (often there are multiple options) is almost exclusively left to the performer, compounding the difficulty (Matone, 2005). Even classical guitar students, with their advantage of long notational experience, can struggle with certain aspects of fretboard navigation (McFadden, 2010).

4. Audiomotor connectivity and sequentiality. The non-sequential nature of the guitar fretboard could be significant, as some studies indicate that our brains process melodic information better when it is mapped sequentially or congruently to the physical device being used (ie. keys or buttons – left to right equals low to high) (Hoffmann, Sebald & Stocker, 2001; Stocker, Sebald, & Hoffmann, 2003Rusconi, Kwan, Giordano, Umilta & Butterworth, 2005Keller & Koch, 2008). Although it could be argued that many instruments are non-sequential like the guitar (for example, violin & cello) these instruments are classical and therefore practitioners have likely read notation from an early age – offering a compensatory advantage which is absent for most non-classical guitarists.

Illustration: Fretboard Harmony – Eddie Lang & Dave Berend, p.3

7 thoughts on “Embodied Cognition, Sight-Reading & The Fretboard

  1. Hi again, Amy. Another fascinating post for this scientist/musician reader. I happened to find your site because I was looking for reviews of Crowell’s “84 jazz guitar equations;” a web search led me here. Here’s a review of that book that you might find interesting:


    At the end (“Outro”) the author (a guitar instructor) muses about how concepts from human interface design relate to the difficulty of learning the fretboard. It seems possibly connected to some of your ideas here. FYI!


    1. Hi Tom – Yes! I read about 84EQ and actually used it in my experimental study last year (referenced in your comment on the ‘Cognition’ post). A really interesting method. The study that incorporated it did not indicate that there was any advantage to using this method for fretboard orientation (ie. learning the notes) – but it should be noted the study was a pilot and quite small (n=14) so further research is needed. The study also did not find an advantage to any method – and interestingly – practice time was not a factor either. The only (weak) correlation was that the more experience a subject had with the guitar (>12 years) the more quickly they learned the notes – even without prior knowledge of the fretboard. For example, Subject 9 with only 4 years experience with the guitar practiced the fretboard notes 8515 minutes over 16 weeks but improved only 15% overall. Although the evidence is inconclusive, – to me – it suggests that there may be cognitive or neuroplastic factors in fretboard memorization beyond which pedagogical method is used and the amount of short-term practice time. Thanks for your comment!


  2. Hi again, Amy. Thanks for the link to the report. I’ve only skimmed it (a bit buried with work right now)—really interesting work (and a *lot* of work!). With my statistician’s hat on: You’re right to be cautious re: the small sample size. It made me wonder what types of confounding could be going on. As a teacher (of statistics and physics, not music!), I see students with various learning styles; they respond differently to different types of instruction. With just 14 subjects, if there are a few learning styles, you only have a few subjects in each category, and all-subject results will average over those. If the ability to learn from a particular instruction style varies with age or experience, you have even fewer subjects per covariate value, making it even harder to know what to make of the null result. But, from the future directions section, it seems you’re aware of this kind of thing. To address it needs, not just a larger sample, but also ways of searching for groupings of subjects (e.g., partition models, hierarchical models, or just plain regression if you already have insight about learning styles).

    Regarding the plasticity hypothesis, what occurred to me instead (in light of the thoughts above) is that those with more experience may be able to learn from more than one instructional style. They may have started being receptive only to style A, but perhaps experience opens them to styles B and C, or somehow lets them map from B and C back to A. But this might be included by what you mean by “plasticity.”

    Speaking anecdotally for myself (over 30 yr playing, but never formally studying for a long period), I’ve noticed the following curiosity regarding learning a new song (which I strongly suspect reflects my amateur level of training): I’m not a good sight reader, but I’m good at reading tab. But whether I learn a new song from standard notation or tab, it takes me much longer to commit it to memory than if I work it out by ear. What I’ve discovered is that I can speed up the process by looking at my hands instead of just the page (i.e., I learn it by reading, but once I’m not struggling with the reading, I play a phrase or section, and then turn to the fretboard and watch myself play that section). It’s weird, because I have no trouble playing from written music without looking at my hands. But I can commit a tune to memory much more quickly if I watch myself play it (which happens automatically when I learn by ear). This suggests to me that I have a particular visual style of learning that wants, not just the visuals of printed music, but the sight of fingers on the fretboard. This is probably related to your concrete and physical instructional categories, but I need to read the report more carefully to try to see how. Anyway, just wanted to throw that observation out there. Very thought-provoking work! Cheers, Tom


    1. Hi Tom –

      Thank you so much for your response!

      I am going to respond in point form – just so I can keep my ideas organized.

      1. You mentioned the subject/exercise ratio as a confounding factor. I agree this could be an issue. In the study, I tried to control for this by having 14 individual variables (exercises), in randomized order across the 16 weeks including one control week where they had no exercise and the initial pre-test week. Each exercise was drawn from a pool of methods of fretboard memorization from ~30 pedagogy sources (books, videos, articles etc.). In running a tally of available materials, it does seem that an over-abundance of untested guitar pedagogy could be a contributing factor to the problems of guitar students (as evidenced by the work by Odegard, Elmer, Berard etc.)

      2. You mentioned musical experience and learning styles as a confounding factor. Again, I completely agree – and difficult to control for! I administered three questionnaires for musical experience, self-efficacy and motivation (as May, 2003 and others have found these to influence acquisition of jazz skills). As before it is hard to draw anything conclusive from such a small sample size and certainly much more work needs to be done. Appendix 6-7 has all the questionnaires and results.

      3. You’ve gone beyond my knowledge with the statistical models! My Master’s was in music composition so I do rely on the expertise of others for assistance with stats. That being said the reliability of the evidence is so important – and I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on statistical analysis in this particular field.

      4. Regarding your anecdote and the plasticity question (as I feel they are related).

      My research has started to lean very heavily towards visual cognition – seeing the fretboard as a blank grid onto which perceptual patterns are projected by the performer (akin to chess players and the chess board). Because the grid is blank – external representations (sheet music / tablature) and internal representation (motor memory, perceptual patterns) and their mismatch could be factors in how well or poorly we play.

      My next article will be looking at this topic of visualization and the guitar fretboard – in particular centering it around (Zhang 1997) argument’s that external models of representation influence how we perceive objects or ideas. So essentially in watching your hands as you memorize a piece you are strengthening your internal representation of the fretboard (how it feels/looks to play). In reading AND playing, you are working with two representations – external and internal – and engaged in a translation task, which potentially increases cognitive load.

      Regarding the plasticity idea – in the initial paper I was thinking of the guitar as an object – (thinking of (De Souza, 2012 and others) ie. that the features of an instrument come before any musical considerations). If you are familiar with how the guitar looks and feels on a deep level (even if you don’t have explicit knowledge of fretboard notes) acquiring that extra layer of information might be easier. This familiarity may be only built over years – not weeks. That is still very much a question though.

      Anyhow – I am only at the beginning of fleshing these ideas out! Thank you again for writing – I am delighted to hear any comments you have re: the research or just guitar in general. So great to make your acquaintance in the virtual world.


  3. Interesting and thought-provoking. Your cite of Mick Goodrick’s observation is, I think, right on target.

    Anecdotally, training in sight-singing provides guitarists with the ability to vocally reproduce a musical line, but that doesn’t generally translate to being able to reproduce that on the instrument, as you noted.

    Here is a hypothesis – which needs far more rigorous testing than the informal observations I’ve done: The ability to translate between vocal reproduction of musical lines and reproduction of the identical line on guitar stems from degree of physical familiarity with the instrument, where ‘physical familiarity’ corresponds (correlates? not sure) to cognitive adaptations to basic patterns and behaviors on guitar; these adaptations mediate and acts as a multiplexer for audiomotor activity.

    (“Multiplexer” = networking device which combines multiple signals – analog/digital – into one line, which helps reduce complexity of data tx and allows for transmission of unlike data over a single channel. I’m sure there’s a better metaphor in the cognitive science lexicon for this behavior, but I’m afraid I don’t know it).

    “Physical familiarity,” or “basic patterns,” practically speaking, translate to the innate understanding of ‘right behavior’ on an instrument – for example, left-to-right on a piano corresponding to pitch, or the rocking of a bow on a bowed instrument to address a specific string or string set. On guitar, these behaviors include but certainly aren’t limited to the following:
    1. Basic comfort with the instrument – new players hold the instrument awkwardly and often need instruction in proper ergonomics, much as horn players require training on embouchure. Even experienced players sometimes have methods of address to the instrument which hinder progress (holding the instrument too low for reasons of style rather than music, for example, which adversely affects wrist position and right-hand address).
    2. An understanding of how to reach relative pitches and correct physical behavior to access given pitch: ‘low pitch to high pitch’ corresponding to 6th-string to 1st-string movement and lower-fret to upper-fret movement.
    3. An ability to manage multiple sets of physical interval behavior – string pairs tuned in 4ths vs string pairs tuned in 3rds, and familiarity with the need to modify chord shapes and scale fingerings to accommodate the second- to third-string nonstandard interval.
    4. Practiced interval and scale patterns based on note relationships rather than specific notes – e.g., from a given note, knowing where to find thirds, fifths, sevenths, ninths, of varying degrees, et cetera, and ability to rapidly and intuitively find secondary relationships such as five of five and the like.

    This aligns, I think, with the ‘difficult instrument’ quote from Sallis, and credits audiomotor adaptations with improved sight-reading performance on guitar. As noted above, this is purely anecdotal, and is derived from non-rigorous observation of many students over long periods of time. That said, students who get some of the basics above seem more predisposed to succeed both with playing well and reading well.


    1. Hi Matt! Yes – I agree with yourself (and Sallis) that the guitar presents a physical (or biomechanical) as well as a cognitive problem for guitarists. Matone 2005 and Heijink 2002 & 2010 illustrate this with the issue of fingering. So many choices! Add to this the complex layout of the fretboard and as you say – there are multiple lines of information needing to be processed by the guitarist .. thank you for your comment!


      1. Thank you for a very thought-provoking article! You’ve provided a lot of evidence to rethink the core tenets of pedagogy. Certainly I will look for additional patterns in my students’ evolution to test some of what I’ve read.

        Thank you again.


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