Know Your Numbers!

Scale degree numbers, chord tones, chord numbers, intervals, chord extensions, measure numbers, string numbers, finger numbers – it’s a list long enough to make your head swim! But when you begin to understand what each of those numbers describe and make use of them in your playing and your communication with other musicians, the same list actually becomes quite small. How do you gain that understanding and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to recall the information once you’ve learned it?

The answer is simple: you use it. We often fall into the trap of thinking we really know something and we may even believe we will remember it, simply because we understand it in the moment. In fact, unless we log in sufficient repetitions and then call it up periodically after those initial repetitions, we will probably forget it quickly. You already know this, if you ever went to school! I’m sure you found that unless you have regularly used the information you learned, you forgot most or all of it within a few months (if not days of weeks!) of the last test you took on it. (For more on the topic of repetition in learning, see this post.)

This is a good time to commit to understanding and using some of  the numbers in the musical language. Here are some of the most common ones:


The string numbers (1 – 6) go from the highest in pitch (the thinnest string) to the lowest (the thickest one). It’s important to be clear on the correct number for each string, so make the effort to remember that the first string is the high E, not the thick string that is closest to your head!


The term scale degree refers to the note as it occurs in the scale: scale degree I is the first note of the scale, scales degree 2 is the second note of the scale, etc. Scale degrees are correctly notated with Arabic numerals and they may be topped with a “housetop.” ( ^ )


Chord tones are the notes of the chord as described in numbers and they are written using Arabic numerals. In the triad (the basic foundation of each chord), the chord tones are 1, 3, 5.


The term chord number refers to the placement of the chord as it occurs in the in the scale harmony. Chord numbers are most often used to convey chord progressions, the most common progression being I – IV – V. Chord tones are described using Roman numerals. Upper case Roman numerals describe major chords (I, IV, V) and lower case numerals are used for minor chords (ii, iii, vi).


If you have A Guitar Player’s Guide to Music Theory, you can benefit from doing the worksheets (repeatedly!) for the related topics. The worksheets cover every concept that is presented and I encourage you to make copies of the worksheets before completing them, so that you can use them again and again. Doing the worksheets repeatedly is the key to learning theory! Keep a stack in your car, at your dining table, beside your computer or anywhere you might find yourself with a few minutes to devote to furthering your musical education. And be sure to take worksheets with you when you travel! You will be amazed at how much you improve your understanding of music, just by spending a little time here and there completing worksheets. When you practice consciously, you improve!