The great banjo quiz

Used to be, I was a little sponge. Tell me something and I’d remember it. Teach me to spell a word (we used the See It, Say It, Spell It method at Fairmeadow Elementary in Palo Alto) and I pretty much had it nailed. And it was fast and easy to retrieve, too.

Those days are gone. I don’t know if it’s the crowd of stuff in my brain, or maybe constant distractions interrupting the process of transitioning something into long term memory, or what. But nowadays, memorizing is a real challenge. And there’s a lot of memorization and retrieval involved in learning the banjo. Things like where all the A notes are or which string in a particular chord is the root note.

I wondered what other people have said about the best way to learn things.

The Knowledge of London

Anyone who wants to be a licensed cabbie in London has to take written and oral tests to prove they know 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks and points of interest, along with the shortest legal route for 320 sample runs and a quarter-mile circle at each end of the runs. It takes years to master the knowledge. For example, one native Londoner spent 5 years on it, and according to this National Geographic article, every day he would recite at least 30 of the 320 sample runs, working his way all the way up through the list and then starting over. “Knowledge boys and girls” – people who are learning The Knowledge – ride around London on scooters with maps attached, as shown in the introductory video on this official website.

Thankfully, I don’t have nearly as many things to memorize. How does this Herculean effort apply to playing the banjo?

  • Reciting and repetition – Daily review of the facts I’m trying to memorize, and going back over them later on, will help with retention and ability to retrieve the information.
  • Hands-on experience – Applying the facts in the real world of the physical banjo, like the Knowledge students on scooters, will make them more meaningful and useful.
  • Testing and retesting – Testing myself on paper and in person (trying to play a new piece from musical notation or guitar chords) will show what I still need to work on.


This Lifehacker article explains a bit about how the brain reacts to learning. You’re aiming to increase the number and strength of connections between neurons, and to build myelin that speeds up the signals. To achieve this:

  • Productive failure – Force yourself to learn without help (finally, my beloved trial and error approach is vindicated!). This is the principle followed by Project Euler (see this Atlantic article about it), which gives you progressively harder problems that you figure out how to solve using math and computer programming. Confusion and struggle help you learn better, because you’re doing more thinking, processing more deeply, and maybe invoking those emotions that make things stick. You end up remembering what you learned better, and being able to apply it more flexibly to new problems. On the banjo, I can apply this by figuring out a song on my own. Right now I’m learning The Sound of Silence from a guitar book, figuring out how to use the chords as a structure, find and play the notes, and add banjo type embellishments.
  • Distributed practice – This is that reciting and repetition idea from the cabbies. Spread it out over time, don’t try to cram it all into one concentrated session. Mix it up (this editorial explains it). For banjo, this means even if I feel like I know where all the D chords are and am working on the A notes, I should mix D chords into my practice sessions.
  • Sleep –  Solidify what you learn: have a nap after your practice, or practice right before bed. Here’s a very cool infographic about how to nap, if (like me) you aren’t naturally a napper.
  • Retrieval practice – Testing, in other words. If you practice retrieving information, it will be more accessible, and you can use it when you need it.

Deliberate practice

At first I thought this didn’t fit here – it seems more relevant to learning to play better than to memorizing facts. But experiential learning, where you learn by doing, through deliberate practice – applying your skills – connects what you’re learning to real world tasks and puts it in context, which forms bonds in your brain so you learn better.

I wrote about this idea in June 2016 (Practicing better). There’s lots more information out there, like this violinist’s article that is eerily precise in its description of how I’ve usually learned to play new songs (play it through to figure out the fingering and chords, maybe taking some notes, and then playing little chunks over and over and over till muscle memory takes over).

The violinist recommends:

  • Limit practice time so you can stay focused. Could be 10 minutes, could be 60.
  • Practice at your best times of day (Cal Newport says twice a day is best).
  • Use a notebook to plan practice, keep track of goals, and record discoveries.
  • Stop and think of other approaches when something isn’t working.
  • Use a problem-solving model to stay on task (define problem, analyze it, generate and test solutions, implement and monitor). It’s easy to slip back into rote mode.

The Piano Practice Assistant provides some concrete advice about this:

  • Use explicit, specific goals, like “play this passage without stumbling.”
  • Practice at a speed where you’re just barely not making mistakes.
  • Monitor with recordings to find ways to improve.

And finally, a USC study says to mix up your practice routine, so you’re solving the problem anew every time and thus processing it more deeply than if you just keep repeating the same movement. This also has the advantage of fighting boredom. Metro Music Makers suggests five things to do:

  • Branch out and try something new, like a different music genre.
  • Practice with a backing track to accompany you.
  • Learn a different instrument’s part.
  • Get out of your usual practice space.
  • Go back to the classics, the first things you learned, and try to improve.

Developing the ultimate quiz

I made myself a set of flash cards a while ago. Here’s what I covered:

  • Major chords. What notes are in them (1, 3, 5 based on the naming note’s scale), where the root note is, the distance between each shape as you go up the neck (3 frets from bar to F shape, 4 to D shape, and 5 back to the next bar shape), and then for each of the 8 major chords, where they are and which note is on which string for the first 3 inversions. An inversion is a fancy name for other versions of the same chord.
  • Minor chords. The same stuff, plus how you get from a major chord to a minor chord (you flatten the #3 note, which results in different shapes depending on what major chord shape you’re working with).
  • Scales. What notes are in the major (whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half step) and minor (W-1/2-W-W-1/2-W-W) scales for the 8 named notes.
  • Seventh chords. Same stuff as for minor chords.

And then I made special flash cards for certain songs that had weird chords, like F# dim, and for certain practice routines, like 3-finger grabs up the neck of G-C-D or G-Em-C-D. I can think of other things I could make flash cards for, like picking patterns, musical notes, other types of chords, and little licks and embellishments.

Since I already have those cards, I’m going to use them, along with some of the principles summarized above, to develop the Great Banjo Quiz:

  • Schedule two daily 10-minute sessions for working on memorization
  • Divide the flash cards into groups
  • Study and quiz with one group at a time, and stick with that group until I seem to have it down. Read the cards, read them out loud, test by only looking at the cue side, and play the associated chord or whatever on the actual banjo.
  • Put the mastered cards into a separate deck. Shuffle the deck at the beginning of each session, and after every third card of the current group (the new stuff I haven’t nailed yet) pull a mastered card.
  • Log the daily plan, practice, and results. Modify the plan as needed. If it’s working, go ahead and make those other cards and work them into the plan.

How about you? Do you have any effective strategies for memorizing and retrieving? Please share them in the comments below.






Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.