Wrong Note? There Are No Wrong Notes!

This lesson is about dealing with the consequences, intended or not, of note choice you make when jamming over a chord. Knowing about this should make you more relaxed, and less constrained in exploring new ideas.

Ultimate Guitar
I believe that from day one, you as a player should be made aware of the feelings created by various note combinations. After all, if music doesn't stir up emotions, then it can seem very empty, pointless even.

As you're about to see and hear, there's no such thing as a wrong note, but there are good and poor choices of how to introduce a note that sounds edgy (clashy) against other notes present (a chord), and what to do once and edgy note is sounding (how to follow it up).

This is extremely easy to get to grips with and requires no theory. Once you've absorbed this lesson, you will ready to experiment with a few simple melodies against the chord. Let's go.

What's in a Chord Shape?

The sound flavor produced by a chord shape depends on how far apart the involved pitches are from each other. With a lot of chord shapes one pitch (known as the chord root) stands out more to the ear than the rest. This is certainly true for major and minor chords. In general, depending on the "distances" between pitches (for example, two frets apart or three frets apart), very different sound flavors are created by a shape.

Look at these three chord shapes below. The left and middle chords are identical shapes, just located at different parts of the neck. The right shape is clearly different, so it will have a different flavor (regardless of where it's located on the neck)

What Happens When You Play a Pitch Against a Chord?

Now suppose you play some pitch at the same time as some chord. This pitch either coincides with one the pitches in the chord shape, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, effectively you are creating a different chord shape, as your pitch adds to original shape. Hence you are now creating a new sound flavor. For example, suppose you play the pitch labeled "b6" below. Obviously you individually cannot play that "shape," but between you and a friend, you collectively can.

Ok... so you can create a new sound flavor by playing something not in the chord. We'll come back to this shortly, as this is very powerful.


Step back for a minute. How many songs have you heard, even for the first time, where you're anticipating where the melody is going? What about when you expected something, but instead you heard something different? This is messing with your emotions one way or another. Yes, but why? How? Music psychologists are still struggling to answer "why." But the "how" is well understood and simple to grasp.

Central to this is the concept of building and releasing musical tension. In essence, this boils down to what notes get played together (on one or more instruments or vocalists), and when in time this occurs in relation to the beat. For this lesson, I'm going to ignore rhythm (the beat) to concentrate on this idea of musical tension created by two or more notes.

Sound Flavors and Tension. Wrong Note?

Put another way, we're talking about sound flavors again. Some are very jarring to the ear, very edgy... they demand being changed to something less edgy, or even not edgy at all.

This is where we can run into trouble and get accused of using a "wrong note." The real issue is when we create an edgy (tense) sound (coming to this in a minute), if we then just stop dead (go silent), we leave the listener hanging on to this impression that something has just gone wrong, maybe badly wrong.

This problem especially occurs with a beginner, because (s)he's unaware of how easy it is to create this edginess in the sound, this tension in the sound, to literally create tension in the listener, and then not know what to do about it when it happens.

Tension and Chord Shape

Beginner chords (which are also the foundation of millions of songs) either create no tension in their own right (major and minor chords) or a little (seventh chords, like G7).

Unfortunately, as a moth is drawn to the light, the beginner, when experimenting jamming over a chord, is often lured to a pitch precisely one fret above a pitch in the chord shape. Or one fret below.

Now, when this happens, the beginner usually recognizes an unholy din has resulted, and reacts by stopping playing (possibly with help from any audience nearby!). This last act is where lies one of the big problems. Worse, the beginner doesn't stop and hangs on the offending note.

Where the offending note is one fret above the chord root it can feel like someone screeching chalk down a blackboard. Not at all nice. What to do?

Step 1

The first thing is to know, really know, the chord shape involved... precisely where it is played on the guitar. You should be able to draw a sketch of it correctly. Ideally you want to shut your eyes, and visualize it on the neck. This way, you know exactly where the pitches in the chord are located.

Step 2

Consciously choose to play one of the chord pitches while a friend (or recording, or software) plays the chord a few times, letting it ring and fade. Listen to the sound, observe how you feel. With a major or minor chord, no tension is created.

Step 3

Consciously play one fret higher than each of the pitches in turn in the chord... by remembering the chord shape first, to select each this new pitch. For example, refer back to the above diagram of C major. Get your friend to play the C chord, and you play the labeled "b6" pitch, one fret above the chord pitch labeled "5". Experiment with the duration of that pitch, listen, and observe how you feel. You have just successfully created a whole lot of tension. Especially try playing one fret above the chord root (the "1")... that sound flavor is hugely tense.

Step 4

Do the same again, except this time play one fret below each of the pitches in the chord. Again, listen and observe. Compare against playing one fret above. General consensus is that the sound labor created one fret below a chord pitch is less tense than playing a fret above.

Step 5

Repeat steps 3 and 4, but this time, having played a fret higher or lower than a chord tone, follow up with the chord tone, and let that ring for a bit. How does this sound and feel? Most folk agree that the feeling of tension dissolves, has been released, when that chord pitch appears. You've just released tension.

All About Contrast

Psychologists tell us that the brain has a short-term memory (for dealing with stuff that lasts a few seconds to a minute or so) and long-term memory. The short-term can only deal with a few things, and consequently it tends to latch on to the first and last items of something that has briefly happened.

In music, the first (long) note heard after a period of silence will stand out more. The last note before silence will also stand out. In a run of notes, the highest one and lowest one may stand out (depends how long a run this is).

So, usually it's a good idea to avoid tensions at the beginning and the end of a run of notes.

A note with longer duration in the midst of a run of shorter duration notes will stand out more.

The bigger a gap between two consecutive notes, the more both of them stand out

As you get into rhythm, you'll also find that notes that start on a strong beat stand out more.

Therefore, creating tension at these points will seem even more tense, whereas at other points this will reduce the tension effect. For example, referring back to the above figure, if you play the "5," then a fret above that, the "b6," then a fret above the solid red circle, and stop, this will create eye watering contrast and tension against the C chord.


  1. Deliberately play a tension tone against a chord, then release it. Try this a few times in succession.

  2. Listen how it feels if you follow one chord tone immediately by another.

  3. Then try a chord tone followed by the tension note of another chord tone, then the release of that tension note.

  4. Also try jumping from one chord tone's tension note straight to another chord tone's tension note, then release. Does that sound much more "jarring" to you before the release... this isn't usually done.

Take Away

Begin to realize there is no such thing as a note you must never play. There aren't "wrong" notes ... there are only good and bad ways to handle tension and release against chord pitches. (There's more to it than this, such as with pure melodies, that's another similar story). Don't be afraid!

At this stage, you have the beginnings of a framework for note choice against a chord, just using visualization of the chord shape to find these choices. In fact, we have just explored using nine of the possible twelve notes that could be played against a simple major chord.

12 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Huh, an explanation that kind of explains from the listener aspect rather than the player aspect. That's a great approach which I assume can be used in other theory areas as well.
    Hi ... this is just observations about how nearby tones interact, and is independent of instrument. But it also hopefully offers guidance on sorting out when things sound wrong, just needing awareness of beginner chord shapes initially, until later (or ever) that an understanding of theory is developed.
    Does nobody proofread these articles on UG? Great article, but a lot of tension got built up by the jarring lack of proper grammar.
    At last ... a comment that's not about earning $5M a week from my home computer : Glad you liked the article. Yes, I did proof read it a couple of times, but unfortunately it's easy to make mistakes. However, I'm not sure I agree that the article is lacking proper grammar throughout. Out of interest, which bit really hit a nerve? I'll watch for that ... may be a UK/US thing?