How to Learn Music

Having rescued my main guitar from the cellar a few months ago, after 5 or so years of hardly playing it at all, it's been amazing for me to see how quickly it all comes back. The fingers know where to go. I used to play a lot, having started at about age 15 and then playing off and on for about 20 years after that. Never hours and hours a day, just here and there when I felt like it and had time.

When you learn an instrument it can be difficult to know how to go about it. Often you'll have a teacher who has their own particular views and methods. I did that for more than 10 years with piano, turning up once a week to be whacked with a ruler for bad hand position and for not having practiced. (No complaints from me, I much preferred that direct "that's crap" approach to being mollycoddled.) The scales and other 'exercises' were always boring though. Much more fun to learn the pieces or songs.

It's only now looking back I realise that this is how I made rapid progress with music - by learning to play songs. I fiddled with scales and modes and chord progression theory for a while, but it's like cutting your toenails - seems necessary but is pure drudgery at the same time. I'm now not convinced it's necessary to learn scales and modes and other aspects of music theory to become a good musician. You can pick up guitar magazines sometimes and see sad, desperate letters from readers saying "OK, I've learned all the scales and modes and progressions, now how do I improvise?". A bit arse-end about. It's definitely interesting stuff to know, sometimes, and there are no real absolutes in life, so you never know when it might be useful. As Tuck Andress once sort of said, learn everything there is to know, but never be a slave to any of it.

A few weeks ago I talked about counterpoint - here. Counterpoint is an example of fascinating theory, but it was most fascinating to me because it allowed me to move away from the theory towards an easier understanding of how to make good music. Why counterpoint is for me the highest from of music, or of any art, is because it reconciles melody and harmony. It gets rid of the distinction between them. Melodies make harmonies, and vice versa.

Not long ago I suddenly realised this applies to guitar too. Having been a fan of fingerstyle guitar for years, because it allows you to play both melodies and harmonies (chords), as well as rhythms, all at the same time, one day I was watching the genius of the art, Tommy Emmanuel, and it suddenly hit me that great fingerstyle players just play chords, and pick the melodies out of those chords at the same time. They don't make a distinction between the two. When I was growing up and hadn't directly watched many fingerstyle players, I used to work out the melody first and then try all sorts of contortions with my hands to then retrofit the chords and rhythms around that melody. But then when I got to watch great fingerstyle players in action, their hand on the fingerboard didn't move much at all, a lot of the time, and I noticed they were just playing chords and doing all the other stuff from within those chords.


Here's an extended clip of Emmanuel showing how it's done, at the highest level. You'll hear a profusion of beautiful music, but if you watch his left hand at work his individual fingers are not actually flying around all over the place, most of the time. They're mostly just fingering chords.

Back to learning to play songs. If you learn full songs, you immediately train your ear and whatever else in you that is responsible for music to hear melody and harmony, intertwined, within the context of a full song. Many players might think that just learning songs means you won't end up being able to translate what you learn in a song into other music you might want to play - it won't allow you to improvise, for example. But if you do learn songs you'll find that's not true. Learning songs teaches you what no amount of scales and theory can, how to directly hear the relationships between notes and harmonies, and their relationship to what you're doing with your hands on the instrument. You don't need to 'think' at all, your hands start to immediately know the patterns corresponding to the sounds you hear and want to play.

The most obvious other reason to learn to play songs is that songs is what you and others most want to hear you play! So you build up a repertoire, learning music this way. And it's the most fun thing to do as well - you can't lose. It will also teach you to feel the 'groove' in music, because you'll know when you play and listen to a song whether it has that essential groove.

Personally I recommend you learn fingerstyle, if you want to play guitar. To me it's not just another style, it's the essence of guitar playing. Traditionally people make a distinction between rhythm and lead guitar players, with rhythm guitarists mostly playing chords and lead guitarists melodies or 'solos', although most good lead players will also play some rhythm guitar. Fingerstyle does both at the same time, and throws in percussive effects and other little groove elements for good measure.

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