I just had to share this article. It’s a beautifully written account of one person’s journey through the study of music. It’s funny, insightful, and validating. I’m sure any musician will relate to many moments the author describes. Definitely worth the read!
This is a great video summarizing recent research into brain activity while in the act of playing music. With my students, I often compare playing music to driving two cars with manual transmission simultaneously. It’s no surprise that neurologists are finding evidence to support the fact that playing music is one of the best brain workouts you can do. Enjoy the video!
Who hasn’t heard of a metronome? They’re a common feature in any movie or TV show with a musician involved in practice, but many of us don’t know how to use them effectively. Learning to do so will make you feel like a super-hero!
Slow It Down
Whether you’re working on a vocal line, a drum fill, a chord change, or anything else you’ve got to find a metronome speed that’s comfortable. All too often, we try to play something difficult at tempo from the get-go and become frustrated after a number of failures. My students get tired of hearing the analogy, but teaching your hands new tricks on an instrument is very much like learning to drive stick-shift. Each separate motion needs to happen simultaneously yet stay perfectly synchronized in order for the engine to keep running. With a metronome, you can slow down to a speed that gives you time to think of each motion separately and execute them in order.
Break It Down
Often times, there are only a couple of measures in a piece of music that present problems. As you approach the trouble spot you probably feel your heart-rate pick up and hear that critical voice inside your head saying “don’t mess it up this time”. That’s natural and it happens to everyone. In order to get through those tricky parts you’ve got to isolate the spots that you can’t play fluidly. If you play a song all the way through and find yourself crashing and burning at the same point every time, you’re actually reinforcing the mistake. If, on the other hand, you practice just the passage that you can’t get through, you’ll end up discovering a strategy to make it playable. Repeating the one passage over and over again at a slow tempo trains you to use the appropriate techniques and execute each motion the same way every time.
There are plenty of things from daily life that we’ve all mastered through repetition, but it’s easy to take that for granted. Do you remember the first time you brushed your teeth? It was probably an awkward, uncoordinated mess. But through repeating that motion, you mastered it at some point and probably do it absentmindedly now. If you don’t believe me, try brushing your teeth with a different hand and see how it turns out. Learning to do something new on an instrument requires lots and lots of repetition, but not lots of time (like keeping your teeth shining). Short bursts every day work better than long infrequent sessions.
Build It Up
Once you’ve repeated your trouble spot enough at a slow tempo, you’ll be able to play it comfortably. However, getting in and out of it in context of the whole piece will probably still be a struggle. To fix this, you’ve got to practice moving beyond your trouble spot as well as transitioning into it. This new link will be solidified after, you guessed it: repetition.
I’ve called the system I teach to my guitar students Practice Rounds. Let’s say there’s a strumming pattern you can’t play. The first step is to find a metronome speed slow enough that you CAN play the strumming pattern with no mistakes. As you try and sync up with the metronome you can expect to make mistakes, but strive to play the pattern perfectly 3 times in a row. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to ratchet up the metronome speed. Sometimes you’ll be able to jump 20 bpm, other time 2 bpm will be a challenge. Repeat this process at whatever new speed you choose. Let yourself make all the mistakes in the world, but once you’ve played it perfectly 3 times in a row, you’re ready to crank up the metronome again. Finally, repeat the process at a higher tempo until you can play that strumming pattern 3 times perfectly. Finally, to reinforce the idea that you’ve improved, set the metronome back to the speed you started with and see how easy it feels. You’ve just completed one Practice Round. Doing this exercise for 5 mins a day will drastically improve your ability to play whatever you’re struggling with. As you practice each day, set the metronome a little higher than what you started with the day before and you’ll set a new record for yourself. Treat it like the game that it is and you’ll also find yourself losing track of time because you’re so immersed in the exercise.
In an age where we hear music predominantly through recordings, it’s easy to confuse a particular recording with the essence of a song. To me, any recording is like a brand new house. After all the months of choosing carpet, tiles, cabinets and colors, you’re left with the final product. However, the blueprint of the house defines the layout of the rooms, how many floors it has, the dimensions and shape of the house. The recording process is similar to the building process, but different words are used to describe each. Musicians casually use the terms “tune, “arrangement”, and “production” all the time, but what do they mean and how do they relate to one another?
What IS a song, anyway? The answer seems obvious, but you may have never stopped to think about the essence of a song. In my opinion, the song can be boiled down to three elements: melody, chords (harmony), and lyrics. Think hymns, lullabies, Christmas carols, patriotic songs. I bet it’s difficult to read the words “Oh, say can you see…By the dawn’s early light” without hearing the melody in your head (if you’re from the United States, of course). This is an example of a song in it’s purest form – a clear, unique melody tied to a set of lyrics. This is what the word “tune” really refers to. It’s like the blueprint of a house, laying out the shape and form of the song. Here’s an example of how powerful one person singing a song can be. Thousands of people sit silently, hanging on each note until they’re so moved that they start cheering and clapping.
That’s what a song REALLY is at it’s core, but there are a lot of ways to dress it up…
If a song is simply a tune you can whistle, a little jingle that sticks in your head, it seems pretty bare. There are infinite ways to add dimension and complexity to a song, though. Adding more instruments is the most common way to dress a song up. This is part of what the word “arrangement” means. Songs can be arranged for any set of singers or instruments, the same way a house can be made from any set of materials and colors. Here’s an example of The Star-Spangled Banner arranged for five male voices. The rich harmonies made possible by other singers add contrast and dimension to the tune. Moments making this especially clear include 1:03, 1:17, 1:26, and 1:37.
The next example (for choir and orchestra) illustrates the other part of what “arrangement” means. John Williams expands on the song’s basic form by adding a horn introduction (at 2:30), a musical interlude (at 4:28), repeating lyrics (at 4:48), and a musical conclusion (at 5:26). This is like building an additional room, or adding a deck to an old house. The sections of original music enhance the the form of the song while the large ensemble decorates the tune with active counter-melodies and supportive harmony.
Another arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner (my personal favorite) also demonstrates how the form of a song can be changed without making it unrecognizable. You can hear the guitar mimicking bombs, gunfire, and even quoting ‘Taps’ near the end, but the melody of the national anthem carries us through all the chaos. If this arrangement were a house, you might find a gun collection in some secret room.
Collectively referred to as “production”, the choices made in the studio have dramatic effects on the sound of a song. Is there a hook? Are there riffs? Do the drums sound like they’re in a huge cave or a tiny apartment? Do the horns sound like they’re far away or up-close and personal? Do you incorporate drum loops and samples into your song? These questions represent the total freedom afforded to musicians in the studio. It’s comparable to choosing paint colors, cabinet handles, furniture, etc. This is where the song comes to life, where the house becomes a home. The following is an example of a fully produced song. You can hear male and female vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, and drums.
It’s easy to take all of these elements for granted when they’re presented in a full production. We assume that this song MUST be sung by Frank Black, the intro riff MUST be played with that particular guitar tone, the drums MUST be played with the same patterns and accents on the recording, etc. We assume that if any of these elements is changed or interpreted then the song ceases to be itself. We don’t make this mistake, however, when looking at a house. Gutting the carpet and installing hardwood floors doesn’t affect the blueprint. In music, we can go back to that blueprint whenever we want. The song ‘Where is my Mind’ can be reduced to melody and chords, played on one instrument:
Jon Brion did a great interview about the difference between a song and a performance. The Song Reader by Beck Hansen (a collection of songs released purely as sheet music) has a foreword that expands on the topic as well. When you’re listening to music you have to ask yourself if it’s the production that appeals to you, or the song itself that you love. The challenge is to separate the two in the first place.
There’s more to music than emotion
I’ll admit, I’m a music geek. I have a voracious appetite for music. I obsessively curate my music library, manually entering genre, style, year, label, and even each performer credited on the album. Like any 90’s kid, my first favorites were mainstream bands like Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Bush, etc. I went through a classic-rock phase after playing guitar for a while. Then a jazz period. Then an indie period. Then post-rock. Then screamo, then metal, serialism, romanticism, field recording, musique concrete, hymns and gospel, chicago blues, even a Broadway showtunes period. The point is, I’ve listened to a lot of different music. I know it’s extreme, but I’m a geek. It’s my job.
As a geek, I always end up talking to people about what kind of music they like (the answer usually being “EVERYTHING”, unless they’re a fellow geek, in which case they list some band that’s only played one show so far “they’re gonna be BIG, man”). What strikes me, though, is a theme I’ve heard countless times. We listen to some piece of music and if it gives us some feeling, we call it “good” music. If we don’t have some emotional reaction, it’s obviously “bad” music. Aside from being an unreliable way to judge music (my feeling doesn’t mean the music is special, or that you’ll have a feeling too) it’s also myopic. It’s like sending someone to jail because you had indigestion. Don’t get me wrong, emotion is an integral part of the musical experience. It’s truly incredible that a few sounds in our ears can make us think of loved ones, can send us back to grade-school, can make us cry, can soothe us, can excite us. However, music is too big to be filtered through one lens. Hearing music through more channels than just an emotional one can help you appreciate music of any kind.
In college, I was introduced to a new way of listening to music. The acronym SHMRF stands for Sound-Harmony-Melody-Rhythm-Form. These are the essential ingredients that ALL music is comprised of. It doesn’t matter when or where in the world, all music has these elements. Every different culture and style emphasizes one or more of these elements in different combinations. In order to appreciate music you’re unfamiliar with, it can help to pay attention to one element at a time to see where the emphasis lies.
Sound refers to the color, or timbre, of music. Think of the difference in sound between a flute and an electric guitar. They can give totally different qualities to the same pitches. An easy way to differentiate styles is by using different instruments. The typical jazz lineup consists of horns, piano, upright bass and drums. This is a sound wholly different than the guitar, bass, drum lineup of rock music, or the vocal sound of a Broadway ensemble. Here’s two examples of the same piece, orchestrated in wild contrast:
And yet another example that emphasizes sound over harmony, melody, rhythm or form:
Musicians work with sound and it’s a slippery medium. Sound dies as soon as you make it. Imagine painting with colors that dissolve as soon as they touch the canvas. Luckily, we’ve inherited a solution to this problem from all the musicians who came before us. They invented a way to write down what sounds they wanted us to hear. The idea was refined over the course of hundreds of years and reached great heights of sophistication and precision. Now it’s ours to use, if we’re willing to learn it. Listed below are the top advantages of reading and writing music.
Reading music helps you get out of your comfort zone
I had played guitar for 8 years before I learned to read music. Learning to do so introduced me to classical guitar, which required new techniques and changed the way I played forever. Reading music gives you a fresh perspective by forcing you out of familiar patterns of thinking. Instead of playing like you always do, you end up playing what’s required and learn new things in the process.
Reading music ends the guessing-game
As a musician you’re often called on to perform something you’ve never heard, on the spot. Without having something to look at, it’s easy to get lost. Instead of playing to the best of your ability, you’re busy trying to find your place. If it’s written down you know exactly what to play and when, how to articulate it, how loud it should be, and how fast it should be. If the key changes, you know about it ahead of time.
Play with anyone, anytime
Reading music helps you play with musicians you don’t know. Without somewhere to start, not much happens when you’re jamming with new people. Even if you’re all playing the same song, it’s possible that each person remembers it a little differently. Written music clears up any confusion and allows everybody to hit the ground running.
Songwriters know how difficult it can be to remember something you’ve come up with. Knowing how to write it down allows you to forget old ideas without losing them forever. It’s a shame to think of all the songs I made up and forgot before I knew how to write them down.
Written music allows us to connect to the past
Although it’s not certain, ‘Greensleeves’ is rumored to have been written by King Henry VIII of England. The legacy of that melody is still astounding, whomever the true composer happens to be. Every time you hear it, it’s as if you’re hearing the voice of someone who lived nearly 500 years ago. If that melody had never been written down, it may well have been lost forever.
On a similar note, all we knew about music in Ancient Greece was very indirect until recently. Musicians are depicted visually and spoken of in literature, but what did the music sound like? New evidence is allowing us to experience the sounds that everyday people heard in Ancient Greece. The people are long gone, but if we can hear the music they left behind, it brings them to life again.