Learning Music

by Jeremy Brock

Here’s a template for a conversation so common it would be hard to say how many times I’ve participated in it.

“I don’t play anything, but I want to learn [insert name of specific musical instrument here].”

Um. OK.  Chances are you really want to learn how to make music, using [specific instrument] as your preferred tool.

“Unfortunately, I’m tone deaf.”

You almost certainly are not. Very few people are. You just don’t recognize the different tones that make up any given piece of music, or you do recognize them at some intuitive level but you don’t know what they’re called and what the relationships between them are. That’s because nobody ever showed you in a way that you could make any sense of. That’s a limitation you can overcome, ideally with some help.

“But it’s all so technical!”

Yes and no.

Yes, it can mutate into a mind-bendingly technical exercise, and *cough* some people *cough* <avoids  mirror> can turn a discussion of the simplest ditties into hours of eye-glazing quasi-intellectual wankery. But that’s just for giggles; we don’t have to do it.

Because no, the basic concepts, while technical, aren’t all that technical.

Can you count to four? Congratulations; that’s the main tool you’ll need for grasping the basics of rhythm.

Can you count to six? Cool; you’ve got the prerequisite knowledge for getting into some pretty hairy rhythms.

Can you count to eight? Excellent; the diatonic scale (think ‘Do-re-mi’, or more Anglo-phonetically ‘Doe-ray-me’) and all its variations are yours to master.  Seriously: If you can sing the Do-re-mi song, you’re halfway there.

Let’s take this all the way over the top: Can you count to thirteen? Beautiful. Now we’re getting into jazz and classical territory.

“But I couldn’t possibly learn to make sense of all those lines and squiggles!”

If you’re dyslexic to the point of de facto disability, then we’ve just taken a giant leap beyond my zone of competence and I’d refer you to a professional specialist. (But see below.)

Otherwise, if you’re reading this, you can read English. If you can read English you can read music, because musical notation, in its essential structure and grammar, is an order of magnitude simpler than English.

Also, the ability to read music is not a prerequisite for learning to make music, any more than the ability to read human language is required before one can make up, embellish, tell, or repeat stories. (Reference: Any random 3-year-old human.) I still emphasize reading music because it makes so many great things so much more accessible, but you don’t have to know it from the get-go.

Don’t get me started on tablature, though. That’s a big red button labeled ‘RANT!’. (Executive summary of rant: Tablature, as a tool, is potentially useful within a narrow range of applications. Beyond that range, it’s evil.)