Watch Episode 01 — “The Music We Love & The Music We Make”
As we lay the first bricks of our musicianship foundation, one question helps us get a sense of where to begin; it snaps everything into focus.
What am I hearing?
Believe it or not, your answer to this question will reveal a lot about where you are in your approach to a number of musical situations. If your answer to this question is clear and confident, you will be clear and confident in your approach to music. And the opposite is also true. If your answer to this question is hazy, lacking in concreteness, well… your answers about music will feel vague, and your foundation will be full of soft spots, unable to support the musical tasks we want to perform on top.
Think of one of your favorite songs, or a recent song with which you’ve become obsessed. How would you usually approach learning this song?
Most of us would hope to find a tab, a tutorial, or some sheet music that could instruct us in the way of the song. But despite the convenience and accessibility of these resources, all of them fall short of a better goal (assuming the tabs, tutorials, and sheet music are at all accurate). Like trying to learn a language from a textbook, figuring out what to do musically from a set of visual cues sets earnest learners up for massive disappointment. And yet so many have settled for less this way, frustrated, stagnated in their musical journey.
When we are conditioned to perpetually look outside for help, we fail to look within to ourselves, to our ears and to our understanding of the songs we love.
If we are going to have any hope of becoming musically mature, the real goal must not be to reach for these quick fixes, but to do the hard work of developing our musical selves.
It might feel uncomfortable, even backwards, to listen and think first. But the truth is that these visual aids we’re accustomed to are crutches. Crutches are fine when you’re injured, but continuing to use crutches keeps you from developing your otherwise healthy musical legs towards running. A finely tuned sense of what’s happening in music is worth more than all of the tabs and tutorials in the world.
So let’s answer a more challenging question: “How would a musician approach learning this song?”
Would they rely wholly on a tab or a tutorial? Absolutely not! So what would a musician do differently? They would listen and think about what they’re hearing! And, in doing so, they ultimately get more out of the song.
Here, I would offer, are some questions a musician might ask themselves in this situation:
- What are the different parts of this song?
- What exactly is happening in this song? How would I describe it?
And more specifically,
- What is happening in the melody?
- What is happening in the harmony?
- What is happening in the rhythm?
- Can I apply what I’m hearing to my instrument?
As you can hopefully now see, “What am I hearing?” is a question that cuts to the heart of it. It gets at the core of what we want out of our musical journey. And the amount of confidence in your approach to making music will always reflect your grasp of what is happening in the music you hear.
So, what are you hearing…?
I am convinced that we live in the best time in history to learn music. We download albums in seconds, watch entire concerts on YouTube, and have easy access to tons of educational content. I hear there’s even a crazy guy who teaches tons of Radiohead songs for free! It truly is an amazing time for students of music everywhere, isn’t it? And yet, I am approached–almost daily–with the same issue students have everywhere in the world… what I call a lack of fluency in music.
Over the brief time I’ve been teaching music, I’ve been privileged to meet all kinds of students: hobbyists who learn through YouTube and guitar tabs, passionate songwriters in possession of a few basic chords, precocious youngsters looking to develop a more mature musical palette, and many more. But one thing unites them… the desire to become musically fluent, to have confidence in the midst of the many musical situations that arise in our daily musical lives. To most people, the task seems immense. Many students ultimately turn to tabs, instructional media, and sheet music in hopes of learning how to make the kind of music they love. And they eventually get stuck, plateau, and become frustrated with the lack of progress that inevitably sinks in for so many.
Now I won’t lie to you. Musical fluency is a challenging road. Not everyone will successfully walk on that path. But I wholeheartedly believe that–if steered in the right direction–passionate lovers of music can learn to teach themselves. With the right approach and a deep level of commitment, I believe anyone can learn to make music: they can learn to play melodies and chords by ear, solo over complex chord changes, program a drum groove, compose for a quartet, or arrange a whole song for a single guitar… it is all possible with time, dedication, and a way forward.
After all, I have been demonstrating exactly all of this for years by sharing my passion for music on my YouTube channel. Sometimes it’s a Radiohead song that I will teach the same day it’s released. Other times it’s an old Christmas song I have arranged in my own way. Occasionally, it’s an original piece with some electronic production. And it all starts with a few big ideas explained in the simplest of ways: melody, harmony, rhythm.
What I am advocating, in my opinion, is more complete and more helpful than any single tab, guitar DVD, piano/vocal/guitar book, or piece of sheet music. Tabs are often wrong, and they lack rhythmic information; they also condition us to focus entirely on the fretboard, while taking away the focus from developing our listening skills. DVDs and books can be very expensive; they can also be impossible to find when dealing with obscure songs. And reading sheet music proves over and over again to be a big obstacle for so many; the staff lines, note heads, and other symbols can simply become overwhelming. There are certainly many positive aspects about all of the learning methods above, but fundamentally, they all foster a dependence on something other than the most important thing: the connection between your ears, your understanding, and the music.
There is another way.
Through my training in the Kodály method, my studies in ethnomusicology and western music theory, and my own geeky fascination with understanding everything about the music I love, I have put together a system that can help people understand and play what they hear. In my system, the song itself is your teacher.
Are you interested? If so, let me show you another way.