Why Do So Many People Give Up On Playing Musical Instruments? The Sequel

For Perspective . . .

I have played guitar since 1966. I taught guitar off and on from 1972 into the mid ’80s and I still work with a few selected students from time to time, although I do not teach as a business, nor have I for decades. Consequently, my writing will be strongly influenced by my familiarity with playing the guitar and teaching others how to do the same.

In Why Do So Many People Give Up On Playing Musical Instruments? Part One I introduced the concept that learning to play a musical instrument involved several tasks but these tend to break down into two basic categories. The first relates to physically operating the instrument (AKA wiggling your fingers) and the second relates to music theory as it relates to the way songs are constructed and the workings of harmony (AKA the programming logic behind music). Hopefully, the following will tie all of this together; especially as it relates to the challenge of helping students to remain motivated long enough to be able to enjoy tangible results from the efforts to learn.

If Technique Is How To Wiggle Your Fingers; Theory Is The Reason It Sounds As It Does

The violin playing machine knew absolutely no music theory. It acted upon commands programmed by someone that knew:

  1. How to read music.
  2. How to find the notes read on the fingerboard of a violin.
  3. How to program the violin playing machine.

Reading music requires at least some understanding of music theory, but it does not require an in-depth understanding of how harmonies work, the interplay between harmony and timing or a number of other considerations that are the province of composers, but are not needed in order to perform a song from an arrangement or in order to pick out the melody by trial and error, sometimes known as playing by ear. (The phrase playing by ear is, in itself very open ended and incomplete, but that explanation will come later.) I will use the somewhat clumsy phrase understanding how music works to express what I am getting at.

In the 1950s, there was a classically trained pianist by the name of Bill Evans that decided he wanted to play jazz. He went on to play on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and went on to establish himself as an innovative jazz pianist of considerable brilliance. But, before he could make the jump from classical piano to jazz piano, he had to learn how music worked. He had to learn about the chord/scale relationships and the harmonic concepts that comprise the framework of the song. Bill Evans himself referred to Jazz as the process of “making one minute’s music in one minute’s time whereas when you compose, you can make one minute’s music and take three months to compose one minute’s music”. To me at least, this doesn’t mean that composing is either inferior or superior to jazz; it’s just a different process and yields different results. But, in order to “[make] one minute’s music” no matter whether it takes one minute or three months, it is necessary to understand how music works; how the components fit together, and why those particular components were chosen in the first place. In other words, understanding how music works. 

Understanding How Music Works; It’s Not Just For Jazz And Composition

Some years back, I was practicing with a band and the adult daughter of one of the musicians was in the room, watching, listening and hopefully enjoying. Quite suddenly, she jumped up an asked aloud why everyone in the room had a music stand full of charts and I didn’t. It was tricky to explain, but it came down to the fact that I could hear the songs, mentally transcribe them, and play what I had transcribed. My jazz background made understanding the structure of music much easier.

Let me use an illustration that may help. If a highly experience carpenter came into my house, they could probably, in fact would almost certainly be able to look around and have a pretty good idea how the house was framed. Even if they had never built that exact design or seen the plans, an experienced carpenter would have enough insight into the principles of construction that they would have a very good idea of the theory of the home’s design. Music is no different. Songs are structured logically and even very complex songs tend to be built upon recognizable patterns of harmonic motion.

Earlier, I mentioned the phrase playing by ear and promised to explain why it can be thought of as misleading. In the absence of any understanding whatsoever of music, it would be possible to listen to a song and to duplicate the melody on an instrument entirely by trial and error. Possible, yes, but as a practical reality, this would be very time consuming. Still assuming not one bit of musical education, it wouldn’t take much time at all before patterns would emerge and some degree of logic would become apparent. Eventually, someone endeavoring to learn by trial and error would find themselves face to face with the same organizing principles that are accepted in conventional music theory. If you duplicated the floorpan and elevation of my home, you would find yourself with a home that had a similar. if not identical framework. If you learn how to play enough songs, eventually you will realize that these are built on a predictable, logical framework and that framework would be similar, if not identical to music theory.

When Is A Theory Not A Theory

One mistake I’ve heard when discussing music theory, is treating music theory as if it’s unproven; like a physics theory regarding matter being made up of tiny strings. The term theory, in the context of music theory, is more like the theory of operation for a device. For example, the theory of operation behind a steam engine, is that steam pushing against a piston will exert force but will give up some heat in the process. Now, nobody is going to come along next week and prove that steam engines work on some entirely different principle. The science behind the theory of operation for a steam engine is proven, and has been for a very long time. There may be room to improve upon the theory, but I don’t think that the current theory of operation for steam engines will ever be reversed or disproven. We know how heat works, how steam absorbs energy in the latent heat of vaporization and we understand basic mechanical devices (pistons, etc.) so  the theory of operations behind a steam engine is safe from challenge.

Music theory, likewise, has its roots in physics. Frequencies (which are usually referred to as pitches), harmonic overtones, the interaction of various frequencies (in other words, why do Major chords sound Major and minor chords sound minor) and everything else that happens in music can be boiled down to two tangibles, math and physics; and one intangible, artistic expression.

The Human Element To Music

A computer can be programmed to create music from a synthesizer, but creating a program to play notes is a certain sequence, even though the timing can be perfect, will still yield a product that is lacking by way of comparison to music played live by skilled musicians. The artist within wants to attribute this to the beating of the human heart while my scientific side would prefer to think in terms of brain waves, but either way, a biological creature brings something to music that a computer cannot. I should mention, at this point, that mechanical means of reproducing music, such as piano rolls, which can be produced by having a musician play a specialized piano, and in such cases are actually a form of recording and can preserve at least some of the feeling expressed by the artist that performed the recording. In any event, the point here is that no matter how much music theory we apply, music (at least in my humble opinion) becomes music when it is performed by a living creature, be it a bird, a whale or a human.  I can’t speak to the songs of animals, but some humans are very skilled at expressing themselves musically, and that can be a delightful to hear.

Once Again; Why Do So Many People Give Up On Playing Musical Instruments?

To paraphrase songwriter Jerry Reed; I said all that to say all this. In order to understand why people give up it was necessary to show that playing an instrument well involves some background understanding of the inner workings of music itself. Unlike medical students, most musician candidates do not begin to learn an instrument after a pre-music instruction period. No, most candidates want to hold the instrument, wiggle their fingers and create music . . .  with as little red tape as possible. Every music teacher ends up weighing the need to teach theory against the student’s need to see tangible progress.

If you don’t give the student something they appreciate as tangible progress chances are they will quit. If a student reaches a point of imbalance between what they are learning, what they need to be learning in order to progress and their need to see a reward for their efforts, chances are that they will stall in their progress and eventually lose interest. Teaching music to another individual involves balancing the three things mentioned above. It’s essential to keep in mind that a student will learn from other sources as besides their lessons. Friends, relatives, school mates, band mates and innumerable YouTube videos will influence any student, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the not-so-good. Dealing with these influences diplomatically will be a part of any instructor’s challenge. TV appearances by musicians, album covers and concerts are other sources of information that student’s will cite and, at least in some cases, these influences may detract from the learning plan that the instructor has in mind.

Some Thoughts For Guitar Students

Guitar and electric bass are my instruments, so I will confine my comments to learning these instruments. I’m not really qualified to address methods of instruction on other instruments except in the most general of terms.

One approach, for beginners, is to simplify playing enough that they can get results almost instantly and thereby be encouraged to continue with the instrument. Gordon Close, the proprietor of Melody Music in Englewood Colorado, has written a method wherein the guitar is tuned to an open chord, the student is shown how to play songs using simple chords and can usually do so in very short order. They will still have to take the leap not the full-on challenges of playing; which is to say how and where to wiggle their fingers on one hand and how to strike the proper string with the other, but at least they will take that leap with the HUGE emotional advantage of having expressed themselves musically by playing some simple songs in an open tuning.

Beyond that, there are all sorts of approaches to guitar playing and I think it’s safe to say that most of them do a credible job. I will state that at least some of these books teach things that I’ve had to help intermediate students to unlearn in order to facilitate further progress. For example, I’ve seen arrangements in many method books that teach voicing which have a fifth in the bass with a root played a fourth there above. This is a voicing far too many guitarists have used without realizing that these voicings can make an arrangement sound muddy and indistinct unless used very carefully. But I digress. The point here is that there are many excellent method books for beginners and most that I’ve seen are more than up to the task of helping a student to cast off from the shore and begin their own personal voyage of musical discovery.

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