For those who’ve known me for a while, learning to “speak” and understand music has been a lifelong journey. From playing violin in middle school and high school to picking up guitar in college (and dabbling in voice lessons, classical guitar lessons, flamenco guitar lessons…).
That said, it wasn’t until I started learning banjo after college that I felt I could start to really understand music vs. just the guitar, violin, or other instruments I had studied.
The perils of technical skills
If you play guitar or have tried to learn guitar before, you know that you’ll usually learn how to play chords for rhythm guitar, tabs for lead/fingerstyle guitar, or sheet music for classical guitar. These are technical skills that are very useful to learn as you’re learning how to play an instrument.
Guitar tabs basically tell you which frets to play on which strings. For example, here’s the first few opening notes of Sweet Home Alabama:
Tabs are fun because they break things down into exactly which notes you need to play and when you do it… it sort of sounds like the song!
Tabs are helpful, and I still use them, but they have several downsides — one of the biggest is that they don’t tell you anything about rhythm. As my current voice coach (Greg Delson) explains and that I’m still trying to practice... you can hit all the notes perfectly, and that can be personally satisfying, but it can still sound disjointed / not very good if you’re not playing in rhythm.
Thankfully there’s a way to perfectly capture rhythm — sheet music! Here’s the same opening phrase in modern staff notation:
You just need to learn the symbols and know that there are 100 beats per minute and that a sixteenth-note is half of an eighth-note. It even helpfully explains that you should play the notes with a “clean tone” and let the notes “ring throughout”. Problem solved, right?
Not quite — at least not for me. Sheet music can be a helpful tool for understanding rhythm, time signatures, and collaborating with other musicians, but…
The biggest problem with sheet music (and really any notation) is that it’s always an imperfect representation of the music itself. E.g. The above notation says that the note should be played “mezzo-forte” or half-loud, but half as loud as what? Is every beat exactly the same volume or are there strong beats and weak beats?
Which leads to how I felt I “actually” learned music for the first time…
How I actually learned music
I was at a friend’s house shortly after graduating from college and I heard a mutual friend (Eli Hetko) playing a fretless banjo he had made himself. I was mesmerized by the sound of it and the facility with which he played the instrument. His playing was fluid and expressive and I asked him to teach me on the spot.
I studied with Eli for the next couple years and I remembered my first insight when I was learning to play The Cuckoo, a standard old-time song. I remember hearing Eli play it and then asking him if he could write it down in tab notation for me to practice later — what I thought was a reasonable request. I had played with guitar for several years at that point, and studied with many different instructors, and that’s how I always learned.
He explained that he normally didn’t write down or use tabs but was happy to do it. I spent the next week working on the song but ended up running into what I now know is the biggest problem with tabs — I was “playing” the notes, but it sounded nothing like the song.
After stepping away from the problem for a while, I was listening to the song and something clicked for me — there were strong beats and weak beats, and the offbeats (double-thumbing on the banjo) weren’t strictly necessary to play the melody. I was playing the strong and weak beats identically which sounded both melodically and rhythmically off.
Although that was a specific lesson I learned from truly listening to the music, the more general lesson I learned was the importance of building a proper feedback loop. For future lessons, we never used tabs. Instead Eli would play a song, I would watch and try to imitate it, and then I would record him on my phone playing the song twice — once at tempo, and another more slowly.
Then I would go home, listen to the song, and attempt to play it until it sounded like Eli’s playing (or at least as close as I could get). No indirection of trying to read off a sheet of paper while trying to play.
If you hear most professional musicians explain how they learned how to play, most of them will they say they just listened to records and played along. In retrospect, it was pretty obvious — in order to play music, you have to listen to music. Tabs, sheet music, and teachers can provide you a foothold, but active, intentional listening with a feedback loop is the most important part of learning how to play music.
My ability to play banjo improved dramatically after that realization. I remember playing for friends and coworkers and having people ask me how long I had been playing and I said “just a few weeks!” and they were shocked.
I also remember performing banjo at a company talent show (while I was working at Etsy) and receiving a compliment from someone — “I don’t know what instrument you were playing, but you can play.”
The compliments felt good, but I also felt like I discovered a secret (that I've passed on successfully to other aspiring players). Despite playing guitar for 3 years at that point (and violin technically for 6 years), it was the first time I felt I could really “play” and express myself through music, after just a few weeks of learning.
Even though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, that was the beginning of my introduction to the idea of music as a “language” that you can learn to truly listen to and speak. I was still in my infancy in understanding the language (and still am in many ways), but I had a taste of what was possible and where I could go next.