What you know and why it matters

June 25, 2018
What you know and why it matters

You don’t need to know everything to play the music you want to play.

But when you know more it will help you play more things better, and thanks to the internet it’s easier then ever to find new information. There was no shortage of information before the digital age, of course, but now it’s a limitless source of inspiration and resources. But with the added aspect of social media, one of the confusing downsides is that for every piece of information you find, you might also find ten opinions about its value.

Sometimes added commentary can really be helpful, and offer another useful perspective. But that depends on the nature of the commentary. Just as often, the comments can range from dismissive (this isn’t important) to demeaning (this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about). Putting aside the general tone of online conversation these days, it’s worth looking at two major fallacies that lead people to make these comments in the first place.


I don’t need to know about that, so you don’t either.

The first part of that has some truth to it. You don’t need to read music to play in a band, or understand the Lydian chromatic concept to write a great song. However, if information doesn’t inform a specific task, it doesn’t make that information irrelevant to playing music well.

Speaking very broadly, we could say there are two types of musicians: those that play music to do a specific thing, and those that play music and then choose the thing they’re going to do. Both have value, in that the difference is really between what we might call vertical and horizontal knowledge: between depth and breadth. There are specialists and there are general practitioners. In music, as in medicine, we need both. No podiatrist is going to question the need for you to see an internist, or vice versa. So why should a musician that lacks specific expertise question why you might need it?

You could make the argument that many of the world’s most celebrated musicians were unschooled, and you’d be right. All of these people had (and have) unquestionably great gifts. But natural ability is a variable, while information isn’t. Some people just do what they do. Some can duplicate it and some can’t. But anyone can learn about how it was done, and that’s worth knowing.

If you don’t do it my way, you’re wrong.

Music is an art that can be quantified by science. In other words, there are absolute principles of acoustics (sound) and mechanics (how we produce it), but those principles can be applied in many different ways. Each player finds their own balance between the art and the science: between the sounds they make and the way they make them.

If you’re writing music to fit a certain style, there’s an established vocabulary the listener expects to hear. This is why music of a certain time and place tends to have a similarity to it: there’s a common language with variations in dialect and expression. Within that, there will be things than sound right and things that sound wrong- that stand out in a way that distracts from the whole. But that “wrong” sound might fit perfectly in a different setting. And every so often, someone comes along with a completely different way of “speaking” and changes the language for everyone else. This is the history of music in a nutshell.

In other words, there ARE wrong notes if you’re trying to meet an established standard.

This doesn’t necessarily mean “conforming”, although it could be seen that way. If you’re developing your own vocabulary, the only wrong notes are the ones that distract your ears and mind out of the flow of what’s happening.

Then there’s the question of technique. Basic principles of mechanics apply to playing an instrument, as they do to everything else in the universe. Fretting notes on a guitar or strumming a chord requires the application of force, and follows the laws of physics. You could make an argument that “good” technique should use these principles to produce the most sound through the most efficient use of movement. I think this makes a lot of sense, and it’s the basic idea behind the way I teach technique.

However, if you watch people play, you’ll see a LOT of variation in how players approach the instrument.

Some people are inarguably awkward, others less so. Some clearly don’t play well at all, while others are impossibly smooth in spite of what should be an impediment. The bottom line is, we can talk about ideal technique, but we can’t talk about “right and wrong” without making many qualifying exceptions to the rules.

Internet commenters are frequently missing the big picture.

This should come as no surprise to anyone: social media is generally not where we looked for nuanced perspective. But conflicting advice can be confusing, and some of these opinions just add to the noise. I have two pieces of advice:

One, recognize that different approaches or ways of “speaking” may have value or reasoning that you can’t see.

Two, take everything with a grain of salt, including this.

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