Music 101 (part 1)


If you want to take up guitar seriously, but don’t know what’s involved, this series hopefully will help you.  These are NOT lessons.  These briefly introduce what you will encounter as you learn guitar, and the required approach to learn  musical skills effectively, including the idea of building a mental framework‘.  We look at problems that occur when this isn’t done, as is very often the case with guitarists teaching themselves, and, if unlucky, when being taught.

In particular, you’ll learn about what a practice session should entail for making progress (we call this directed practice) and how recalling what you last practiced strengthens your learning.  This doesn’t go into detail about what to practice, rather how to practice.


How we learn effectively

When starting a new skill, like learning guitar, we have no relevant memories (no mental framework) to draw upon. So it really helps if you get a high-level introduction to music concepts you will encounter later and how they relate, how they benefit you.  This creates a skeletal mental framework.

Ideally you need guidance so that you learn more about the topics in an order that builds on what you already have been introduced to.  This continuously builds more associations in your brain, fleshing out and connecting different concepts in the framework.  Eventually, some areas may become automatic … without directed practice, that skill won’t improve, and can drop off slightly.

There are many different areas that can be worked on to improve your musical skills on an instrument so you feel confident, happy at steady progress, and able to create your own music, and improvise. This series will look into these at a high-level to give you an idea of what you will encounter and how they relate to each other. Next, let’s compare effective and ineffective learning.

A typical ineffective learning journey

A typical journey, outside of academia, is we hear music we like and want to eventually play.  We go about randomly picking up various pieces of information, from friends and the Internet; a chord shape here, a scale pattern there.  Working out music by ear seems like magic, so we use guitar tab, which can often have mistakes.  We watch short videos that promise we will learn the secret shape(s) that will let us solo without learning all that “boring theory” and so on.    These videos are the  modern equivalent of snake oil, guaranteed to cure every ailment.  All this often results in a shallow or no understanding of how to use what we’ve learned, with no mental framework in place.

Are you prepared for the effort?

Let’s set the record straight. You won’t learn what’s required without putting the effort in. Hundreds of hours of effort.  Several thousand hours to become expert.  You need reaslistic goals, specific areas to work on, to fix technique issues, to deeply attend to what you are learning or practicing.  Some examples include working on body tension, timing accuracy, how to use a scale, how to construct chords, or how to improvise over a chord progression.  There are many others.

How you learn effectively

You learn through repetition during directed practice. That is, you practice to develop your skill level, attending to one thing at a time, rather than practicing using your current skill level. Directed practice mandates zero distractions.

For example, I had a problem with picking accurately with certain licks above a particular speed. Practicing at a comfortable speed did not improve my picking skills. Instead over a period of time, I had to examine and focus on many things very closely … find exactly which notes in the lick were causing difficulty, the depth and angle of the pick, how I held it, the height above or below the string, the quality of the sound produced, the timing, the synchronisation with my fretting hand, my body tension. As I fixed one thing, something else surfaced, and so I’d address that, and so on … but this then benefitted my playing overall.

You learn deeply through frequent recall. Rather than spending two hours on a topic, it’s better you spend 20-30 minutes and then take a break (several hours, or one or more days) doing other stuff, then continue from where you left off, so you are recalling what you have done and where you got to. This strengthens mental associations.

For example, I may be learning about a new”chord type” (what this means is introduced later in this series). I’ll recall what I’ve learned so far about chord types in general, and I’ll recall what I know about “intervals” (introduced in part 2), such as the shape and sound of the intervals in this new chord type and play these with a rhythm (introduced in part 3).

Warning. Playing guitar while watching TV just practices your current skill level. Listening to music while you’re learning about theory is a bad idea. It’s too distracting, especially to a musican. Next thing you know, you’re working on some riff you’ve just heard! Distractions will ruin directed practice.


What we’ve learned

We looked at the need to build a mental framework, through which we can relate new concepts with what we already learned and that initially, a high-level overview is necessary for a skeletal framework. We looked at directed practice, where we use mental focus to develop our skill in short sessions, with breaks in between.  We looked at recalling what we have learned each time we use directed practice.  We saw that distractions are a very bad idea when you want to improve your skill.

Next time, we’ll take a high-level look at some introductory fundamental concepts that underpin music .


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