Every Good Boy
Deserves Fruit

Manifesto

I've been playing piano since I was seven---now more than 20 years ago.

In that time I've gotten pretty good at playing piano; but significantly less so at playing music.

The difference as I see it is that if you give me some complicated sheet music, I can fumble my way through it at a reasonable pace.

But if you take away the sheet music, I'm lost. I don't know how to play music with other people, nor do I know anything about what makes music sound good. All I know is how to read musical notation off of a page at high speeds and transform that into finger movements. My technique is killer, but my knowledge is significantly lacking.

So I thought it would make an interesting experiment to learn music as quickly as possible. In the process, I'll document my progress, insights and exercises. Maybe one day it will be useful to someone else.

This comes with a big, big preface: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Don't take my word as gospel, take it as the word of an excited amateur. All I'm going off here is what I've read, what I've heard, and what makes sense to me. It's not much, but it's better than nothing.

Philosophy

A classical music training might be described as "eye music." The emphasis is on reading music. You learn what the different shapes on a staff mean---a black circle with a line on it means to play a note for a quarter of a "beat" (whatever that means), and the line it's placed on determines which note to play. You learn that a black rectangle above a bar means a two-count rest, while a black rectangle under the bar means four counts. Or maybe it means four beats.

I don't know. It's been a long time since I last paid attention to this stuff.

Eventually you stop thinking about the symbols, and your fingers instead begin to know what to do when your eyes see a piece of notation. It's the ultimate hand-eye coordination task.

Maybe this isn't true for everyone---I skipped the theory classes in my classical music education---but I came away with twenty years of playing piano without any idea of why these notes sounded good together. While I could read music, I couldn't analyze it. I didn't know what the fundamental conceptual building blocks were.

If the above rings true to you, then this blog is for you. I think that all of this is a damn shame, and I have immense regret that it's taken me this long to notice what I was missing.

And so I'd like to present another view for all of this stuff. Instead of studying "eye music," we should study ear music. Music is fundamentally an auditory experience, so why aren't we following what sounds good?

Instead of buying sheet music for a song you like, instead put it on repeat, sit down at the piano, and plunk it out. Figure out how to play the song based on your ear alone. I know, if you're classically trained, this sounds extremely scary. It's not a skill that we're taught. But keep in mind that our lessons didn't prepare us for the things we'd like to be doing, so many the lessons weren't as good as we think. The first hour is the hardest, but transcribing like this gets significantly easier really quickly.

My understanding is that when your ear gets good enough, you can transcribe immediately after hearing something. Which I'd expect is an extremely useful skill if you're improvising with somebody.

None of this is to say that the theory is without its place. Knowing a little theory goes a long way in making transcribing easier. If you can quickly find out what key you're in, you've got a big advantage in terms of knowing which notes are and are not going to sound good. If you know you're playing the blues, you can anticipate a lot of the structure from that fact alone.

My Plan

There's this apocryphal proverb from Art and Fear:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

I'm not convinced it's a true story, but it's motivating nevertheless. My takeaway from it is that the best way to learn how to do something is to do lots of it.

To that end, my goal is to get us to a stage where we're good enough to play music that is fun and sounds good. I don't care if it's technically impressive or if it's original---that can all come later. I want us to be good enough within a week that we can start jamming along with other musicians, because that's when the fun starts. And we're going to learn a whole lot from other people.

In my experience, this is a common pitfall in music education. Too often the advice is to play twenty different scales for twenty minutes a day, "because scales are the building block of music." That might be (I don't know), but playing scales isn't playing music, and it doesn't help me in my immediate goal of having fun jamming with my friends.

So let's get to a baseline competency as quickly as possible, and then take it from there. After all, music is the fruit of love, and every good boy deserves fruit.