Learning vs Expressing

It is important to distinguish between learning and expressing. Throughout this book, I will ask you to learn theoretical musical concepts, which are analogous to grammatical concepts like nouns and verbs. As you learn, you will think about the concept intellectually, trying to understand how it sounds and how you can make that sound on your instrument. You’ll also start to notice when a particular concept is used in songs.

Poetry is a good analogy for this. If you want to learn how to write poems, you have to learn about literary devices like similes. You have to know what a simile is, be able to construct one, and be able to identify when a poem is using similes. You might even deliberately write a poem with a lot of similes. However, this poem is probably not an example of true self-expression. This would be a practice poem. Similarly, when I ask you to improvise using a particular musical concept, I’m not asking you to express yourself, I’m asking you to practice using a musical concept in a “real-life” situation. I’m asking you to improvise, and then somewhat arbitrarily add this musical concept into your improvisation so you can experiment with how it sounds and what it communicates.

On the other hand, when you are expressing yourself, you shouldn’t be thinking about musical concepts. You shouldn’t think about which notes you’re accenting, or whether you’re using 16th notes or 8th notes. Just like when you speak you don’t think about whether you are using adverbs. When you are expressing yourself using music, you should focus primarily on the sounds you want to make or the message you want to send. Don’t decide whether you want to use triplets. The concept of “triplets” is not a sound, it’s a description of a sound. Think about what you want to sound like. Search for the feeling of “this is what it should sound like next”.

So, why should you spend time learning musical concepts, if you’re not going to think about them when you play music? There are two reasons. First, it helps you translate the ideas in your imagination into real sounds on an instrument. Sometimes you’ll have an idea, and you’ll try to execute it, but it won’t sound right. Learning how to play different musical concepts helps you avoid this situation. Second, you’ll expand the realm of possibilities for your musical ideas. If you learn something well enough, it will seep into your unconscious mind. Then, when you search for the feeling of “this is what it should sound like next”, you might start hearing things that wouldn’t have occurred to you before.

How much time should you spend learning? And how much time should you spend expressing? This is up to you. Most professional musicians go through a long period of spending a couple of hours per day learning, and not much time expressing. The danger of this is that you can learn a lot, but not develop the ability to express. In my opinion, too many musicians are extremely knowledgeable and skilled, but unable to truly express themselves. These musicians have mastered the most complex and difficult musical concepts, but their music usually doesn’t sound good to most people. Their audience consists of music students who are trying to understand these difficult concepts, and people who can appreciate the talent and sophistication of the musician. On the other hand, if you spend more time expressing, and not much time learning, your vocabulary will be limited. This is okay if you only want to play simple music. Perhaps lyrics are more important to you than musical complexity.

I went through a period of about eight years when I spent most of my time learning. I learned a lot, and I became very good at playing the guitar. Now, I spend most of my time expressing. When I practice, I am practicing the ability to listen to the feeling of “this is what it should sound like next.” I am slowly getting better at using all of the concepts I’ve learned to express my ideas.