More Musical Tools

Music is more than just rhythms, melodies, and harmonies. Here are some more concepts to think about (or not think about) when you’re playing music.


Tone (sometimes called “timbre”) is perhaps just as important as notes and rhythms. I didn’t include a chapter on tone, because you already know about it. When you listen to someone speak, you are using a highly developed ability to distinguish between different tones. Tone is the quality that makes all the different vowel sounds different, even if they are sung on the same note. You can try this. Sing one note, and start with the vowel sound “Eee”, then go to “ay”, “ah”, “oh” and “ooo”. You’ve just demonstrated that you can sing with different tones. There is much more variety than these five vowel sounds, too. You can experiment with this as well. Sing with your mouth closed, sing while plugging your nose, buzz like a bumblebee, and try singing “rrrrrr”, “nggg”, “vvv”, and “zzz”. You’re already a tone expert.

Different instruments have different tones too. A guitar has a different tone than a trumpet. A steel-string guitar has a different tone than a nylon-string guitar. A guitar has a different tone depending on whether you play it with a pick or with your fingers. I think you get the picture.

Tone is very important for all musical creations. It has a huge effect on the mood of the music. The study of how to create different tones can be a lifelong study in and of itself. Master guitar makers spend their lives trying to build guitars with the best tone, and every detail matters. Sound engineers are endlessly creating tones using microphones and adjusting the parameters of their hardware and software tools. If studying tone interests you, follow your interest. If not, find a way to make a tone you like and then focus on notes and rhythms. But never forget about tone. You might be playing beautiful notes, but if you are playing with the wrong tone, your message won’t get across.


You are probably already an expert on dynamics too. The word “dynamics” refers to changes in volume or loudness in a piece of music. A song might start loudly, and end quietly, or it could start quietly and end loudly. Decisions about how loud to play change the effect the music has on the listener. You already know this from your experience with language. When someone yells something, it carries a different message than when they whisper it, even if they are speaking the same words. In music, it can be hard to remember to play with varied dynamics. Sometimes you are too focused on the notes you are playing to think about how loud you want to play them. Try not to forget about dynamics!

Reading Music

Many music lessons start with the basics of how to read music. I decided not to teach you how to read music in this book because I don’t believe you have to be able to read music to be fluent in the language of music. You don’t have to be able to read English to speak it. You might be illiterate, but you can still be fluent. Many great musicians aren’t very good at reading music, even though they could easily tell you the names of the notes they are playing.

If you ever want to learn music that has been written down, it is very useful to learn how to read music. I love learning things by ear, but sometimes it’s too hard to hear all the harmonies and it makes sense to save time by getting sheet music. Or, you might want to learn a song that hasn’t been recorded, and the only resource you have is sheet music. If you want to be a professional musician, I highly recommend learning to read music. Professional musicians are often presented with sheet music and they are expected to be able to read it. If you think learning how to read music would be good for you, there are plenty of online tools for learning this.

Playing Along With Music You Like

The information in this book lacks specifics. Different genres of music have different ways of using rhythm, melody, and harmony. Some genres have chord patterns that occur in many songs, and some genres are defined by a distinct rhythm. It is worth learning from the genres you like so you can use these patterns in your self-expression.

The best way to do this is by playing along with music you like. At first, you might search online for instructions on how to play a song, or get a teacher to show you. But as soon as you have some ear training ability, try playing along to a song without learning it first. Use your ear training ability to try to play what you hear in the music. If you do this enough, you’ll notice patterns in the rhythms, melodies, and chord progressions. Two songs you like might use the same pattern at one point. Part of a guitar solo from one song might have the same melody as a guitar solo from another song.

This kind of practice might be just as important as the rest of the exercises in this book. It’s possible to imagine that someone could learn everything in this book, but not know what kinds of rhythms, melodies, and chords they like to play. This is like having the best map and GPS system in the world, but having no destination.

Listen and play along with music you like, and you’ll learn more about what kind of music you want to play.