Dedicated to helping others learn, play, compose and record music. Updated Mondays.

New here? Read the Beginner's Guide to Becoming a Musician.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Beginner's Guide to Becoming a Musician

If you're looking to learn about playing, writing or recording music in some way, any way, but don't quite know where to start, this is for you.

So you want to start making music? You want to be the next Bach? Have lots of ideas and want to make a CD? Perhaps you just have a serious deficiency of groupies in your life and you want to change that? Whatever brought you here, you want to make music in some way, and doing that may not be as hard as you think. This guide will act as your starting point on your new path. Regardless of what instrument you want to play, or what kind of music you want to get into, this guide will show you how to get started, from choosing an instrument and learning to play it to composing and eventually recording.

Before you start

If you're completely convinced of your own ineptitude, or you think it is too late for you to take up the difficult task of making music, then I've got something to say to you:

You Don't Need Musical Talent to Make Music

Getting an instrument

The most popular instruments in Western society are the rock staples (guitar, bass guitar and drums) and piano. There are plenty of other instruments out there to choose from though, if you feel like doing something different. If you haven't decided yet, take a look at this article for advice on choosing and buying an instrument:

Picking up an Instrument

If you've picked piano, here are couple of other articles that you should check out:

Starting out with Piano
Piano Playing Tips for Beginners - (note: while this article was technically written for pianists, the lessons generally apply to all instruments)

Becoming a better listener

As you start to play music, you'll discover an interesting phenomenon: you'll notice more about the musical world around you. After a while, you'll gain the ability to de-construct all the different music that you've been listening to. This is a wonderful experience and will make you a more observant person in general. Now is a good time to take the initiative and start actively becoming a more deliberate listener. Try the techniques listed in these articles and discover new dimensions in music that you never understood before:

Introduce Yourself to New Musical Genres
Listening to Music Intelligently

Composing music

I have two things to say here about composing music, whether it's a short rock song or a 20-minute symphony. 1. All music, and I mean all of it, is made of of the same basic components, which means that if you can write a bluegrass song, you can also make a disco song, a dirge, a traditional Japanese folk song or anything else you could imagine with the same basic techniques. 2. There's no special talent or magical skill needed to write music. If you have the ability to make pleasing sounds on your instrument of choice, then you also have the capability to compose your own songs. Once you've learned some music theory, even just a little, you'll realize how simple it is. If you can take a pile of colored blocks and arrange them in an interesting pattern, then you'll be pleased to know that while writing music is a bit more complicated, it's still pretty much the same basic concept. If you're still not convinced, this might change your mind:

Gain the Confidence to Compose Music

Then look over these once you've decided to take the plunge:

Don't Find Inspiration: Create It
Daily Songwriting Exercise

Making a studio and recording music

This is possibly the most complicated part of being a musician, but it can also be the most fun overall. Recording is also most likely the most mysterious aspect of music creation for beginners. Years ago, the recording realm belonged solely to the professionals with expensive studios. Now that computers have changed literally everything in our society, anyone can make a studio of their own and even make their music sound fairly professional with minimal equipment.

There are a couple of things you need to know when delving into the recording world. First is the concept of multitracking. You need to understand how that works before you can understand how a studio works:

An Introduction to Multitrack Recording

Knowing and understanding the components of a studio and how they relate to each other make up the second important part of what you need to know. You can learn this and how to build your own studio on a minimal budget in the Makeshift Musician's most popular article, short and snappy:

Make Your Own Recording Studio

or go in depth with the ultimate resource:

The Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Read these too:

What Speakers Should I Get?
Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

Once you've got your studio up and running, this would be a good read:

How to Make the Best Recordings on Earth


What is left to learn, now that you've become a prolific, multi-talented musician? Believe it or not, there's still a lot we don't know about music and how it affects us. There's much to learn, and you could devote your whole life to music and still not learn everything there is to know about it. Here are a couple of articles that may help guide you towards a deeper understanding of the mysterious phenomenon that is 'organized sound':

The second most popular article on the site:
The Importance of Music to Humankind
Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin
The Origins of American Music

Monday, October 13, 2008

Some Interesting Stuff

Sorry, loyal reader, no new article this week. Here, however, are some books that might interest you:

The Indie Band Survival Guide by Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan - A neat book on how to best prepare yourself for being an independent musician. Being very modern and hip and such, it includes information on how to best make your website and utilizing social networking sites to further your band.

The Everything Home Recording Book by Marc Schonbrun - There are lots of these books, but this one seems to be the best one geared towards beginners.

Hal Leonard Pocket Music Theory by Keith Wyatt and Carl Schroeder - It won't teach you music theory, but it would be a great complement to your learning it. Tons of information packed into the tiniest book.

And here's a great, free web program for guitarists: you give it a chord and it shows you the fingering, complete with strumming so you can tell if you sound right.

Rest assured, there are several great articles and some new surprises on the way. See you next week!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectations. These violations can occur in any domain - the domain of pitch, timbre, contour, rhythm tempo, and so on - but occur they must. Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic. Too much organization may technically still be music, but it would be music that no one wants to listen to. Scales, for example, are organized, but most parents get sick of hearing their children play them after five minutes.

-Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music

This is Your Brain on Music
by Daniel Levitin was recommended to me by a reader after I wrote one of my most popular articles, The Importance of Music to Humankind. I recently finished the book and I decided to share my thoughts on it with you.

Daniel Levitin is a record producer turned neuroscientist, driven by a great curiosity and passion for the world of music. He knows many famous people in both the music industry (such as the Grateful Dead) and the field of human biology (like Francis Crick). Because of all this I consider him to be a great asset to the world, as he helps us a get a little bit closer to understanding why music is a part of us.

What about the book though? He starts off with telling us about each of the basic components of music, like rhythm, melody and so on. Even if you already know music theory it's presented in such a unique way, from the angle of a scientist, that it is still compelling to read. He tells us what parts of the brain are at work for each aspect of music, and what it might tell us about ourselves.

He goes on to discuss how music manipulates our emotions, how hours of practice, rather than talent, makes good musicians (score one for makeshift musicians!), and how culture and evolution both affect our music in different ways.

One problem that I had with this book was that Levitin wanders a lot in the course of each chapter. He breaks the well-established convention of letting the reader know where the author is going with a particular tangent. He'll start a topic, then veer off with some anecdotal story without telling the reader how it ties in to his point, sometimes for several pages, until he's done. Occasionally he won't even bother tying it in at all. This makes it a somewhat more difficult read than it should be, but the information is so fascinating that I didn't mind too much.

Every musician will benefit greatly from reading this book. It will help you understand what it is you are doing when you write and perform music. Levitin's insight will give you focus on your purpose as a musician, and the powerful and strange things that happen to your consciousness when you listen to music will seem just a little less ethereal.

Most Interesting Piece of Information:
The fact that inside your brain is an honest-to-god synthesizer. It's so complete that if you were to wire up that particular part of your brain to a speaker, you could produce simple tones just by thinking about them. We don't actually do this because poking wires into a human brain is generally considered to be a bad idea. We're not entirely sure how this evolved.