Being able to read music can be very helpful. It’s one way for someone to communicate to us musically. It’s also helpful to be able to write down music if you compose your own music. I do this all the time. I want other musicians to play things a certain way. I’m really glad we have written notation for music and that I had training in music theory. However I think it’s very important to put first things first. The most important thing is listening with your ears to the music others are making and expressing the sound you hear inside yourself through your instrument.
Music is an aural art.
Do you realize that music is an aural art? Music is sound. Music is not written notes. Written notation is just a way of communicating what someone had in mind when they composed the music. It’s a map. In the same way a map of the city is not the city a written chord chart or even detailed notated musical composition is not the music itself.
The reason this is important to keep in mind is because no matter how detailed or how skilled the person writing the music is they cannot fully express everything through notation. The musician must take the written notation and turn it into beautiful soul filled music.
When someone is playing from the music but doesn’t hear the music in their mind you can tell. It sounds like typing. It has no soul. It lacks emotion. It lacks subtleties and dynamics. The music is not the written notes. The real essence of the music is the musician’s interpretation of what the composer wanted. The composer can only do the best they can using the limited music notation that is available. They cannot actually reach inside the composer’s mind and hear the original intention.
Now for the guitar player this takes on even more significance. Unless you’re playing classical guitar most written notation for guitar is even more limited. Often it amounts to just a chord chart. the guitarist must come up with the rhythm of the song, a strum, the dynamics and many other elements. The chord chart is just meant to help with one aspect of the music – the chord changes.
Improvising For Maximum Joy
One of the biggest joys in my life is creating my own music. I find most people, including myself when I was younger, believe only certain people can actually compose or make up their own music. I don’t believe that. Music is in us. Everyone can make up their own music if they choose. The key is to really listen first to the notes that you hear in your mind, then express them.
If you want to improvise this means listening and then expressing right away as you’re playing. If you’ve never done this it might even sound scary. “What if I hit a wrong note” you might be thinking. Of course there are ways to practice improvising. It helps to know some scales and some basic patterns that you can use. It also helps to be technically proficient so your fingers can get to the notes you hear in your mind. The most important part is to practice listening to the notes in your mind and then practice playing them.
One way to practice this is to play along with a jam track. I do this regularly and I recommend it to students. I jam track is a simple recorded chord progression. I like to make up my own but it’s perfectly fine to use those recorded by someone else. I play the recorded jam track and I just try to play melody notes that sound good. I think it’s fun. There’s no pressure because it’s just me. I don’t have to worry about hitting wrong notes. And the more I do it the better it gets. There’s nothing mystical about it. The only one who decides if it sounds good or not is me.
To be clear I combine this type of practice with practicing basic guitar scales and guitar finger exercises as well. This helps my fingers to be able to get to the notes I hear in my mind. The two types of practice work together.
Composing Music On Guitar
Composing music is very similar to improvising. The difference is I have time to work on it until I get it the way I want. At that point I’ll record it with a recording device, using my computer. Sometimes I write it down using music notation.
There are many different ways to approach composing guitar songs. Often I’ll hear a short melody in my mind. I’ll record it on my iPhone. When I get to my studio I’ll play it on my guitar and take it from there.
One of my favorite ways to compose a guitar song is pull out my guitar and just play around until I find something that sounds good. Then I take a few minutes to listen to it in my head and decide what I’d like to add to it. There’s usually a back and forth for a while until it sounds like something. Sometimes I make a mistake and it inspires a new line of thinking.
I approach it like play. That way I don’t get too uptight if it’s not what I want. Almost always I end up with something I like. That doesn’t mean it will end up on a CD. I record what I come up with and save it for later. Then at some point I’ll go back and listen to everything a created and decide what warrants a more thorough development.
So How Does This Apply To You?
Instead of spending all of your time on learning the technical aspects of music, reserve a good amount of time for really listening to music that you want to play. Internalize it in your head and get clear on what sound you want to make. Then when you practice you will be measuring how close you are to getting the sound in your head.
Don't Get Hung Up On Perfection
If you do this correctly you will immediately discover what you are practicing sounds nothing like what it does in your head. As you practice you will get better. As you practice the guitar notes in your mind will become clearer and more distinct. They work together – you will learn to play guitar well by working on the technicalities of playing AND your vision of what you’re aiming after.
Even though it will take time it will be easier to persist if you listen first and aim for what you hear. I’m talking about both what you want to imitate (i.e. other people’s music) and listening to the music in your head that you want to create.
Make Beautiful Music By Learning To Listen
In summary if you want to learn to play guitar… learn to listen. It takes practice. It takes putting your attention there. All the aspects of playing music I talked about have one thing in common. To be successful at playing popular songs on the guitar in a way that sounds good, or improvising, or creating your own original music… it is important to listen.
Listen to others people’s music. Decide what you like and what you don’t. Get to where you can hear the songs and melodies in your head. Listen to the notes and chords in your mind when you play. Play what you hear, not what you see or think you should play. This is the biggest step you can make towards playing beautiful music on your guitar.
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