Music Theories

I think music training generally makes musicians worse, not better. I know a few good trained musicians, but I think their talent is in spite of their training. Once you've taken the time to learn about scales and chord progressions and so on, you can't help but think about those things when you're making music. And then you're not thinking about whatever you were thinking about before the training, back when music was fun.

That's my theory anyway: music training takes the passion out of music. A friend of mine has his own music training theory, which I suspect is more accurate than mine. He's not entirely opposed to training, but he does minimal training. If someone wants to know how to play piano, he tells them to play just the black keys or just the white keys.

By making the instrument simpler, it becomes difficult to create bad music, without really causing the musician to do any thinking that might get in the way of the soul of the music. But I'm not sure this strategy scales. Eventually we'll all get bored with playing only the black keys, and I don't know what comes next. At some point, most of us need to start thinking about the music to avoid getting bored. So I fall back on my strategy, which is to avoid training and start thinking about the music less consciously.

I know a lot of guitar chords I couldn't name. I learned them by putting my fingers into new shapes and listening to the sounds. When I liked them, I played them again and again until I knew the chords. If I don't like them, I never play them again. This is still music education, as I'm still learning, but it's not music training. I have no course to follow, and no next step I feel compelled to do even as it sucks away the fun of music.

So I don't like music training, and this is the first thing that came to mind when I read Kathy Sierra's recent post on learning and passion: Learning music changes music...The more you help your users learn and improve, the greater the chance that they'll become passionate. Note that this is the opposite of the experience I've just described with music.

I was getting ready to leave a comment to that effect when I got to Kathy's own comment explaining my position better than I could:

...for a lot of us, our products aren't the ultimate *destination*, but a means to doing something else that we ARE (or can be) passionate about. 37signals creates products that let users spend more time in flow -- using 37signals software to do something ELSE, which could be the thing they ARE passionate about. Some of the products people are most passionate about are simply the tools that enable and then get the hell out of the way so that the REAL thing they're passionate about can happen. But through "misattribution of arousal" (as the psychologists call it), some of that passion spills onto the product/tool that allowed you to experience that optimal experience or "flow state".

I'm passionate about skiing, not my skis...

Exactly. By analogy then, I guess I'm not passionate about music, but something else music allows. What is that something though? I'm not sure. It's some subset of communication that is intentionally ambiguous. It's sort of like poetry, I think, where poets choose each word carefully with an eye toward how it will be read. Only music isn't as demanding, because the melody can mask the difference between words with flexible meaning and words with no meaning.

So I guess that's my second theory of music: musicians are poets with a crutch. It's a crutch that allows new forms of expression though. I like Nirvana and Radiohead, but their lyrics don't often mean anything — to me anyway, your mileage may vary. Scratch that — your mileage will vary. And that variance is what I like. Music, more than poetry I think, creates meaning. Anyone can string together random words, and if they are set to a good melody, people will assume a meaning where none was before.

That assumed, created meaning will be a little different for everyone listening to a song. And different people will talk about their own meanings with each other, and agree on shared meanings. Good music eventually makes new ideas. There, that's my third theory. So I guess I'm passionate about new ideas, not music. Good to learn.

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