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Learning to Learn

I was riding the bus back from my first exam today when I began mentally transcribing the guitar part of a song I was listening to, a song on my Zune that I’ve heard countless times — but never quite like this before. But that song’s not what this is about.

It’s about the fact that I noticed that I could tell the subtle differences between chords. Not quite enough to be able to name them at will, but enough to get a good guess of the rhythm pattern of this particular song. Somewhere along the way, in the year and a half since I first picked up my guitar, I picked up that ability, as well as a decent sense of being to tune a guitar by ear.

Now, this is notable because when I first began, I had no idea how to do these things. Heck, when I first got my guitar, it was, obviously, out of tune. But with only a cheap tuner and no instructions, I had no idea how to go about tuning it. At the time, the abbreviation of EADGBE was just gibberish to me. So I just fretted chords on this out of tune guitar and played them.

“Is this what music sounds like? It doesn’t sound that great, but who am I to say what is and isn’t musical?”

I had no real basis of comparison, no reference frame to place the guitar in to. Music, or at least, music theory and the idea of harmonious notes, was a more or less foreign concept to me. So, given this lacuna, I wondered if I would ever be able to learn to do simple musical tasks like playing basic songs by ear and tuning a guitar by ear.

This was actually a pretty big worry for me: I wondered if my fertile learning period of childhood had been passed up without ever introducing the language of music to my mind —

Err, sorry about that. “Back in Black” came on the radio and I was compelled to play along.

Where was I? Right: being unable to learn the language of music so to speak.

My real worry was that it was Too Late. Was this old dog too old to learn some new tricks? After all, my parents never enrolled me in any music classes or instrument lessons to teach me the basics when I was young and my brain was more of an information sponge than it is today.

Well, sure, it’s easy to blame them, but on reflection, I find that it’s an excuse instead of a justification. My paternal grandparents made sure to send their three kids to music lessons of various types, and only one of them ended up sticking with it. I don’t say this as a way of shaming anyone, but instead to point out that unless you really want to learn to play, even the best music teacher can’t really help.

And that’s when I realized that my parents hadn’t failed me: they didn’t just give me the fish, they taught me to fish. The drive to explore, learn, and grok music, and any other topic that interests me is what I got instead of a book of songs with gold stars awarded for successfully played music pieces.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. bxojr
    December 9, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Yep, music lessons (like any kind of education) are, in my view, less important than a self-motivated desire to learn. I had nine years of piano lessons as a kid, and learned almost nothing, because I wasn’t interested in what the teacher wanted to teach me. (What ten-year-old kid wants to learn how to read Bach minuets from sheet music?) I learned infinitely more from my own self-directed noodling.

    (And like you, I’m not complaining: even if Mrs. Newland didn’t teach me much, it was still important that my parents encouraged my musical education and made sure I had an opportunity to play. And I did enjoy playing, even if the lessons didn’t teach me much that I cared about.)

    A love of music seems to be innate, and I suspect your brain developed the capacity to grok music (as you say) years ago. Now you’re just learning how to use it.

  2. Grandma
    December 9, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    I enjoyed this post very much, particularly because I understood what you were talking about. Seriously, though, you and your uncle hit it on the head: nobody learns anything unless it seems to be of value. You are not Too Old by any means. When you were here at Christmas, it was obvious that you had learned a great deal and were enjoying playing the guitar.

    As one of the paternal grandparents who promoted the various lessons, I have reflected on their value and decided that all three of our children did learn something in spite of themselves, or at least didn’t turn their backs on music altogether. Your dad sings and does that very well, and has been known to play a small woodwind instrument. Barbara sings and has made her career in theater, where music is very often a part, and, of course, Bob is the one who stuck with it and at one time considered a major in music.

    Both your parents and your sister sing, so evidently you have a strong musical bent also. It’s great that you are having fun with it and learning now. I hope you keep it up.

  1. January 4, 2010 at 7:58 pm

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