Updated: Jun 1, 2019
Here you are, you've begun your musical journey. You’ve taken the first steps. You decided you are going to produce your own original electronic music. You decided which DAW to use; you’ve learned it inside and out, but you still aren’t getting the results you hear in your head. Those pre-fab loops make sound fantastic, but they are not quite what you are hearing in your mental ear. That big dollar software instrument has so many options, but none of them are exactly what you are searching for. You’re getting frustrated. You’re ready to move on to your next project, and so you do. You spend another 20 hours on your next track, but you’re stuck again. It’s been months or years or decades since you began your journey as a music creator, when will you become an expert?
You’ve probably heard the quote made popular in the 1990s that 10,000 of practice will make you an expert at anything. Journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers, popularized the theory. There was even a Macklemore song about it a couple years ago.The most recent research shows that this approach isn’t true, which may be a relief for the amateur. Progress is not that linear. It may take a couple of years to master a skill for one person and decades for another. While it may not be as cut and dry as 10,000 hours to become a virtuoso or a top-of-the-game producer, there are certain stages that every music creator goes through, from novice to professional.
“There is nothing magical about the 10,000 figure because the best group of musicians had accumulated an average, not a total, of over 10,000 hours by the age of twenty. In the world of classical music it seems that the winners of international competitions are those who have put in something like 25,000 hours of dedicated, solitary practice – that’s three hours of practice every day for more than 20 years. – Anders Ericsson, author of the original 10,000 hours study
Interestingly, the more you learn about a topic, the faster you acquire new information. Researcher, David A. Kolb, called this, Experiential Learning, in his 1984 book. Learning Music Theory is not a dry, inactive process that it may seem to be. Every new chord progression, scale, or riff you learn add to your toolkit, the more natural creating music feels and the quicker it pours out of your hands into the keys, strings, heads, microphones, pad and paper, smart device, computer, or whatever tool you have at hand.
When you study Music Theory effecitvely, you are learning and refining your skills through valuable experience. The real learning occurs when you take the time-tested concepts that have been discovered and polished by composers and songwriters throughout millenia and put them into action yourself. When you take that the coal that generations of musicians have formed into diamonds and place them in your unique setting, that's when your finest jewels are born!
Here are four ways studying Music Theory, Songwriting, and Composition encourage experiential learning and make you a better producer, your musical inspiration deserves to be the best it can be.
1. Improved Listening Skills
No matter where you are on your musical journey, you are gaining “concrete experience.” As long as you are actively doing something that helps you acquire the skills you need to be a better producer, you are learning. This includes critically listening to artists and producers who inspire you. What does it mean to Critically Listen? It includes not just hearing the music, but sensing where everything in the mix fits in space. Elements of critical listening include the balance (how do all the instruments or sounds work together), the dynamic range (louds and softs), the dimension and panorama (do some sounds feel further away than others?), frequency ranges (highs and lows), and interest (does it keep you interested throughout?). A great resource for increasing your critical listening abilities check out Critical Listening Skills for Audio Professionals by F. Alton Everest.
2. Better Playing Skills
When you start from a basis built on solid music fundamentals, including basic scales and chords, the faster you can lay down your midi tracks on keys. The more drum rudiments you get in your toolbox, the easier it will be for you to drum our your drum original beats with a controller or V-drum set. The more “shapes” your hands (and feet) learn, the more natural creating your own original loops, samples, and compositions becomes. If you are looking for a book to help you get all those key fundementals under your fingers, I recommend Alfred's Complete Books of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios & Cadences by William A. Palmer and Hal Leonard's Music Theory for Guitarists by Tom Kolb for guitarists and bassists.
3. More Developed Forms and Arrangement Skills
In music, there are countless standard forms and arrangements. For example, you are probably familiar with the verse-chorus form, also known as A-B form, where you have two distinct sections that repeat. The more types of music you listen to, play, and appreciate, the more common forms you are exposed to.
Some of the most interesting songs and tracks go beyond the most basic. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven are two classic rock songs that are written in more innovative forms. Much of Björk’s catalog is characterized by unique instrument and arrangement choices, such as the unusual instruments like taiko drums, celestas and music boxes and innovative technology such as xylosynth and Reactable. (Cheeck out the Reactable app on GooglePlay and iTunes as well.) Sometimes a little extra repeat of that drum beat that makes it 14 bars, instead of 12 like it is every other time it repeats in the track, can make it stand out and worth remembering.
4. Timelessness and Freedom
The most significant benefit from Music Theory study is the freedom it gives you. When you are able to create music without limits, that still is relatable, you are able to express in a way that only you can. When sticking religiously to one genre or style, your music becomes rooted in that moment in time. Granted music is a temporal art and only exists in time, however, innovative music has the ability to stay fresh even as tastes change. You are able to make that balance between creating something that is familiar to your listeners, but does not bore them. We will explore this topic and discuss these issues more in the future.
George Martin, the legendary producer of The Beatles when talking about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band explained it this way. “When we were doing Pepper, we seemed to stumble on something a little bit more lasting. The combination of using classical influences with rock and roll seemed to me a very good one, and I thought we were doing something, which was actually bringing the disparate worlds together. I’d always resented the snobbishness of classical musicians towards rock and roll, and rock and roll musicians towards classical music – the people who had musical blinders, who could only see what they saw in front of them; they couldn’t see the other side. I thought, how crazy. Music is a wonderful, big world; why limit yourself to one thing?” To read more from Martin and other legendary music producers, I recommend Behind the Glass Volume 1 and Behind the Glass Volume 2 by Howard Massey.
Mastery is a combination of general life experience, age at start, previous education, practice, multiple intelligences, talent, and skill. We will discuss these other factors in future posts. An excellent teacher will cultivate your innate talents and guide you to be the best music creator you can be. Don’t panic if not everything is exactly where you want it to be at first. Learning the arts is not an overnight undertaking; it takes years of dedication, experience, and practice. Keep creating!
Janae Jean is the co-founder of Perennial Music and Arts. Her specialty areas include electronic music, music composition, songwriting, music production, piano, voice, and healing music. She has been creating electronic music using MIDI and other studio techniques for more than two decades. She earned her BA in Music Education/Piano Pedagogy from Judson University and her MM in Computer Music – Composition from the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University. Her preferred DAWs are Logic Pro and Ableton Live. She is a video artist using VDMX and other VJ tools. Click “Book Online” to schedule with her today. (If you are a new client, please fill out the New Student Form.)
Sources and further reading:
Mobbs, Dr. Richard. "Experiential Learning." University of Leicester. https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/gradschool/training/eresources/teaching/theories/kolb accessed 01/23/2018.