Too Complicated? Why Learning Hard Music Makes Everything Easier | Hub Guitar

Too Complicated? Why Learning Hard Music Makes Everything Easier

Artwork by Sergey Banityuk

In the course of studying music, one may notice that increasingly complex and exotic concepts begin to come up.

A Google search on “pentatonic scales” results in the 5-note scale that you were expecting to find, but it also may lead to a long-winded explanation of the traditional pentatonic scales used in Japanese music, such as the kumoi scale.

In modern music, one could reach very great heights and then pass on to the next life without ever having heard of this scale. So what’s the use in knowing it?

Thirst for Knowledge

One thing you might want to decide is how much you are driven by curiosity and how much you are driven by practicality. Learning complex and unusual musical concepts may be very interesting to you, but it may not always have application in the music that you want to make.

Priorities

Another thought is that complex and exotic ideas may be good for some people, but time should not be spent on them until the fundamentals are learned. You have a much better chance of learning fluent English in America than you do in Saudi Arabia. Because you are hearing mostly music coming from the modern musical system, and because the guitar is very much central to that system, it makes sense that you’ll get further studying common, contemporary musical principles than by studying unusual and exotic music concepts—at least in the beginning.

Models

One advantage to learning unusual concepts is that it can help you break free of your assumptions about music. Many of the things you believe about music are likely reflections of the kind of music that you’ve heard. But even within contemporary music styles, conventions vary drastically. A jazz musician might expect that you can improvise a spontaneous solo over a set of chord changes. A classical musician might expect you to read a melody from sheet music. And a rock musician might expect you to be able to learn a part quickly by ear. These are stereotypes, but they reflect a reality that each person’s understanding of music is their own. The more viewpoints you can learn, the more deeply you can understand music. And when you encounter a new musical idea, you will be comparing it not just to one limited framework, but to all of the models of music that you have encountered so far. And this could open the door to more satisfaction, a deeper understanding, and more creative musical results.

Accuracy and Mastery

In many cases, a big advantage can be gained by studying music that is considerably more complex than that which you intend to play.

It’s useful to study a musical style noted for the unusual demands it places on its players.

  • Jazz demands familiarity with complex chords, and ability to improvise melodies based on the notes in them.
  • Classical music places a high demand on the player’s time, tone, dynamics, technique and sight-reading skills.
  • Funk often features complex syncopated rhythmic patterns, unique to the style.
  • Blues places less emphasis on notes, scales, chords and techniques, and more emphasis on playing with a feeling that can’t be written down.
  • World music of almost any type will have conventions that can be learned from and re-used in other contexts.

There are many more. In fact, every style of music presents its own unique challenges. And most styles of instrumental music have at least one distinguishing trait that makes the style somewhat harder than other styles, in at least one aspect.

There are many areas of our playing that may not be in high-demand in the music that we play regularly. But isn’t it likely the case that increasing our abilities also increases our difficulty threshold, and allows us to play everything more effortlessly? Even if we don’t play funk rhythms often, doesn’t the fact that we’ve mastered such difficult rhythms give us an edge even in a situation where the rhythm is more basic?

Coda

Only you can decide which concepts you have time to master. In any case, it is reasonable to prioritize these concepts based on their immediate use to you. However, it’s a great idea to keep an open mind, and focus your practice on extending your abilities outward, as this will help you to avoid the rut, keep progress rolling, and make small improvements every day.

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