What are your musical "aha" moments?
January 13, 2010 9:17 PM   Subscribe

I've just recently started teaching music & I want to do a good job not just teaching the technical aspects, but really getting at musicality. What were your "aha" moments when you were learning music & how do you think you could produce those same flashes of insight in someone else?

I've been playing music for nearly 20 years now and I find myself teaching others for fun (and hopefully) profit. In my experience, once you get past the basic mechanics, scales, knowledge, etc. and start getting into making music, really grokking music comes in "aha" moments.

What were your musical "aha" moments and how do you think you could induce these sorts of flashes of insights in others?

If you teach music - when do you see the lightbulb go on in your student's heads?

What are the best music teaching resources (books, etc.) you've come across?

What non-standard teaching methods have worked for you? What standard teaching methods have worked for you?

And lastly, if you're still facing problems as a musician (no matter what your skill level), what are those problems?
posted by MesoFilter to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This kind of "aha" moment is what Benjamin Zander's TED talk was all about.
posted by xil at 9:29 PM on January 13, 2010

Best answer: Look into Flow in music for improvisational or composing aha
posted by lalochezia at 9:54 PM on January 13, 2010

Best answer: Aha moments:

In the classical domain: listening to different renditions of the same work and realising what a difference tempo and phrasing made. Stress this note, or that note? Why? How does that work? What is the meaning of this? Also listening to slow early baroque music (eg Corelli) that was actually full of dissonance (owing to suspensions, counterpoint) yet extremely sweet sounding, and asking myself why that dissonance was great whereas random dissonance was not -- this has since informed my improvising in non-classical music.

In the non-classical domain: late-night improvisation with others, with substances. Worked for me. Playing at sessions with randomly selected people where tunes and preparation were forbidden.

Generally: A violin teacher who explained to me that if she had a problem with a particular passage technically, she would try and define what the technique flaw was, and then locate a study or exercise that addressed it (this calls for Sevcik Vol 2 exercise 16!), and if necessary invent one. (Maybe that's a *duh* thing for other people but it was a lightbulb moment for me).

The notion that mental rehearsal and practice are almost as useful as physical practise. Fill your idle commuting time with mentally playing tricky passages. Wow.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:12 PM on January 13, 2010

Best answer: You could look into the Suzuki method. It teaches musicality pretty well, and the principles are very adaptable. Basically Suzuki students are taught to play imitatively, copying sounds rather than decoding notes on a page. So the student hears a recording of the song played beautifully, many times, before ever attempting to play it herself, and therefore she plays the intention of a familiar song, rather than painfully pecking out notes of a song she barely knows. You end up with little kids playing like this.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:26 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Excellent responses so far. Keep 'em coming.

This kind of "aha" moment is what Benjamin Zander's TED talk was all about.

That is an excellent speech & I remember having an "aha" when he talked about how conscious each type of player is of the impulses. It's definitely something I struggle with in my playing - when I learn a new piece or am forced to play in a style I'm not comfortable with I'm very conscious of where I'm placing my notes & as I get more comfortable with it, that worry & the stilted playing goes away.

My biggest challenge is deciding when to stop studying and start making noise. I'm getting pretty good at creating both a sketch of an idea and a complete realization of an idea each week.

I tend to think studying is mainly useful when you're in the creative process already. Study for its own sake is a great thing, but it's most fruitful when you're in motion already & it can be used to guide you and give you new insights that can be used immediately. If you learn a new concept or technique and can immediately apply it to what you're doing - that's when you're the most productive.

Let them make some sounds, and then move forward in a dialog. I think that people who really get music treat instruments and composition like legos.

I generally agree with this. I also think it would also be good to develop a student's voice apart from any artificial constructs (including guitar & piano) and really try to develop an innate sense of music. I had a vocal teacher who was part of a famous a-cappella group and each lesson was an ear opener & a lot of fun.

Look into Flow in music for improvisational or composing aha

I agree, Flow is important & the goal is to keep the students challenged just enough that they're consistently able to hit a state of flow while progressing in their playing. Sort of like playing a video game - each level is progressively harder, while building on the skills you developed in the previous levels.

The question is, though, what specific things can induce these flow/aha moments.

You could look into the Suzuki method. It teaches musicality pretty well, and the principles are very adaptable. Basically Suzuki students are taught to play imitatively, copying sounds rather than decoding notes on a page.

Thanks for that link, it looks interesting - I like the idea of music being taught like language & agree with a lot of those concepts. What seems to be missing from the Suzuki method is an interplay, a dialogue. Children learn language not just by imitating videos, but by having a dialogue with people.

Which sort of gets back to the building blocks concept. If we develop short musical phrases we can use in various situations (or modify), it gives us the ability to have brief musical conversations with each other.

listening to different renditions of the same work and realising what a difference tempo and phrasing made. Stress this note, or that note? Why? How does that work? What is the meaning of this?

Have you listened to 20 Pieces of Music that Changed the World? In one piece (#19) he show how Charlier Parker's Ornithology is a play on How High the Moon, and that's true of a lot of music. Worrying too much about musical originality without being aware of basic structure is like worrying about the fact that this sentence contains the words "is like" and not realizing that metaphor is a critically important part of language.

I'm gonna hit the hay - keep the ideas coming, I'll check back in & I want to see a lot of great insights.
posted by MesoFilter at 11:00 PM on January 13, 2010

Best answer: I saw a great speaker while in high school. He had the audience, a hundred or so band leaders and drum majors stand up, and he hummed a pitch. He told us to hum the same pitch, and after we matched it, he had us hold the hands of the people next to us. Instantly the sound was transformed into a louder, fuller sound. Next he did the same thing, dividing the audience into parts of a major triad. The chord filled up tremendously when we joined hands. Although simple, it was definitely an 'aha' moment for me.
posted by mcarlson85 at 11:02 PM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In guitar music/pop music, I guess that I'm still waiting for the aha moment where I can sing while strumming the way I strum when I'm not singing.
posted by kensington314 at 1:05 AM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: What are the best music teaching resources (books, etc.) you've come across?

Developing Musical Structures
The goal of this class is practical: to interrogate, make explicit, and thus to develop the powerful musical intuitions that are at work as you make sense of the music all around you.
The title of the course is intended as a three-way pun. Developing Musical Structures means:
* your own musical compositions as developing, emergent structures.
* complex musical compositions developing, evolving, becoming, structuring over time.
* mental musical structures developing and learning as they guide musical intuitions.

posted by Gyan at 2:11 AM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: What ages are you teaching?

My first aha moment was in about 7th grade when I had gotten better on trumpet than the grade school band teacher and started to get bored on the instrument. My mom got me two Maurice Andre albums and I was humbled.

Shortly thereafter I started taking private lessons from a local player. His focus was on technique through music, not music through technique. The next aha moment came in when he started assigning me arias from the back section of Arban's. He would have me play them a couple times and then tell me what I did and did I really mean to do x, y, and z? I found my voice this way.

As a bit of sneakiness he also assigned the arias with transposition (ie, play this one as C trumpet). I say sneaky because he was preparing me to be a gigging player. Getting the music in the right key is a blessing, not the standard and you rarely have enough time to transcribe/transpose. You transpose on sight. That skill paid for itself many times over.
posted by plinth at 3:13 AM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: For me, it helped to learn music history, and to be able to place the music pieces I heard/played in a historical context/narrative.
Er. One of my musical 'aha' moments was when I, after studying the score and historical context of Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique, heard the movement in which the protagonist gets carried off to the guillotine and beheaded. I heard the pizzicato and 'witnessed' the beheading in my head - I 'saw' the music, and it was amazing. I probably wouldn't have had that moment if my teacher hadn't gone through the score, the main themes and the story behind the symphony before letting my class hear the music. All the good music teachers I have had were people that had extensive music history knowledge - that absolutely loved music history. And I think that passion for discerning narratives within and around music was what helped me to find meaning in music and its nuances.
But different people learn differently, perhaps - and appreciate music in different ways.

In terms of current problems...
If I could go back and do things differently, I wish I could have studied technique more explicitly for the piano. My piano teachers tended to teach technique sort of insidiously - I had weekly studies that focused on different aspects of technique but somehow I can't describe or impart piano technique verbally. I think most of my piano teachers built my technique by giving me progressively harder pieces to play, and giving me little pointers - but with no big/general theories/guidelines. (Or maybe I can't remember that well. I started out on the Suzuki method for a few years and I vaguely remember being taught technique more explicitly during that time, but I was about 3 then - can't remember much.) I studied violin technique much more explicitly in this sense. It's not that I don't have piano technique - I do - just that I play pieces without knowing how exactly I'm able to, and that sort of bugs me. I don't have this insecurity with violin since I studied violin technique differently. (This sort of makes me a better violin teacher than piano teacher even though I like and play the latter more.)
Another thing I would change would be my ear training... maybe. I feel like I (and maybe my friends/peers) developed my own ability to play by ear, and I might have benefited from more formal aural training (which I did have - just that I think more, and more precise training would have been better). I have relative pitch, and I used to have perfect pitch - not sure whether I still do. And I can figure out basic stuff by ear - but I wish I could play something in all its details, by ear, after hearing it once.
And my last 'problem' would be my handspan (just an 8ve), but that's not exactly a problem in the sense that it has informed the development of my own music 'voice' - my compositions are very closely-voiced. I don't think I'll ever be able to play stuff like Rachmaninov the way it was meant to be played though. Maybe I should have done more hand-stretching exercises when I was still growing.
posted by aielen at 3:20 AM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: As a bassist, an "aha" moment was becoming aware of the layout of the frets and the relationships between the strings:
- this string + next string two frets up = nice chord
- this string + string after next two frets up = octave
- this string = previous string five frets up

... and so on. It was one of the moments that I learned how the damn thing worked. :)
posted by DWRoelands at 3:37 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I jumped in to make aielen's point about visualizing music, which for me started by listening to classical music while drifting off to sleep, but I also want to add that an aha moment was to hear some microtonal pieces (I can't remember what culture they came from). It was an ear-opener to discover sounds in between our half-tones and it changed how I hear.
posted by carmicha at 4:50 AM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: one small "a-ha" moment for me, after learning theory and reading notes for piano was simply to learn a scale (i.e. blues scale) for the right hand while playing simple corresponding chords on the left. hey... i can IMPROVISE!
posted by mrmarley at 5:46 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In terms of musicality, my big aha moment was that what I play can only ever sound as good as what I can imagine playing. In other words, if I hear a piece in my head the way a computerized midi rendering of the sheet music would sound, it will sound terrible and emotionally flat when I play it. If every time I begin a piece, I hear myself as a beginner mangling it, I will always sound "intermediate". To really make a piece sound good, I have to internalize what "good" means, and be able to imagine ways that the notes on the page could be interpreted into flowing musical lines - preferably multiple ways. To play something in an interesting, emotional, and personal way, I need to imagine the way that music would sound if I were the best musician on the planet - I need a goal just as much as I need the technical skill to make that goal a reality. Consider - is the difference between a good soloist in the technical ability or in the imagination?

Of course, I know that there are some jaw-droppingly good instrumental musicians who can't sing/hum/carry a tune in a bucket. This is just me; I play by ear. I can't play something better than I can hum it, but that's not true for people with other learning/playing styles. I have no idea what goes on in their heads.
posted by aimedwander at 6:10 AM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: My 'aha' moment came about in high school about 5 or 6 years after I started studying flute. I could play quick runs and read complicated rhythms just fine, but I had never LISTENED to what I was doing. By listening and being able to 'hear' in your head, the nature of performance itself changes completely.
It sounds simple, but the act of true listening is incredibly beneficial, and I think that it is sometimes glossed over in early music education. Sure, the teacher says "Listen close!", but addressing deep listening specifically might be really great. Even just listening to a lot of different(including experimental pieces! kids love new music if you get them started on it early) pieces just for the sake of listening is helpful. I believe this is a central component of the Suzuki Method, but I haven't used it so I can't say for sure.
Also seconding simple composition/improv exercises. It never occurred to me that I could compose music until a theory teacher started assigning short free composition assignments. I ended up going to music school for composition!
posted by supernaturelle at 6:24 AM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: I feel pretty blessed to have grown up with a dual emphasis on both singing and playing the cello. They've definitely informed one another. However, I didn't pursue them at the same time; I switched over to being a singer in college after several years of fairly high-level orchestral playing with some solo stuff on the side.

It was exciting, then, to come into a choir and realize that I was one of the better singers there simply from my orchestral experience. I've mentioned this before, but one of the key points of orchestral playing (probably from being terrified of the conductor for one reason or another) is that you DON'T STOP UNTIL YOU'RE TOLD. You mess up, you keep going. Singers get flustered and stop. And I knew how to listen to the sounds around me to match my tone.

Similarly, when I got back to playing cello every so often, I found that I had a lot of expression in my playing because I knew how to sing and control my breath.

I'm convinced that anyone can have these kinds of moments by comparing two different sources making similar sounds. How does Queen make these awesome operatic sounds while clearly remaining a rock band? How does Renee Fleming sound compared to Ian Bostridge when they're both singing Schubert lieder, and why? If you're a cellist, what might you do differently when you're playing in an orchestra than when you're a soloist?

Other points:
Eurythmics and just feeling free to be physical are a big deal. Even the best performers MUST be physical, whether performing or practicing, tapping out a rhythm or using their hand to help them "reach" for a high note.

I remember going to a dress rehearsal with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax when I was 10 or so, watching Ma breathe and stare at the ceiling and move with his instrument.

Faking it 'til you make it is a perfectly reasonable way to practice. When I was first learning how to play the Bach cello suites, I used to play along with our records of Pablo Casals.

Everything builds on everything else. That's why Bach and Mozart so amazing: you see the patterns and you feel the voice leading and you UNDERSTAND. Having comprehension of that kind of stuff, how notes and rhythms relate to each other, is critical to moving beyond that stage and being free to improvise with purpose.

Doing the Bach B Minor Mass was SUCH a huge deal for me; it was the longest and most difficult work I'd ever done, and my voice part was such that I sang the lowest low notes and the highest high notes. But DAMN, it made me feel HEALTHY. My brain and my body and my musicality and my voice were all working as one.

Finally, this is such a simple memory, but it's a big one. I was several months into playing the cello as a fourth-grader, after years dinking around on the piano and singing in church choir when I felt like it. I COULD NOT get "Perpetual Motion" in the first Suzuki book. Maybe the patterns tripped me up; I don't know. But as I sat in my living room, crying because I couldn't get it right, my dad came down and helped me put it together, bit by bit. And my dad is... well, he can only play "Muskrat Ramble" on a good day; my mom's the piano teacher. But we isolated every note, and then every measure, and then every line, until we had done the whole piece.

And that's all they are: notes on a page. You can do anything; it's all laid out for you, right there. But you wouldn't say that everybody does it the same way, would you?

That's the a-ha moment.
posted by Madamina at 8:09 AM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: When I first started learning music I was playing woodwind instruments and thought of the whole enterprise as essentially a code: read note, translate into fingering, correct note comes out. I didn't think of the different notes as relating to each other as chords, and while I understood the concept of key signatures in that they changed the 'code' slightly, I didn't understand why they existed.

Switching to a brass instrument was really eye-opening - suddenly, simply because I used the same fingering for different notes within the octave, the concept of chords and relationships between notes made much more sense. So that was one of my aha moments.

I haven't really had much to do with music as an adult, but recently a friend - who never had any music training but has played guitar in bands - was starting to learning trumpet. For some reason it really blew his mind that the trumpet is in B-flat. He'd never encountered the concept of an instrument being pitched differently before and was really confused by it - he kept talking about the 'real' notes he was playing versus the notes that the sheet music showed and asking why they couldn't just switch up the fingering or change the size of the trumpet. I couldn't really answer fully, but that was sort of a reverse aha moment - realizing that something that seemed normal to me from my middle school concert band days wouldn't fit into someone else's conception of how music works.
posted by yarrow at 9:00 AM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: My "aha" moments only seem to come after weeks or months of study, and not during the study itself but when I recognize confidence in areas of my playing where I used to feel dread or discomfort.
The thing that's helped me most recently is interval training. I've been using this site almost daily for a few months - I plug away until I identify 50 intervals and then move on to other things. Now I find that I'm getting better at singing harmonies in songs I haven't already picked apart, and that's something I used to dread. Close enough to "aha" for me these days.
posted by ChuqD at 9:51 AM on January 14, 2010

Response by poster: hi all, I'm @ work so not posting much, but have a bit of a break.

yarrow- That disconnect between trumpet players & guitar players has to do with the overtone series & how many modern musicians raised on equal temperament music are largely unaware of where notes, chords, scales, etc. come from. Either they think it's handed down from on high & not something we're supposed to know the reason of, or totally man made & artificial, when it's somewhere in between the two, but completely comprehensible to just about anyone.

It's sad that this isn't one of the first things we're taught as musicians, it was the de-facto first thing musicians were taught for hundreds of years (probably from at least as far back as 1600 to the early part of the 20th century).

It's interesting that you weren't really aware of that even as a woodwind player, I'd think woodwind players would be aware of the overtone series too - can't you "overblow" a flute to make it sound various harmonics?

Keep posting guys, I'll pop back when I get home from work.
posted by MesoFilter at 10:35 AM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: The biggest jump I ever made in music making was to understand just how important hearing is, and how to do it. A lot of ear training starts out with interval recognition, which is unfortunate; I think that's where it should end. No, the important thing, if you're learning to hear tonal music, is hearing scale degrees and scale degree function, and you don't need to be able to recognize intervals to do that, as the TED talk xil links to demonstrates (though I caution anybody who watches it to ignore WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE the sort of cultural universality he ascribes to classical music, that's a load of shit). Where it really starts to feel powerful is when you develop the ability to hear two or more lines in your head while understanding their function. Once you start hearing this way, it all comes together -- harmony, melody, their interplay, phrasing, modulation -- soon the notes go away and it feels like you're in the musician's head ala Being John Malkovitch, and a piece of music really feels like a succession of events instead of sounds.

I think I come off as a little nuttier than I intended in the above paragraph because I'm in a rush to leave the house, but I stand by the basic sentiment.
posted by invitapriore at 12:02 PM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: Oh, and I got to be able to do multi-voice hearing by doing counterpoint exercises and forcing myself to read and write them without the aid of a piano, but I'm sure there are other ways if you're not interested in going the classical route. Reading lead sheets and hearing bass and melody at the same time, for example.
posted by invitapriore at 12:04 PM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: My first and most vivid aha moment was when performing Grieg's Nocturne at a school concert aged about 12. My piano teacher had been telling me about the importance of pauses and silences in music in the run up to the concert. There are a few lovely pauses in the Grieg and at that concert I could feel the silence of the audience as they anticipated the next note. It was an amazing experience and literally made me tingle.

I'm now 29 years old and that little Grieg Nocturne is still my favourite piece to play.
posted by jonnyploy at 12:16 PM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: invitapriore - I agree. Learning intervals should be the end of ear training (or a step along the way) and not the beginning. Intervals are difficult to hear. For some beginners even major vs. minor is difficult to hear.

Scale degree & scale function, especially when you're playing chords (V7 -> I, for example) is easier to hear. As I was learning music, I only put emphasis on this later on & I think things would have gone a lot smoother if I'd learned this earlier.

Having a working understanding of the different functions of the various scale degrees - and hearing it - is a powerful "aha."
posted by MesoFilter at 1:01 PM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: MesoFilter and invitapore: Thank you thank you thank you for those comments about intervals vs. scale degrees. I couldn't agree more. This old comment of mine describes in detail how I taught myself scale degrees, which, as you said, was an aha moment.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:46 PM on January 14, 2010

Response by poster: Jaltcoh - excellent post & I agree.

Another thing to consider when learning scale degrees is amount of consonance & dissonance & where that scale degree may want to resolve to. I think this is most easily illustrated with a M7 -> 8va (major 7th to octave) movement. The 7th is dissonant & unstable (though it's also pretty, even if it's dissonant - dissonant doesn't mean unpleasing, it means unstable) and will want to resolve to the nearest note that's consonant (stable), so it's pulled in by octave.

Which I think gets to joe's spleen's post about how dissonance can be beautiful. The famous Tristan chord doesn't resolve for quite a long time, yet it's achingly beautiful (though many considered it to be ugly at the time). Or dissonance can be unpleasant as well. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is very dissonant, and it's difficult to listen to.

Another way to learn scale degrees is to learn them as perfect (8va, P5, P4), imperfect consonant (M3, m3, M6, m6), imperfect dissonant (M7, m7, M2, m2), tritone. This sort of grouping is rather instructive. The perfect intervals have a certain sound that's different from the imperfect consonances, etc.
posted by MesoFilter at 2:55 PM on January 14, 2010

Response by poster: Excellent answers. Some really amazing stuff here. That Bobby McFerron video is absolutely mind blowing & really points at the universality of the pentatonic scale.

I'll share a few of my aha moments with you.

When I first started playing I had a really bad ear (I still don't have a great ear, but it's much better now - I never hear it when Randy says someone was 'pitchy' on American Idol). I was practically tone deaf, or as close to it as you could be & still have a desire to make music. My bass could be totally out of tune & I'd never know - I just put my fingers in the right places.

Then I heard he major third (or more precisely, the 10th) and its beauty & it informed my playing for many years to come. I still think of the beauty of the third whenever I'm noodling around on a guitar. I developed an instinct for melody after that, and in later years I'd learn just how closely my instinct conforms to the (admittedly scant) theories that we have of melody.

Another "aha" was discovering equal temperament & just intonation and exploring the overtone series. The overtone series has been a never ending series of "aha" moments for me over the past few years.

I began noticing that equal temperament music isn't made for sustained harmony - guitars and pianos are very percussive instruments & the notes are made to die away quickly when compared to, say, the string section of an orchestra.

Another "aha" was finding the harmonic on the guitar equivalent to the major third (at the 9th fret) and building a major chord (in inversion) from harmonics - 7th fret D string, 9th fret A string, 5th fret E string. Hearing this "pure" harmony for the first time ever coming from a guitar was ear opening, and the formerly sweet sound of the major third played using equal temperament sounded dull & a bit lifeless by comparison.

Another one was really grokking the idea that all chord progressions are tonic, subdominant, dominant progressions (I, IV, V). I'd heard that many times throughout my life, but really understanding it has changed the way I approach writing music & the way I think about analyzing music. Songs are no longer a collection of random chords, they're fulfilling one of the three purposes of tonic, subdominant and dominant (with a lot of gray area & ambiguity).

As others have said, studying the history of (western) music has been revealing as well. Learning about Ancient Greek music (since its some of the earliest music we have a record of & writing about) and how it grew into plainchant, and how that grew into polyphony and form there Baroque and from there Classical (which popular until the early to mid 20th century) and then about Blues, Jazz & Rock - along the way finding out the "aha" moments in history have informed my thinking of "aha" moments (a-la Howard Goodall's Big Bangs), but more focused on harmony and less on the mechanics of making music. Finding humanity's (at least Western) "aha" moments has been a very interesting journey for me.
posted by MesoFilter at 10:19 PM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: I'm sure I've had several "Aha" moments, but there are a couple more prominent memories that really impacted how I approach my practice and performance times.

1. A brass quintet was visiting my university, and after a master class in the noon hour one of the trumpet players told any of our studio to find him after our rehearsals and we could "jam." Since I seemed to be the only one to take him up on the offer, it turned into an impromptu lesson. We played a few things together, but the thing that stuck with me came when he had me play through a solo piece I was working on for my lessons. He stopped me after a few phrases and told me to try to make my playing sound like a clarinet, and then an oboe, a violin, etc. He was trying to get the point across that by approaching my horn in a different way, I could reach a whole new level of musicality. Anyone can make the trumpet sound the way a trumpet sounds, but how many people make the trumpet sound like a voice or woodwind or stringed instrument? It was a huge "aha" moment for me.

2. Another time I was working through a trumpet piece made famous by Timofei Dokshitzer, and I was discussing it with, coincidentally, the same trumpet player from #1. He had made a comment about how the pice was great but he would play it differently than it was played for the recording. Eventually he said, "A lot has changed in trumpet style since that recording was made..." Until then, I hadn't ever really considered the trumpet standards as a changing medium. I had always just listened to recordings, and emulated them, taking the attitude of, "This is how it was done. This is how it IS done." (With the exception, perhaps, of cornet vs. trumpet performances...) It was something that really put me on a different track of thinking when it came to my playing In fact, it's something I still have to really make myself think about and work with. It's very comfortable to emulate when you have the basic skills, but that's not really what music is about. The hardest thing is to create.

As for books, I had one professor that insisted the entire studio read Maxwell Maltz's "Psycho Cybernetics" and often recommended books like "The Art of War." Those were sort of hit or miss reading for me. I could see how to apply it, but it wasn't really an "Aha" kind of thing. Others in the studio really dug it though.
posted by Kimothy at 5:55 PM on January 17, 2010

Best answer: One of my big "aha" moments was hearing from my mentor that he was not interested in hearing music he liked, because he knew that music well already, and had no need to compose it or even seek out more of it, it was already well represented in his record collection. What he was interested in instead was that music which he did not like yet. He found even the fact of discovering a music that he had been unaware of, and did not end up liking, better than finding yet more of music he already liked before he heard it.

This is not just a strategy for listening to music, but even more importantly a criterion for composition.
posted by idiopath at 6:09 AM on January 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: My life has sort of progressed the other way - I spend more time now thinking about what a good bass player would do, and less time just indulging my whims (which were rarely what a bass player would do). I have some vindication of my old frenetic style in the music of the yeah yeah yeahs and other bands that focus on melodic riffy stuff.

I go through phases of scrapping everything on my ipod loading it up with all new stuff, recommended to me by friends, various world-music discs, etc., and then use the rating system to start culling. 4 & 5 star songs stay, 3 star & below go. Even when everything gets familiar, I start culling stuff that's too familiar.

I really should go one step further and figure out what's going on in the 4 & 5 star songs that make me perk up and take notice.

Another realization was that there are only 3 ways to connect chords.

2nds - no notes in common
3rds - 2 notes in common
4ths - 1 note in common

I made this discovery as I started using piano to arrange more & started trying to think in terms of voice leading & inversions. I could turn any chord into any other chord gradually by just changing a note here & a note there.

I also started working more inversions into my playing. So what if the song progresses by 5ths or 3rds, I can progress by 2nds. Sometime I purposefully progress my line in ascending or descending 2nds. It's really taken a lot of getting my ears to grow to get to this point. Previously everything I did was brash because I couldn't hear the subtleties, now I can hear the subtleties and I strive to put more of that in the music.
posted by MesoFilter at 10:11 PM on February 1, 2010

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