My name is Hilmar and I hail from Iceland. I teach guitar currently at a music school in Reykjavík as a day job but I’m hoping this project can one day support me.
I have some strong views on how to approach Music as a subject and how old ways and institutions are taking the fun and practicality out of it. So If you want to understand my approach to the guitar and music in general I recommend that you read (and watch I guess) the article below.
When you go about learning the guitar it‘s best to have two types of goals: A Short term one where you focus on something attainable in the near future. This could be a song, a picking technique or a scale for example. You should as well have Long-term goal or a view on where you want to be one day. This could be anything. What do you like? Who is your favourite guitarist? In my case the long-term goal is to become a great a fingerstyle player like Tommy Emmanuel and be able to play improvisational jazz like the greats. The long term goal is not about reaching any point in particular but rather just a direction or a path to stay on. It’s easier to continue walking if you have a sens of direction. In any case check out this great talk about inspiration from the legendery Steve Vai:
But before we start discussing how to learn and practice music we should try to answer the question what music is really? A very common answer might be something like “music is the language of the soul” or “you can express your feelings or emotions with the language of music” and so forth. Well in my opinion that is not so far from the truth. It seems to be easy to relate emotions to some sounds and harmonies. As an example the simple explanation i use for beginners for the difference between major and minor is that the former is happy sounding while the latter is sad sounding stated of course in the most general terms since not all major key based songs are happy sounding and vice versa. But we have to go further back to really understand music. A must see for any aspiring musician is the BBC documentary “How Does Music Work” with Howard Goodall. You can see this great show on Youtube. Here it is in three parts.
Part 1 - Melody
Part 2 – Rhythm
Part 3 – Harmony
Mr. Goodall’s show is a intriguing look on the history and evolution of music to modern times but it’s worth thinking more about what music is. To go further back in the regression is to wonder why certain sounds in certain arrangement are pleasing to the ear. Vihart has an excellent video that analyses the science and mathematics of sound, frequency and pitch to use her phrasing in the title of the video.
For my part you can trace the sense of music to the pattern seeking behavior of the brain. We strive to recognize patterns and apply meaning to these patterns. A simple analogy would be a baby that hears the moo sound for the first time and although it hears the sound it does not understand or associate that sound to anything in particular. With repeated pattern recognition it learns to associate that sound to the animal, perhaps after seeing a cow on tv or in real life mooing.
With visual association of the sound to the animal the baby learns the meaning of the sound Moo or you could say the concept of moo becomes meaningful. In childrens teaching material this would be: the cow says moo, the duck quack etc. What I mean really is that our concept of good or bad music is something we are taught or something imprinted on us by our contextual surroundings. The largest parts of our brains are used for social pattern calculations such as face recognition, understanding group dynamics and language. The same pattern seeking mechanism applies for listening to and learning Music.
Musical tastes are thus usually something people train in terms of patterns if you listen to similar kind of music you are training yourself in understanding that kind of music. An easy explanation would be for example metal music. Many that are not used to listening to metal perceive the that kind of music as noise since their pattern awareness is not great in this musical genre. Same goes for jazz and any other form i guess. Musical taste is in my opinion often strongly associated with group and social identity or group-think rather than some higher musical understanding. “Im Indie so I dress indie I listen to indie and I live as an Indie”. In the end is there something that is real In terms of taste? Probably not completely but many people still agree upon the brilliance of Mozart and I’m one of them. Is that because we’ve all learned to love him or is he the just plainly the apotheosis of music (no! Bach was a greater!). I wonder if we would encounter a alien race that could, and probably would, have arrived at a totally different understanding of music something that could sound only as static to our ears. Well obviously I don’t know…. yet anyway!
So why is popular music usually with one verse and one really catchy chorus and often the same chord progression through out with only the melody changing in the chorus and only three or four chords? First off for those that understand some music theory they will recognize the typical chord progression as the I-IV-V (1-4-5). Again it seems to me that apart from the social identity factor that there is this strong association with tempos close to our rate of heartbeat but as well this basic chordal relationship that we’ve heard so many times that it clicks instantly in our mind as something catchy.
A different example could be indian singing. If a western person listens to this type of singing they might perceive some of those notes false or wrong but that is just because that person does not have this particular microtonal pattern imprinted on them and thus feels like it’s out of harmony. Timing is also a factor here. Check out this video of Bobby McFerrin showing us how the pentatonic scale or the pentatonic harmonic relationship is common through out the world.
Musical education, similarly to the recording industry, today is like so many norms and institutions totally stuck somewhere in the past. The world was different when there was no radio, no Tv, and music was something for the elite as a part of the higher arts. Think the times of the great composers. If you were a musician you would either be a performer or a composer. The performer just does the work, gets the notes for the new piece and performs it almost like the first computers that were fed code on punch cards. The composer on the other hand writes out pieces of music in the Musical notation system for the performers to read. Now remember this was in a time when there was no recording so to preserve the music It had to be written down. The problem that follows this old school of thought is that instead of teaching the musical notation system as the tool that it is, as something extra that you can use if you decide to work in some serious composing or in the classical scene it becomes the framework and outer box of the whole musical understanding it’s like teaching somebody to write before you teach him to speak and always when the person learns a word that was not a part of the original written vocabulary it can’t be used. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in the situation where you have this high level piano player(or some other instrument not to single anyone out:) that can do wonderful things with notes in front of him/her and then when you ask them to play something simple or improvise they are dumbstruck in the musical sense. It boggles my mind when I see some professional musicians play simple 3 or 4 chord songs (or blues, imagine that) in 4/4 time using the musical notation system and turning pages. Sorry but If you can’t learn by heart three chords then you should choose a different profession. For my part music is mostly something we perceive with our ears and we should start and end there. We need to listen more. Anyway check out this talk from one of the greatest bass players in the world Victor Wooten where he goes into this subject.
The formal musical education is very boxed in like any other educational system for that matter and should again be viewed as such. Check out this informative talk by Ken Robinson on the educational system. Though he is talking broadly and generally about the educational system his point also applies to formal musical institutions.
Now I don’t read or write notes and I don’t really see any importance there for majority of people engaging in music today. Most people just want to create something or being able to play the guitar in a party, maybe to impress that girl you liked or boy, and as such the musical notation system is not necessary and should be viewed as a tool for those who want to go professionally into music maybe go in the orchestra or big time film scores where you have live performers. But let me stress one important point! I do not oppose the Musical Notation system it is the only efficient way to write down music that includes rhythm melody and bass etc that all types of performers can read and if one wants to go into the classical arena then the Musical notation system is a requirement. Imagine going through a different hour long classical piece every night and have to learn them by heart every time. There is almost nothing as gratifying than sitting in a concert hall with a full symphonic orchestra, around 100 performers, and listen to this wall of sound and harmony where every player has to be in time and harmony with all the others. I would indeed very much not want that old institution to disappear and it most likely won’t but let’s face it kids today are not approaching music like it was done a century ago (Step 1. Buy iMac, Step 2. Install some music generators. Step 3. Press play/record. Step 4. Become the next Scrillex.). I should point out that there are some schools of thought that put emphasis on listening like the Suzuki method.
Now enough ranting about norms and institutions and back to the subject at hand. Today unlike the century ago we have the internet, we have Youtube and so forth. Education and information is not exclusive now to those who can afford or have the time to go schools. You can learn anything today for free on the internet you just have to use your critical mind to discern the good material from the bad. This site has, in itself, nothing new to offer, I’m not reinventing the wheel here I would rather say that this site is my attempt to have a coherent source of information where chords scales and music theory is taught from above mentioned perspective with the practical aim of minimizing the effort of creating use value out of the music theory. Meaning being able to play a simple pentatonic solo as soon as possible. Now the great thing about the internet is that today you have easy access to the best of the best and in a few hours you can surf the web or Youtube and get a strong perspective of what is happening in the world of music. Thus you get a baseline or a maybe a long term goal of what the “elite” is doing. Think of it in terms of learning the unicycle. Before the internet I would have maybe bought a book or joined the unicycle club in Reykjavík. There I can only see what the guy in the book talks about or what the other 2 guys in my unicycle club are doing. Now with a few clicks I can see the best of the best around the world doing their unicycle performances updated instantly. I can learn new tricks, incorporate them into my own routine while picking up several styles of unicycling and thus creating my own style all without leaving the comfort of my home. For you scientific minds out there think of it in terms of peer review. When learning something try to look at it from many perspectives check out my site find another similar one and compare and thus create your own style by combining the ideas of others. No one is truly original in the sense that his creativity and originality stems from his experiences of the world around him. Now it’s super important to realize that if you want to become good at anything that it takes time and effort. Nothing happens in itself or on its own. The internet and commercial world of money is full of lies telling you that you can learn Chinese in 5 days or get great abs with only five minutes a day and these lies have ruined the time and effort vs. payoff equation for people. In my teaching career I constantly encounter individuals that started a guitar seminar with me just to quit right away when they realized that it actually took some time and effort to get to their goal. They couldn’t just show up once a week and suddenly *poof* a great guitar player is born. It’s the same thing with Hollywood and love. People are always waiting for their own Sleepless in Seattle love story to happen, their prince or princess in shining white armor (take that gender roles!). Wake up! this is not reality. Do not base your real world expectations on these kind of three part golden ratio stories. Reality is messy and irregular and non linear. If you’ve played the guitar for 20 years meaning that a guitar has been hanging on your wall and you still only know the three songs and 6 chords that doesn’t really mean that you were playing the guitar for 20 years rather that you played it for one year and then you touched it every once in a while the next 19. It’s about the minutes in the hours of the day you spend practicing. Have you ever heard about the 10.000 hours rule to become an expert? Well although there can’t be any definite rule for this since people and subjects differ greatly but this still underscores the main point which is that reaching an expert level in anything will take time and energy and effort.
People may have different beginning points in terms of learning something new some people have stronger genetic predisposition to music like maybe being born with perfect pitch. But everybody has the ability to learn and I mean everybody! Saying I’m tone-deaf I can’t learn music Is like when the kids say that they can’t learn mathematics. Maybe that’s true for a very small minority but most have just never practiced or tried to use the brain for some awesome pattern recognition in that specific field and yes It might take more time and effort if you’re one of those “tone deaf” people but it is very attainable goal and even perfect pitch is something you can learn If you want to put the time and effort into it.