After teaching one-on-one for more than twenty-five years I have a good understanding of the successes and difficulties people have with learning to play music. Everything I have ever played, studied or taught boils down to some simple facts; and the most basic of these is that music is a language. This is not a new idea to mankind, but it is something I want to point out because its relevancy is often missed.
As in speaking, one communicates with words, in music one communicates with notes and sounds. There are only so many symbols, sounds and words to understand and when you learn them you can speak, read and understand what it’s all about. Then one either develops a small yet functional vocabulary or a large and involved one. And as people learn to speak before learning to read, learning to play music before learning to read music is an efficient first step. (And did you know there are only six little shapes that make up most of written music?)
You could break down the musical language into three categories: melody, harmony and rhythm. ‘Melody’ is a series of single notes (note: a specific musical sound), ‘Harmony’ is combinations of notes and ‘Rhythm’ is the placement of sounds and notes. Besides physical technique and lyrics – that’s all there is to the mechanical fundamentals. The mechanics of music are finite. The creative application is unlimited.
To get more out of your playing, or get re-started if you’ve stopped, you can address your understanding of these elements, increase your vocabulary and clear up any confusions you’ve had. Start by looking up these words in a ‘simple’ dictionary, as music dictionaries can get extremely involved. Also look up any related words you think of, then take your new understanding and listen to lot’s of music. Within that music find some melody, find some harmony and tap out some rhythms you hear. Get some “ears-on” application.
Speaking of “ears,” you’ve heard of “playing by ear”? This means to hear or conceive sounds and duplicate what they are on your instrument. Some people naturally do this to a certain degree, whereas most people have to work at it. But all this entails is gaining some understanding of the language — the relationships of the sounds to each other.
As the intention behind the words you speak are actually the true communication, when the sounds you play parallel the sounds in your “inner ear” the music is truly alive and meaningful. This is easier to learn then one might think.
Two additional things you can do to increase you musical vocabulary are to: 1) Play single notes on an instrument and match them with your voice, and 2) Create some simple sounds in your head and sing them: try and match what you create in your inner ear with your voice.
These are main entrance points to learning the language of music.