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Fatfinger McGee 01-13-2021 08:31 AM

Thought exercise: learning music as conversation
 
Is there a way to learn guitar that's more like learning to speak, and less like learning to read? I have been watching my children learn to read, and contrasting it with how they learned to speak, and I can't help but wonder if there's a different way. I practice licks and scales and learn by rote; they learn to read by learning the alphabet, string letters into words, and words into sentences on the page. They learned to speak just by speaking - not just copying me, but pretty quickly learning and applying abstract concepts. I hear jazz musicians talk about musical conversation, and assumed that just comes when you hit a certain level of expertise, but does it have to? A toddler can string together a perfectly intelligible sentence knowing only 40-50 words. They don't need to know rules of grammar or diagram a sentence. How come I can't string together a decent improv after years of playing? How might I structure my practice to learn theory in an intuitive, organic way, to build a fretboard vocabulary and learn to combine notes in new and interesting ways? Maybe the answer is as simple as, hey dummy, you wouldn't learn anything just talking to yourself, go play with others.

Anyway, anyone else think about this too?

reeve21 01-13-2021 11:25 AM

Great question, looking forward to hearing the responses.

Having done some improvisation on the sax, it almost seems harder on the guitar--6 times as many choices :)

You might want to check out this fellow Stitch on YouTube. This video in particular I watched this morning and found it made a lot of sense to me. He talks a lot about intervals, and the function of each note in the pentatonic minor scale in terms of how they are used for tension and release.


jaymarsch 01-13-2021 11:29 AM

A couple of thoughts here -
Yes, a toddler can put together an intelligible sentence but there is a continuum between that and professional writers' who have a brilliant command of the language and use it to move people to tears. And great writing is about re-writing. So, I noodle around on the guitar all the time and land on things that sound pretty good but it takes a lot of ear training and listening skills to translate that into a moving musical arrangement.
Guitarist Pepe Romero has spoken about how he sometimes spends 30 minutes practicing one note to get the right feel and tone in a particular passage of music he's playing.
I do think that playing with others in a musical conversation certainly can improve one's skills but practice, repetition and deep listening will always be a part of learning and playing music that is worth listening to in my opinion.
If there are short cuts, I sure haven't found them. :)
Best,
Jayne

Chipotle 01-13-2021 11:36 AM

There are plenty of amazing guitarists & musicians who have zero formal training. So I imagine you could say they picked it up the same way they'd learn a natural language. Do remember that we spend 16 or so hours a day practicing language skills, so if you played your guitar that much you might get better naturally as well. :)

One thing that does come to mind is working on "playing what you sing" or at least what you hear in your head, if you can do that. Think of George Benson, singing along with what he's playing. Sing an interval or phrase, then see if you can find the notes on the guitar, without thinking about scales or licks. Eventually your fingers will be able to find the notes you hear in your head without "translation" first.

Just like a speaker or writer, you have to be able to think of what you're going to say before you output the words. Otherwise, you're just stringing random syllables together.

Andyrondack 01-13-2021 11:50 AM

Quote:

Originally Posted by Fatfinger McGee (Post 6603434)
Is there a way to learn guitar that's more like learning to speak, and less like learning to read? I have been watching my children learn to read, and contrasting it with how they learned to speak, and I can't help but wonder if there's a different way. I practice licks and scales and learn by rote; they learn to read by learning the alphabet, string letters into words, and words into sentences on the page. They learned to speak just by speaking - not just copying me, but pretty quickly learning and applying abstract concepts. I hear jazz musicians talk about musical conversation, and assumed that just comes when you hit a certain level of expertise, but does it have to? A toddler can string together a perfectly intelligible sentence knowing only 40-50 words. They don't need to know rules of grammar or diagram a sentence. How come I can't string together a decent improv after years of playing? How might I structure my practice to learn theory in an intuitive, organic way, to build a fretboard vocabulary and learn to combine notes in new and interesting ways? Maybe the answer is as simple as, hey dummy, you wouldn't learn anything just talking to yourself, go play with others.
Anyway, anyone else think about this too?

Yes absolutley , as I have described elsewhere , just use a phone app to isolate musical phrases from a piece. The phrases are like musical sentences, slow down put on repeat and play along till you think you have got it right then move onto the next phrase, big problem with learning from notation is I suspect that people learn to think that bars are units of music and learn from one bar to the next instead of focusing on the phrases ( sentences) which give music it's apparent meaning, thats why I think so much that's learned from tab or notation sounds stilted and doesn't quite flow.
Don't you ever just put on recording of a familiar song and just play along, listening to what works and what doesn't?

NormanKliman 01-13-2021 12:27 PM

Language and music have many similarities: speaking (playing), writing, listening and reading. Even things like spelling and grammar have their equivalents in music theory. But it’s just a metaphor and it runs out pretty quickly or goes off into weird tangents. If, from a very young age, you had to use your guitar to communicate to others your wants and needs, you would have learned a lot faster. I like to think in terms of words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters and the finished work. You can misspell some words or use obscure vernacular, but you’d better be a good storyteller. You can forego structural coherency, but you have to have a good story to tell, etc.
Quote:

Originally Posted by Fatfinger McGee (Post 6603434)
Is there a way to learn guitar that's more like learning to speak, and less like learning to read?

Join a band and play live music? I guess that’s not going to be a solution, for now. At the very least, play to some kind of accompaniment (recordings, rhythm track, etc.) as Andyrondack has just suggested. When I was into playing “lead” guitar with a pick, I always liked playing along with the radio. Once in a while, something would be a quarter-tone off or in a weird key for the guitar like E flat, but it always boosted my confidence to see that I could roll with the changes, and it exposed me to different situations and styles of music.

Fatfinger McGee 01-13-2021 03:12 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by Chipotle (Post 6603613)
Do remember that we spend 16 or so hours a day practicing language skills, so if you played your guitar that much you might get better naturally as well. :)

Hmm...it sounds like you're saying I should convince my wife and kids to turn our house into guitar immersion camp! It works for learning Spanish! :)

Quote:

Originally Posted by Chipotle (Post 6603613)
One thing that does come to mind is working on "playing what you sing" or at least what you hear in your head, if you can do that. Think of George Benson, singing along with what he's playing. Sing an interval or phrase, then see if you can find the notes on the guitar, without thinking about scales or licks. Eventually your fingers will be able to find the notes you hear in your head without "translation" first.

Just like a speaker or writer, you have to be able to think of what you're going to say before you output the words. Otherwise, you're just stringing random syllables together.

I like this idea, thanks. As you say, this kind of separates the practice of thinking of what to 'say' it from the limitations of guitar technique that keep me from playing it.

Fatfinger McGee 01-13-2021 03:32 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by jaymarsch (Post 6603602)
A couple of thoughts here -
Yes, a toddler can put together an intelligible sentence but there is a continuum between that and professional writers' who have a brilliant command of the language and use it to move people to tears. And great writing is about re-writing. So, I noodle around on the guitar all the time and land on things that sound pretty good but it takes a lot of ear training and listening skills to translate that into a moving musical arrangement.
Guitarist Pepe Romero has spoken about how he sometimes spends 30 minutes practicing one note to get the right feel and tone in a particular passage of music he's playing.
I do think that playing with others in a musical conversation certainly can improve one's skills but practice, repetition and deep listening will always be a part of learning and playing music that is worth listening to in my opinion.
If there are short cuts, I sure haven't found them. :)
Best,
Jayne

Hi Jayne, thanks for your thoughts. For sure there are no shortcuts, and I am not looking for any. As an old guitar friend used to say, "here's how you get good at the guitar: instead of not playing the guitar, you play the guitar."

The more I play, the more I realize how much time and effort it takes to get REALLY good, as your story about Pepe Romero shows. We are literally rewiring our brains and building new neurons through repetition, and for adult brains there's no way to speed that up

At the same time, it's fun to think about different approaches and new ways to practice. Or even the same approaches from a different perspective.

godfreydaniel 01-13-2021 05:44 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by Fatfinger McGee (Post 6603434)
Is there a way to learn guitar that's more like learning to speak, and less like learning to read? I have been watching my children learn to read, and contrasting it with how they learned to speak, and I can't help but wonder if there's a different way.

I’m currently reading the book “The Laws of Brainjo: The Art & Science of Molding a Musical Mind” by Dr. Josh Turknett, that I heard about on this forum. One of the things the author discusses are the differences of how a child learns to speak versus how to read. There’s a lot of interesting information regarding learning an instrument. (He’s a banjo player, hence the title, but it applies to any instrument.) Here’s his website:

https://www.brainjo.academy/aboutbrainjo/

Mr. Jelly 01-13-2021 06:36 PM

The talented musicians I know play music naturally without learning. They seem to understand where the music is going organically. The first time I played a gig with one I glanced over at the end of the first tune to notify him I was bringing it to close. We had never played together before. When the song was over he leaned in to me and said if you ever do that again I'll walk off the stage.

rick-slo 01-13-2021 10:14 PM

Do a lot of listening to music that grabs you and eventually try to develop an analytical mind as to why that is.
Of course you have to put in the practice to develop the technique the instrument requires but while doing so
you will already have a better feel for the big picture.

ljguitar 01-14-2021 08:53 AM

Quote:

Originally Posted by Fatfinger McGee (Post 6603434)
Is there a way to learn guitar that's more like learning to speak, and less like learning to read? I have been watching my children learn to read, and contrasting it with how they learned to speak, and I can't help but wonder if there's a different way.

Hi FfMcGee
I think most musicians (including most very capable and serious professional musicians) are more like children to learn language by listening and speaking without learning to read.

And I certainly would never call someone like Phil Keaggy who reads no music musically-illiterate because he doesn't read notation.

The exception would be the classical community, who I'm not convinced are better musicians because they read.

As one who reads scores, and has a music degree (with focus on theory), I can read notation (and transcribe by listening), TAB, Figured Bass, Nashville Numbering, Jazz chord charting, both Roman Numeral & Arabic numeral charting of chords, and Solfege (both fixed and sliding Do).

I taught intermediate and advanced fingestyle for 40 years (for $$$) without teaching notation, or TAB.

I never mention my capabilities to any group I'm playing with. If the sax/clarinet/flute/keyboardist player needs something notated, I will grab a sheet of paper and quick draw a staff and notate it.

If the group speaks in chord names, or Jazz Chart, I can speak that too. I just want to figure out what language they speak so we are up and running quickly and making music.

I don't think everybody needs to read notation, or Solfege, or much of anything more than basic chord sheets (outside the classical community, or hired-gun studio musicians).

And I think you can converse-musically very well without being at the aforementioned professional writer level.




reeve21 01-14-2021 11:06 AM

Here's another video that popped up in my inbox this morning. Basic concept is to learn to play vocal melodies by ear, as an aid to improving phrasing and avoiding just running scales and calling it a solo.

https://bluesguitarunleashed.com/you...h&utm_term=all

Fatfinger McGee 01-14-2021 03:59 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by ljguitar (Post 6604287)

And I think you can converse-musically very well without being at the aforementioned professional writer level.


Hi Larry, thanks for the thoughtful and thorough response. I agree wholeheartedly.

I'm a much better singer than guitarist, and I learned much earlier and more organically. I didn't 'practice' until I joined a vocal group in college. My family just sang a lot. I sing (pre-COVID) with a small choral group full of classically trained singers, and I can converse just fine despite my lack of formal training. We can all hear where the piece wants to go, and react to the director and other singers. I don't really think about how to come in on key, or how to adjust to the group or soloist on the fly. Writing this, I really miss it :(.

Anyway, the challenge for me on guitar is conversing musically when I'm not really fluent, and I'm usually performing a monologue for an audience of one. And of course, there are no shortcuts. The trouble with singing it and then playing it, I'm discovering, is that I can't sing in chords.

Deliberate1 01-14-2021 04:20 PM

It is a very interesting observation and question with excellent responses. How a child learns language is magical, and I share your wonder. At 64, I am just a year and a half into my guitar experience. But I have played clarinet for more than 55 years and sax for 50. I was trained classically and learned to read music at an early age. Regrettably, I had no theory training. And when I started to play jazz in my teens, I could not read the changes on the chart. And it was a handicap. But I overcame it by having the very kind of musical conversations you mention. I'd put records on and play along. Brubeck, Evans, Garland, Stitt, Desmond and countless others. Over the years I developed a very good ear through that exposure. Ultimately, if I can hear the changes, I know my horns well enough to be able to create improvised lead lines on top of them. I play (or did in pre-Covid days) lead tenor sax in an 18 piece big band. Most of our charts have tenor solo features. I might look at the changes to get the root, but then I close my eyes and just listen. And my fingers seem to know where to go.
I have started to do the same thing with guitar. I put on satellite radio, like the bluegrass station, and play along. This is how I will learn the fretboard from a musical perspective. Give it a try. It is funner than running scales (though I do that too). Enjoy the journey.
David


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