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Music isn’t strange

The talent excuse

Here’s what I’ve learned about music.

It’s easy.

Meaning it’s not mysterious. Meaning it’s not something that only “talented people” can do. Meaning anyone can learn how to do it. Like any other skill. Here’s what jazz trumpeter Art Farmer said about getting good at music: “It has so little to do with talent.”

“Talent” is a word people use to not do something. “I could never do that. I’m not musically talented.” This is another way of saying, “I want to do that, but I don’t want to put the time into learning how.” Fine. It’s ok to say that.  But don’t use the lack-of-talent excuse.

I know artists who get angry when someone says they’re talented. They feel that it ignores all the hours and hours (and hours) of hard work they’ve put in. Worse, it assumes that no work has been done. It assumes that they can just sort of do whatever it is they do.

But the truth? They’ve worked really hard. They weren’t simply in the right place at the right time. They prepared themselves by learning about music, about how to play whatever instrument it is they play. They lived their lives consciously observing the world around them, reading books, talking to people.

Doing these things makes you a better musician. Do them for that reason. Do them because it’s more fun than not doing them.

Anybody can be a musician

Anybody (anybody) can be a musician. Anybody can play an instrument, write songs.  It’s not some strange world inhabited by people channeling a muse of some sort. It’s a craft, and it’s learned through lots of doing. Sometimes, through all this craftiness, art happens. It usually doesn’t. So what do you do? You try again.

And please understand that when I say “lots of doing” I don’t mean you have to practice 8 hours a day or make a career out of this. I mean that you have to pick up your instrument every day. For 15 minutes. That’s it.

Sounds easy, but it’s not. You have to ritualize it, make it sacrosanct, create a special time every day that can’t be disturbed. And you have to overcome resistance.

I’ll have things to say about both of these things.

I want you to be able to play the guitar, to write songs, or to just make stuff with sound if that’s what you want to do. It’s not all about playing an instrument. Maybe you’re acloset  sound installation artist.

If you’ve never picked up a guitar before, if you don’t know what a guitar is, if you don’t know the first thing about music, if you sing out of tune, I don’t care. You can be a musician. You can learn to write songs. You can do whatever you want.

And if you want to do it, all you have to do is start.

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The secret to making chord progressions a pro would love, Part 1

 Step 1

Be able to recite a 7 note alphabet from A to G.


Step 2

Be able to recite that same alphabet, but start on C.


What? C to G?

This was my dilemma. Everyone knows that the alphabet has 26 letters. Fine. I understood that. Now I was being told that there was only seven. Well, ok. That seemed fine, too, but the thing that really screwed me up was arbitrarily treating any one of those letters as the first letter in the alphabet, and then going through the whole alphabet by going to A once you got past G.

I know! It doesn’t sound that hard. It was that hard. I’m not sure why anymore, but it was.

Think of going in a circle from C to C – CDEFGAB/C, I was told. Remember, there are only 7 letters in this alphabet, I was told. Once you get to G (CDEFG), add the rest of the alphabet  – A and B. Now you have the 7 letters of the alphabet. Then add a C at the end to complete the circle. I wanted to cry.

It seems obvious now, but it took about a week before it made sense to me. Sometimes your brain gets stuck.


A scale is a series of notes. It could be 5, 6, 7, or more notes.  I learned the most common scale first – the 7 note major scale.

Know what we call that C to C order? The C major scale. And we use those 7 letters/notes to make 7 different chords, and those 7 chords just happen to be in the same key. They were so excited to tell me this. I stared at them uncomprehendingly.

I don’t remember them checking to see if I understood what the hell they were talking about…

I thought that they meant that combining all 7 notes 7 different times would somehow result in 7 different chords. That’s not possible. You’d just get 7 of the same thing.

I was getting ahead of myself. They kept talking and started making sense. You don’t use all 7 notes. You use 3 different notes from the scale. And the name for a 3 note chord is a triad. Tri = 3. Oh my god, it was starting to make sense!


Here are the chords in the key of C with the C major scale below it:

C major scale chords


These are the first seven chords I learned, and I have to say, they’re pretty useful. Except for that Bdim7 chord. That doesn’t get much attention.

(Before I go any further: There are clearly more than 3 notes in all of those chords. But here’s the thing: some of the notes get repeated. So the C chord up there has 2 Cs, 2 Es, and 1 G – CEG. Three different note names on 5 different strings.)


Chord progressions (otherwise known as a series of chords)

“Now the fun part,” they said. “We’re going to put the chords together in a progression and they’’ll sound great!” I didn’t believe them. I was done and I didn’t really care about the guitar anymore. I just wanted to home with my inadequate brain that was full and sore.

But I decided to try. What choice did I have? My dad wasn’t going to be picking me up for about ½ an hour anyway. I wasn’t the kind of kid that just refused to do what adults told me to do.

They told me to take those 7 chords and play them in random order. D minor to G major to A minor to E minor to C major to F major to B diminished, whatever. It didn’t matter. They didn’t care.

What I heard when I did this were chord progressions that I’d heard people play before. It was really cool. My teacher sat there looking smug. That’s because this has been around for centuries, he said. You’ve just tapped into the history of music in a powerful way. Yes, he said that. I’m not making it up.

So I went home and played around with it. I made some chord progressions with 3 chords by just randomly choosing three from the chords in the key of C. I didn’t even play them at first; I just wrote three of them on a piece of paper in different orders and then played them. It was like I had a different song with every order. A different kind of not so good song. But it was a start. I was ridiculously excited.

Then I tried this with four chords, then five. I went kind of crazy and did some with six. But the more chords I used, the less focused the progressions seemed to become. There was a meandering, lost kind of feeling. Then I discovered harmonic rhythm.

What’s harmonic rhythm? Next post.


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Learning songs and humiliation

Musical Terms

Whenever there’s a musical term I think you might not know, I’ll have a definition. It’ll be like learning a new language step-by-step. You’ll feel smarter and it’ll be easy. Here’s one now.



You know when you hear “it’s in the key of C,” or “it’s in the key of G”? It means that that note (the C or the G in these two cases) is the most important note in the key. There are seven notes in any key, but one of them is more important than the others.

So all you need to know for now is that a key is a collection of 7 notes, with one note being more important than the others. Songs are usually in one key.


How I learned to write songs

The first thing I tried to do when I started writing songs was write a chord progression. I knew that a chord progression was a sequence of chords, and I knew that songs were in keys. But I didn’t know what a key was. I knew the word, thought I was hip, didn’t know what it meant.

Rather than embarrass myself by faking it (“Oh, yeah, like, the key of C is different than the key of G because it, like, has a different expression to it.”), I got a theory book. The theory book hurt. It was…I don’t know…it was bad. Most of them seem that way, as if whoever wrote them doesn’t have a clue who they’re writing for (i.e. someone  that has no clue).

I asked a friend that was taking band in school (not cool) and he explained it to me. Sort of. He didn’t really know either. But somehow I got the idea of how many notes and chords are in a key. I got the idea that there are lots of keys, and that there are things called sharps and flats. And then my head started hurting.


Sharing is good

After a while, I felt more comfortable with the theory stuff. I could sort of play, and I sort of knew how music was put together, but doing it by myself alone in my bedroom was getting old. But what else was I going to do? Play for other people? How about dying instead?

The only way that I got on stage for the first time was by being forced to by the music school I was going to at the time. Well, not really forced. It was more like they placed a weight of expectation on my back.

“Look”, they said, “everyone else is doing it. What’s your problem?” I think they said that to all the kids.

So there I was 12 years old, on stage for the first time.

And it went really badly.


Humiliation is bad

I was in a band with three other kids, and all of us were terrified. We just stood there on stage, staring at each other as if we were lost in the woods with a psychopath stalking us. Then someone counted to four (the drummer) and we stumbled into “Crocodile Rock.” Elton John from the 70s. A hit.

Nobody sang, but I was supposed to play the melody. I did this quite well for about five notes. Then I forgot the rest. The other kids kept doggedly playing and throwing deer-in-the-headlights looks my way.  I alternated between staring at my guitar – confused – and looking beseechingly at the other kids. I thought maybe they could help. I was wrong.

Then we had to play another song, soaked in humiliation.

If that second song hadn’t gone better, there’s no way I’d be a working musician now.

So it’s possible to make a career as a musician without the proper personality (which can be developed) and with crushing failure.

Take heart.




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Becoming a musician

Just imagine…

At some point I started imagining myself as a working musician. Every day I got up, and imagined myself working on new ways of putting chords together, new ways of putting melody with words.  Imaginary songs would get written. After a while, these things started happening for real. I actually started writing songs.

Then I imagined myself singing them for other people. I almost puked.

That can be your reality. The music writing part, not the puking. But maybe the puking, too.


No illusions

Somehow, I became a musician. I’m not sure how. I don’t have the personality to do it, really. I don’t like talking about myself. I don’t like talking about what I do. I do, however, like working really hard. And I like being by myself.

So I worked the last two attributes, until the other two started showing up. It wasn’t easy. Nothing worth doing is, really.

But here’s the thing.

Learning this stuff was interesting and fun, and at the end of the process I could play the guitar and write songs.  And if you do anything long enough, things start happening. Opportunities to make music just sort of pop up.




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