How to approach music as a beginner

Side Note

Do be aware that different people learn differently. Just because you cannot understand a single explanation does not mean that you are unable to learn music; it means that the explanation does not work for you. Different people explain things in different ways and these methods work better or worse for different individuals. Research as much as you can and you will run across something that gels with you.

To a beginner, music can seem impossibly difficult. There are numerous things to consider, and instruments themselves feel difficult and unnatural. Classical approach places early emphasis on technical exercises, and theory may feel like learning a bunch of meaningless rules, both of which can be boring and off-putting for a beginner. There are ways of approaching this so that it stays fun, but still teaches you how to play well.

Music is quite a big subject with multiple components, including percussion, melody, and harmony. As you are here, I assume that you are interested in learning to play melody but, if you are less sure, I strongly recommend trying out all 3 to see what you enjoy most. Trying different instruments is a good idea in any regard. Everyone's hands are different and people also think differently, so some instruments will feel more natural to you than others do. Ignore reputations of difficulty and don't worry about playing well at first. Just see what feels natural to you.

I believe that the most valuable thing you can do as a beginner to music is to start learning to play music that you like. Hearing something that you recognise emanating from your instrument for the first time feels awesome. It is possible to approach this in a number of different ways. For example, on a melody instrument, you can look up the fingerings for your instrument and figure out some tunes by ear. Another option is to match fingerings to sheet music, which is easier than you may think. Exactly how doesn't really matter at first. Through playing, you begin to develop a natural understanding of music. It stops being a black art. Note that it often takes a few days to see any results from your practise; why is covered below.

Can I use tabs?

Tablature or 'tabs' are a visual representation of the fingering and order of notes, depicting how to play a given tune on some instrument. They can be a great place to start and are intuitive. However, tabs—especially ocarina tabs—have serious limitations and will quickly limit your progress. As you will have to abandon them, it may be more efficient to use sheet music from the start, and this isn't as hard as you may think.

It is important to find a balance between studying technique and experimentation. Experimentation—that is, messing around with an instrument—is great way to learn how it works and what it can do. However, in isolation, this tends to leave you overwhelmed with no idea what to do. Studying technique and theory gives you some guidance allowing you to play musically sooner but, without that practical experience, often doesn't make sense. Be prepared to not understand everything straight away as it will fall into place once put into practice. You can also relate things to stuff you already know. I much prefer the American names for note durations over the traditional ones for that reason; 'quarter note' has more meaning than 'crotchet' as you probably already know what a quarter is.

Allow yourself to suck. Do not judge your ability on your first experiences as they will not be your best, and it gets easier with time. As your first sounds will not be endearing, it is essential to have an environment that you can play without fear of embarrassing yourself or annoying others. Having someone tell you to stop can be very off-putting, discourages you from practising, and thus brings your progress to a standstill. The ocarina is a questionable first instrument for this reason. They are loud and cannot be muted without ruining tuning and tone. I feel that electronic instruments are a compelling solution as they can be played on headphones and are thus silent. Software instruments like MIDI sequencers are also worth considering as they allow you to make music without repetitive motor practice.

Refining your technique

Once you start to get a feeling for how your instrument works, be it a few days or a few weeks, start to supplement with research into technique. The thing is, playing an instrument is a physical process and how you approach it makes a huge difference to the sound that you are able to create. Instruments frequently require techniques that are not intuitive. For example, when playing a wind instrument, it is best to control your air flow with the tongue, and failing to do so tends to create a 'beginner' sound. While you may eventually stumble on a good solution, making use of tutorials for your instrument can save you a LOT of time. Using a poor approach can lead to you sinking time into a skill that has no future progression—a blind alley.

In order to develop your technique effectively, it helps to understand how learning works. Learning is not a linear progression in the sense of building a wall, each perfectly formed idea assembling into a whole. Rather, it's like bringing an image into focus. At first, you have only a vague overview—everything is so blurry that nothing makes sense—but as you change the focus, things become sharp. This applies to both physical motor skills as well as mental ones: a concept which made no sense suddenly clicks into focus, and initial crude and excessive finger movements gradually become refined.

When you approach a new task, everything feels arduous; you have to think about every little detail. However, if you stick with it, you notice that it gets easier and you have to think about it less. This is because your mind has two parts: conscious and subconscious. As you read this page, you hear the words in your mind; the part of your mind observing this stream is the conscious mind. The subconscious mind is less apparent and I think the best demonstrated with practical example. I am sure that you have had a conversation with a friend while walking along a street. As you do so, you are thinking about your conversation, and the physical act of walking just happens magically. This is the subconscious at work.

It is essential to tap into the subconscious to play most instruments competently. You have to consider multiple things, such as fingering, rhythm, and ornamentation simultaneously, and this is simply too much for the conscious mind to handle. These tasks must be moved into the subconscious such that you no longer have to think about them. Musicians often call this 'muscle memory'; however, I dislike this term as it is misleading. In fact, the subconscious transition can happen with any task. You can develop a subconscious ability to read a piece of sheet music aloud in your head, yet doing so does not involve the muscles. Consequently I feel it is more accurate to call it 'subconscious automation'.

Achieving this transition from conscious effort to subconscious requires repetitive practice. Doing this brings the task to a heightened importance. When you sleep, your subconscious notices this repetition and starts to automate the task. There are a few points to take away from this: practice must be regular, and because sleep is required to reify what you have learned, you will not see immediate results. It will be magically easier the next time you practise.

Learning music often begins on the conscious level—for example, reading a tutorial and repetitively copying those actions on your instrument. As this is the case, you can understand the logic of something long before you can actually do it well. This can be frustrating, as you know what to do but your body or mind won't do it. It is also possible to learn something subconsciously without having a logical understanding of it. For example, you can learn which notes sound good together by messing around with a piano without ever studying harmony.

Be aware that your initial understanding of music is conscious and very different to how an experienced musician performs the task. You can move almost every aspect of playing an instrument to the subconscious such that you immediately know a fingering, which notes sound good together, and the rhythm represented by a piece of sheet music without having to think about it. The conscious mind is then free to do other stuff, such as think about improvisations.

With regards to developing this subconscious automation, it is important to break things down. For instance, you will not be able to think about rhythm, articulation, phrasing, fingering, and what you are going to play next if you have only just started. The best way to handle this is to practise these things separately. When learning to read sheet music, for example, practise saying the notes aloud, then separately practise counting and clapping the rhythms that you see. If you are learning the ocarina, don't try to learn to count rhythms and learn the fingerings at once, as it will be too much to handle. Clap the rhythms, then learn the fingerings, and the subconscious will integrate the two for you.

Note that the subconscious is not smart and will automate bad practices. Thus, it is best to work with a focus on accuracy. In order to do so, you need to make yourself aware of everything required to play your instrument well. With the ocarina, this includes:

  • Holding the instrument correctly
  • Learning the fingerings
  • Developing your breath control
  • Tonguing
  • Effective use of articulation
  • Listening and correcting your intonation
  • Developing a sense of rhythm
  • Using ornamentation to add interest
  • Developing a general understanding of music

While you may be excited to play something faster, it is actually best to begin slowly as this allows you to pay attention to the details. Speed will come with time as the task enters your subconscious. Always be critical of your playing, looking for mistakes and aiming to eliminate them. Note that human nature is to be lazy; thus, you will feel an urge to give up when things get harder. If you don't ignore that feeling, you won't make any progress. It is perfectly fine to work at whatever level you are at. Don't compare yourself to others.

Devote a lot of your practice time to listening. Music is an exploration of sound. While you can get so far by following sheet music as a script, there are details which it cannot represent. Thus, you will never learn to play musically if you don't listen. Sheet music is inherently a notation of sound, and trying to learn this without listening is like trying to pronounce a foreign language you've never heard; it will be a mess. While playing by ear can initially feel very difficult and results in a lot of mistakes, the mistakes made are often less serious. If you treat sheet music too literally, it is easy to play very rigidly and mechanically.

You also need to develop a sense of musicality. You can learn all of the fingerings and scales for any instrument, but this in itself dosn't tell you how to use them in a way that sounds musical. This is a skill best developed by listening to performances, and replicating what you hear. With enough practice you will build a mental library of sounds. Technology can help, as there are tools which let you slow down a recording to hear what is happening.

It is possible to mentally process music in multiple ways, and anything that you do frequently enough will become automatic. The mind is associative, so you can learn to know the rhythm when you see it in music notation, or know how to write a rhythm when you hear it. Skills like this are developed by exposing yourself to both in the same context—for example, listening to a rhythm while also looking at its representation in sheet music. The same idea can be applied to learning to name the intervals, the difference between two notes.

This factor is much more difficult to define as there is no optimal solution. Which of these skills you will find useful depends on the genre you are playing. Also, different people will approach this differently and will find some approaches easier than others. Just note that which of these skills you use does make some tasks easier or more difficult. If you have to play something by ear and don't regularly practise that skill, you will find it difficult to do so.

Focusing your effort

Music is a big subject and not everything is applicable to every instrument. Yet general teaching of music still draws attention to things that you will never use. While there are reasons to understand things beyond your own instrument, restricting your focus can make your task easier. Focusing your effort on things that have the most immediate value to you means that you will use them, and thus remember them far more easily. You can then fill in additional details as they become relevant. Keep asking the question: what can I learn that will have the biggest impact on my playing right now?

While this is a useful tool, you should be aware of how it limits you. Normally, we can only comprehend things that we have been exposed to. For example, if someone has has shallow experience in many subjects, they will see connections that someone highly skilled in only one thing cannot. Consequently, it is a good idea to have a broad understanding of things, even if you don't know the details. This enables you to recognise when you need to learn something you considered irrelevant. Listening to a video, or audio tutorial on a subject can be an easy and effective way to develop this shallow awareness.

When you make such a choice, always consider how it limits you. A wind player ignoring everything besides the treble clef won't impact them much, as almost everything they play is written in treble clef. On the other hand, tablature, and ocarina tabs especially, will limit what progress can be made. This notation is so verbose that it can only represent trivial music, and it omits a lot of critical information like phrasing. This is a problem, as more advanced concepts can only be learned if you expose yourself to them.

You may also feel inclined to only learn music from a single genre, such as popular music, anime music, or folk music. This is fine in a sense, but know that it will limit your perspective. Different genres of music often make use of unique stylistic effects. Exposing yourself to more genres of music allows you to draw from all of these and use them to introduce variations into your playing. As a beginner, I do not recommend restricting your focus only to music from a single artist, movie, or game. There is value in deeply studying a single artist when you have more experience, but doing so as a beginner will severely limit your perspective.

Be aware that there are things that appear irrelevant that are actually valuable. For example, if you play a monophonic melody instrument, harmony can appear superfluous. Actually, it isn't because while such instruments cannot sound in harmony alone, they can if played in a group. Having an awareness of how notes sound together will also help you with improvisation, and improves your ability to understand the music you are playing.

Finally, limiting your focus is not an excuse to avoid things that you find difficult. Avoiding something condemns you to always be bad at it. If you work on it, even if it takes a long time, you will still make progress. Do you want to work in a way that will allow you to do something at an undefined point in the future, or do you want that point to come around, while your skill is exactly the same as today?

While it may appear that the clarifications that I have made debunk the value of restricted focus, these are just some edge cases. Restricting your focus is not inherently a problem, a prime example being the job market. There is simply too much information in the world for any single individual to master, so people specialise in a smaller area. The main thing you should consider is how this limits you and how you should be willing to broaden your perspective as those limitations become a problem.

Closing notes

Be patient and don't expect to become a great player overnight. Learning any instrument will take time, though approaching it using good technique will make the process much easier. There is no such thing as an easy instrument because playing well depends on a good sense of musicality. An instrument is just a tool that makes a noise and they all do pretty much the same thing. The skill of the player makes that sound musical.

When you begin to understand music, I actually recommend trying as many instruments as you can get your hands on. Don't worry about playing them well; just observe what they bring to the table. This offers you multiple perspectives on what you have learned and reinforces that memory, for example learning to play a percussion instrument can help to develop your rhythm. It also gives you a sense of the limitations of different instruments and shows you that they are not as different as you may think.

Playing other instruments also gives you the opportunity to find the instrument that best fits you. Everyones hands are different, and people also think differently. You will find some instruments easier to manage than others. Don't be put off by a reputation of difficulty; the concept of 'easy to play' is a fallacy, as all instruments have challenges. It's more important to play something that you enjoy and will stick with.

As you learn more, you see new things under the light of your current experience. It is a good idea to keep revisiting old topics, as details you did not see at first will appear.

Ocarina for irish music

Article Headings