Learning music from the bottom up

Western music is a broad subject with hundreds of years of history. Yet underpinning all of this is a hand full of very simple constructs. Understanding these underlying ideas makes learning the concepts built on them considerably easier.

Music can be viewed as a stack of layers. At the bottom of the stack are the most basic constructs: octaves, the chromatic scale and rhythm. The next layer builds upon these. From the 12 note chromatic scale the 12 major scales are formed from a simple pattern. These scales have influenced the design of every instrument in western tradition.

From another simple pattern the 7 diatonic chords arise from each major scale. Chords can build progressions that lead the listeners emotions. Finally upon the scales and chord progressions melodies and songs arise.

There are two ways to approach learning music which relate to this stack. If you start by learning tunes you are working from the top of the stack. This is called a 'top down' approach. However if you begin by learning the underlying rules, that's a 'bottom up' approach.

While there are benefits to starting from the top, such as the ability to quickly begin playing music that you like, 'higher level' constructs are fundamentally based on the 'lower level' concepts. Thus if you grow your understanding of the lower layers you simultaneously enhance your understanding of the higher ones.

Understanding these fundamental concepts makes music intuitive. It allows you to figure out things for yourself. Ever wander how some musicians can easily play a tune on an instrument that's new to them? Chances are they have a solid understanding of the basics.