Why is music so complicated?

To a complete beginner music can be opaque, you watch an experienced musician effortlessly playing an instrument, thinking 'that looks easy'. Yet when one tries it themselves movements feel uncomfortable, nothing makes sense and the result doesn't sound musical. Why is playing music so complicated?

The fundamentals of music are actually remarkably simple. Western music is constructed from predefined pitches called 'notes' with names like 'C', 'D' and 'E'. These notes are strung together like the words in a sentence, usually with varying timing to add interest. For example a tune could consist of the notes below:

E d c d e e e

You can try playing these on the buttons below and your browser will sound the corresponding notes. Reading these from left to right you click or tap E, then D, then C and so on.

You may recognize this as the beginning of the nursery rhyme 'Mary had a little lamb'. Boring children's music right? Of course real world music contains a lot more notes but the basic idea is the same, a sequence of notes played one after another. So if music is technically simple, why are traditional instruments so difficult to play?

Playing instruments is difficult because of the nature of the mind. Your conscious mind, the bit which is saying these words as you read them, can only think about a single thing at a time. However playing music demands multiple things simultaneously. You must think about notes, rhythm, volume, and the actions required to produce them on an instrument.

To do this you have to tap into another part of your mind, the subconscious. While the conscious mind can only comprehend one thing at a time, people can do multiple things at once. I'm sure you've held a conversation while walking for instance. This is possible because of the subconscious. The things that you do frequently become automatic, so that you can call upon them, and they just happen without effort. What's more you can tell the subconscious to do two things at the same time.

To play an instrument you have to move the entire process into your subconscious, from obvious things like fingering, to rhythm, sight reading, note recognition and an understanding of expressive playing.

How does one do this? Repetitive practice. Repeating the same action highlights it above everything else you do during the day. It tells your subconscious 'this thing matters to me' and it dutifully automates the task when you sleep. Over time this automation takes over and you no longer have to think about it.

Most newcomers find this need for repetition boring: 'but I just want to play song XYZ that I love'. Using modern technology you can create music completely without repetitive practice using a midi sequencer. This allows you to input the notes that you want to play at your leisure. As it does not need to happen in real time, it does not have to be in muscle memory, thus does not demand repetitive practice.

Yet even this is not the whole story, you can start creating music using a midi sequencer in a few mutinies. You may even look up how to read sheet music and start transcribing your favorite song (hint: sheet music is not as complicated as it looks). But in all likelihood the result will sound flat and lifeless, one note after another with equal volume, flawless timing and no ornamentation.

This hints at another aspect of music, Variations added to the basic notes of a tune to create phrasing. Like the words in English are grouped in sentences the notes in music are grouped into phrases, complete ideas which are independent but complementary. Additionally music often repeats the same themes multiple times, like the verses of a song. Often these are varied slightly, not enough to sound like a different tune, just enough to not bore the listner.

I can't do this aspect of music any justice in this article as every genre of music is different. You may be able to find a book or videos describing the fundamentals of whatever genre you are interested in, but these only scratch the surface and music is always evolving. The best way to learn these is to live it. By listening to and playing the music yourself. Studying and emulating the musicians who inspire you.

In a sense music is complicated because it like a language. It's basic ideas are simple, but there are a huge number of ways they can be combined, expressing different emotions and styles.

Exercises