11 Stages of Learning Music

I thought it would be interesting to share some of my experiences with music throughout my life. There was a time when I couldn’t care less about making music. My father has been active in music all his life, but somehow that didn’t transfer well to me at first.

I was never forced to do anything, I always tried things on my own initiative. My first efforts to learn music failed, but things gradually got better. Here are the musical stages that I have been through:

1: Singing

Singing was a central focus in kindergarten and elementary school, and my experiences with it weren’t too bad actually. I sang loud and clear, and with all the enthusiasm that makes it more fun. The thought of singing self-composed songs never crossed my mind, but I’m certain that I would have enjoyed that too. Throughout elementary school, we started singing less, and so did I.

2: That little keyboard I got for Christmas in 1994

This one was actually pretty cool! I enjoyed many of the demo songs, and it was cool to stumble upon notes that fit. I didn’t know about playing chords, so I stuck to playing with one finger. As soon as the demo songs started to get boring, I got bored too.

3: Band

I was actually in a band initiated by one of the town’s more prominent music enthusiasts, along with a couple of other kids my age. I remember very little from this actually. I don’t even remember if I played drums or keys, but I guess it was okay.

We even performed once in the local theatre, which was kind of cool. I got bored by it quite quickly though, and focused more on football.

4: Blokkfløyte (Recorder)

I have never seen one of these outside a classroom, which really isn’t any surprise. Pianos and guitars sound okay when you pluck a string or hit a key. Recorders don’t; especially when your hands are too small to play them properly.

Twenty-five 4th graders simultaneously traversing the C major scale, or disgracefully murdering old classics didn’t add to my appreciation for this pseudo-instrument or music in general.

We did, however, have a lot of fun making as much noise as humanly possible with them!

5: Guitar

Guitars are cool. My dad is a skilled player, and I wished to give it a go. I signed up for music lessons, thinking I’d be playing in no time, and maybe even have a go at electric guitars!

I got a small beginners book by the teacher and practiced before each lesson. The first lesson, I learned how to play on the thinnest string. The months passed by, and eventually, I was also plucking a little bit on the second string.

I was so disappointed! I wanted to play chords as my dad did, but after a year I was just plucking context-less melodies on two strings. I didn’t sound cool or nice at all, so I quit.

6: My dad’s synthesizer

This was a really exciting one. As the principal of the local music school, my dad had the occasion to bring home an expensive workstation synthesizer. I quickly figured out the basics and spent hours browsing through all the sounds that were on it.

The pads on this thing were simply magical, and I had a whole world of sounds at my fingertips. I thought to myself that I was close to learning how all that cool trance music is made, but it was still a mystery to me.

I’m sure that if I had learned how to control it from the computer, that’s when I would have started making electronic music. The synthesizer was the music school’s property, and I was unaware of sequencing options, so this one didn’t last either. Meanwhile, however, I was occupied with:

7: Dance eJay!

From the instant my dad told me to check it out, I was in love with it! There were ready-made loop sequences, FX sounds, the possibility to sequence your own beats, and audio recording with effects processing! And all of this could easily be put together, exported and put on CD!

Fair enough, many parts were ready-made, but I put so much creativity and enthusiasm into my efforts; it was truly amazing. Just the possibility to record some random blabbering and seconds later hear squeaky high-pitched versions of ourselves were mindblowing and hilarious.

I tried to structure the songs in a similar way as the trance music I had heard and coupled with all the wacky audio recordings I did, I was finally finding full enjoyment in music!

When we finally got broadband access at home, I quickly discovered the eJay community. I had success in the top lists, and I was absolutely amazed to meet hundreds of others who were into the same as me!

8: Music classes in junior high

Because I had discovered Dance eJay by this time, I did have the appreciation for making music. These classes weren’t helping at all though.

We would sing, the girls with silent squeaky voices, and the few guys who dared with their finest teenage breaking voices.
We would learn about the lives and music of composers we didn’t listen to or care about. We also learned about musical periods and genres. And thus, the belief that classical music is boring would in many people’s minds be forever true.
We would actually play some instruments, but nearly all of my classmates had a very poor sense of rhythm, and would always play increasingly faster, which really annoyed me! Reading notation was also boring. We did get a group assignment to compose a song once, which was a welcome, though never repeated highlight in all the greyness.

9: Chords

During my amazing time fooling around in Dance eJay, my dad had another keyboard placed in that room. Somewhere on a web page, I saw a figure showing a basic C major chord, C-E-G. This simple figure was one of the biggest musical revelations that I’ve ever had.

Chords are the essence of every conventional piece of music, and I had only been learning to focus on individual notes in the past! I was flabbergasted, and the following time I experimented a lot on the keyboard with different note combinations.

I also started playing bass notes with my left hand and learned about chord inversions by my dad, which was luckily an easy principle to understand. I’m still learning how this all works, but I am now very easily able to come up with (in my opinion) great sounding chord progressions.

Finally, all those plinks and plonks had gotten a context, and I was creating what to me felt like actual music!

10: FL Studio

In the eJay forums, I quickly met fellow Norwegian T.G.L, who wasn’t using eJay; and his music was just mindblowing! I was introduced to FL Studio, which had none of eJay annoying limits.

I could use amazing sounding synthesizers, I could create melodies that spanned more than an octave, I was free of any BPM limits, and the vast amounts of editing possibilities were simply awesome. I was unable to find any limits at all, which just felt unreal.

I had finally gained insight into how electronic music was made, at least from a technical perspective!

11: Music is visual

Beforehand, I didn’t put much thought into the music other than general coolness and catchiness. I pulled that off quite well, I really enjoyed making and listening to my music, but I some times had long periods of not getting a single musical thing done.

As explained in this article, once I tried to use the music to describe an image or scenery, I experienced far less of these dry periods. At first, I thought it was because I had switched to Ableton Live. Fair enough, I like the interface much more, so that’s also an improvement, but that’s not where the problem was.

The thought that music is visual, and functions as a language to communicate with were big realizations for me. These ideas have affected my view on music very much the past couple of years, and have made me enjoy both listening and composing a lot more.

12: What’s next?

Well, next year (February to July) I’m going to spend a semester abroad in Peru to write my bachelor thesis and take a couple of elective courses. While there, I will surely hear a lot of unfamiliar music, I’m going to learn how to dance Salsa, and who knows what else?

The past 10 years, I have made music completely by myself. I have enjoyed it immensely, but maybe something that involves some human interaction could be equally enjoyable? It would be really nice to have a portable way of making music, like a guitar.

Electronic music is fun, and I enjoy playing keys, but it would be nice with something to do out in the sun. Learning how to play the guitar really shouldn’t be too difficult with my foundation.

Music studies? Don’t know. Music as a hobby is cool, but my (limited) experiences with studying music have been poor.

I hope this was an interesting read, which uncovers how I was fortunate to discover the joys of making music.

Summary

It wasn’t school or traditional methods that worked. These are too boring and focus a little too much on the individual Lego bricks, instead of letting you go nuts with a crate of Legos.

How did you learn about music? Please tell me in the comments, I would really like to know!

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Music Production at home in the 90s

What is tracker music?

I’m not fully sure how to explain it, but it’s basically music that’s sequenced in a matrix-like in the video below. The first ones had 4 channels and 8 bit sound, with more channels, sample support and 16 bit sound later on. This is what bedroom music producers were using back in the ‘90s.

Below is Elwood’s 1995 classic “Dead Lock”, in which you can see the kind of interface used. As you can see, it’s very minimalist and doesn’t have a huge amount of features like modern sequencers.

File sizes and sharing

One of the coolest things I’ve discovered about tracker music is that people used to share their project files. In fact, the project file was the only thing needed to share. Everyone could play it, and the file size only depends on the samples used. This means that you’d get lossless music with 2 or 3 digit kb file sizes! Compare that to bad quality 128 kbps mp3 files, which are measured in megabytes. That’s pretty backward!

The fact that everyone could access the project file, means that people would get a look at what’s going on behind the scenes. Every note, every sound used, etc. Nowadays, I’ve yet to come across anyone who is sharing their project files, which I think is a pity. Just look at how good Open Source projects like Wikipedia and Firefox are, not to mention the free exchange of information in science. I think it’s the same way with music. Even with my mp3 files, anyone with basic music knowledge can plagiarise me, so why not make it easier for them? Seriously though, I’m certain that most people wouldn’t steal, but rather take the opportunity to have a look at how the tracks are made, and maybe learn something.

Also, I find it funny how newer programs take up so much more resources! In the screenshot below, I’m playing my soon-to-be-uploaded composition with ~40 tracks, along with the Scotchman tune (see the end of the post) in MilkyTracker. It’s on my laptop, so the processor usage would be far lower on my desktop computer. Still, the picture speaks for itself:

Limitations and their consequence

As the video above indicates, tracker interfaces are very basic. There’s not very many sound design and editing possibilities available, which means: more focus on making music! Nowadays there seems to be so much focus on mixing, EQing, sound design, etc. And fair enough, a lot of music is incredibly well done, unlike anything before. However, from my point of view, far too many forget that music is more than you hear.

With tracker interfaces, people had to make the best of mediocre sounds. Now, people have to make the best out of the best sounds. Huge amounts of bad tunes were made back then too, but I somehow think that poor music with poor sounds is better than poor music with professional sounds. It sounds less out of place, and those with poor sounds will have to focus more on actually making a good piece of music and communicating their idea.

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