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Learning Music Theory

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Hey folks, I hope you all had a good holiday. I went to Maine and discovered that I don’t necessarily enjoy snow as much as I thought I did. Shoveling snow out of a boat will do that to you. Anyway, onto the article!

Wait, what is music theory? I get this very question from a lot of folks. The phrase ‘music theory’ isn’t exactly self-explanatory. Let’s see if I can give it an understandable definition. When you study or practice music theory, you are breaking down music into it’s individual elements, defining them, fitting them together and seeing how they work. Pitch, melody, chords, notation, rhythm, notes, these are all different elements of music theory. By understanding every aspect of music and how all the pieces fit together, you can easily figure out how to make melodies and songs that will move the listener in the exact way you intended.

Why is that some songs sound sad? Or triumphant? Mysterious? How is that a song can build tension and release it? If you learn music theory, you will understand how all of that works, and you’ll know how to do it yourself when you write your own songs. Sure, some people can get away with not learning any of it formally. They have managed to figure it out intuitively. I’m not one of those people. For the most part, I can’t listen to a chord and be able to guess what notes it’s made out of, for example. At least, not yet. This is why I learn theory.

After you’ve gotten started playing your instrument of choice for a while, you’ve got a good base for learning theory, and you probably already know a lot of it already and don’t even realize it yet. I don’t recommend studying theory before you’ve played any music.

The first thing you should learn is how to read sheet music. This doesn’t necessarily have to come first, but it will make your life ten times easier, by my extensive calculations. Though youcould, theoretically, learn music theory without knowing how to read music on a staff, I don’t know of anyone who has. Theory is usually expressed using the staff. Learn what the staff is, how to read notes and rhythms and by the end of it you should be able to sight-read at least some really simple tunes. If you want to be a composer, then you should learn some piano too. I’ve covered that in a couple of other articles. By taking up piano you can get the triple-benefit of piano-playing skills, the ability to read sheet music, and some basic music theory all at once.

Now we get to the meat of this. While the Makeshift Musician usually recommends that you learn things on your own, perhaps in this case it might be good to get a lesson or two from someone else. Music theory is both complicated and abstract, like math or a language, so it can be difficult to learn without someone there to make things clear for you. You don’t have to get a Bachelor’s in Theory or anything, maybe just a couple of classes to get you started, or find a mentor to help you out. Check local colleges and adult education programs and see if they offer some sort of basic music theory course.

If, on the other hand, you’re like me and want to slog through it all by yourself, then I have a great book to recommend. In fact, I recommend it even if you are getting lessons:

Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People

This books starts from the basics and goes all the way through up to the most complicated chords and unusual concepts. It is taught in a clear, linear way (don’t you hate it when books tell you to skip ahead and back just to get everything?) It’s written in a conversational style so as to not be confusing and it has a goofy sense of humor, which I like. If you read this book while you’re learning an instrument, it’ll all come together pretty intuitively.

There are several other books that will teach you music theory, this is just the one that I’ve been using and I like it a lot. If you have any questions about learning theory just shoot me an email:

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The Beginner’s Guide to Becoming a Musician

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

If you’re looking to learn about playing, writing or recording music in some way, any way, but don’t quite know where to start, this is for you

So you want to start making music? You want to be the next Bach? Have lots of ideas and want to make a CD? Perhaps you just have a serious deficiency of groupies in your life and you want to change that? Whatever brought you here, you want to make music in some way, and doing that may not be as hard as you think. This guide will act as your starting point on your new path. Regardless of what instrument you want to play, or what kind of music you want to get into, this guide will show you how to get started, from choosing an instrument and learning to play it to composing and eventually recording. 

Before you start

If you’re completely convinced of your own ineptitude, or you think it is too late for you to take up the difficult task of making music, then I’ve got something to say to you:

You Don’t Need Musical Talent to Make Music

Getting an instrument

The most popular instruments in Western society are the rock staples (guitar, bass guitar and drums) and piano. There are plenty of other instruments out there to choose from though, if you feel like doing something different. If you haven’t decided yet, take a look at this article for advice on choosing and buying an instrument:

Picking up an Instrument

If you’ve picked piano, here are couple of other articles that you should check out:

Starting out with Piano
Piano Playing Tips for Beginners – (note: while this article was technically written for pianists, the lessons generally apply to all instruments)

Becoming a better listener

As you start to play music, you’ll discover an interesting phenomenon: you’ll notice more about the musical world around you. After a while, you’ll gain the ability to de-construct all the different music that you’ve been listening to. This is a wonderful experience and will make you a more observant person in general. Now is a good time to take the initiative and start actively becoming a more deliberate listener. Try the techniques listed in these articles and discover new dimensions in music that you never understood before:

Introduce Yourself to New Musical Genres
Listening to Music Intelligently

Composing music

I have two things to say here about composing music, whether it’s a short rock song or a 20-minute symphony. 1. All music, and I mean all of it, is made of of the same basic components, which means that if you can write a bluegrass song, you can also make a disco song, a dirge, a traditional Japanese folk song or anything else you could imagine with the same basic techniques.2. There’s no special talent or magical skill needed to write music. If you have the ability to make pleasing sounds on your instrument of choice, then you also have the capability to compose your own songs. Once you’ve learned some music theory, even just a little, you’ll realize how simple it is. If you can take a pile of colored blocks and arrange them in an interesting pattern, then you’ll be pleased to know that while writing music is a bit more complicated, it’s still pretty much the same basic concept. If you’re still not convinced, this might change your mind:

Gain the Confidence to Compose Music

Then look over these once you’ve decided to take the plunge:

Don’t Find Inspiration: Create It
Daily Songwriting Exercise

Making a studio and recording music

This is possibly the most complicated part of being a musician, but it can also be the most fun overall. Recording is also most likely the most mysterious aspect of music creation for beginners. Years ago, the recording realm belonged solely to the professionals with expensive studios. Now that computers have changed literally everything in our society, anyone can make a studio of their own and even make their music sound fairly professional with minimal equipment.

There are a couple of things you need to know when delving into the recording world. First is the concept of multitracking. You need to understand how that works before you can understand how a studio works:

An Introduction to Multitrack Recording

Knowing and understanding the components of a studio and how they relate to each other make up the second important part of what you need to know. You can learn this and how to build your own studio on a minimal budget in the Makeshift Musician’s most popular article, short and snappy:

Make Your Own Recording Studio

or go in depth with the ultimate resource:

The Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Read these too:

What Speakers Should I Get?
Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

Once you’ve got your studio up and running, this would be a good read:

How to Make the Best Recordings on Earth


What is left to learn, now that you’ve become a prolific, multi-talented musician? Believe it or not, there’s still a lot we don’t know about music and how it affects us. There’s much to learn, and you could devote your whole life to music and still not learn everything there is to know about it. Here are a couple of articles that may help guide you towards a deeper understanding of the mysterious phenomenon that is ‘organized sound’:

The second most popular article on the site: The Importance of Music to Humankind
Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin
The Origins of American Music

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Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectations. These violations can occur in any domain – the domain of pitch, timbre, contour, rhythm tempo, and so on – but occur they must. Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic. Too much organization may technically still be music, but it would be music that no one wants to listen to. Scales, for example, are organized, but most parents get sick of hearing their children play them after five minutes.

-Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin was recommended to me by a reader after I wrote one of my most popular articles, The Importance of Music to Humankind. I recently finished the book and I decided to share my thoughts on it with you.

Daniel Levitin is a record producer turned neuroscientist, driven by a great curiosity and passion for the world of music. He knows many famous people in both the music industry (such as the Grateful Dead) and the field of human biology (like Francis Crick). Because of all this I consider him to be a great asset to the world, as he helps us a get a little bit closer to understanding why music is a part of us.

What about the book though? He starts off with telling us about each of the basic components of music, like rhythm, melody and so on. Even if you already know music theory it’s presented in such a unique way, from the angle of a scientist, that it is still compelling to read. He tells us what parts of the brain are at work for each aspect of music, and what it might tell us about ourselves.

He goes on to discuss how music manipulates our emotions, how hours of practice, rather than talent, makes good musicians (score one for makeshift musicians!), and how culture and evolution both affect our music in different ways.

One problem that I had with this book was that Levitin wanders a lot in the course of each chapter. He breaks the well-established convention of letting the reader know where the author is going with a particular tangent. He’ll start a topic, then veer off with some anecdotal story without telling the reader how it ties in to his point, sometimes for several pages, until he’s done. Occasionally he won’t even bother tying it in at all. This makes it a somewhat more difficult read than it should be, but the information is so fascinating that I didn’t mind too much.

Every musician will benefit greatly from reading this book. It will help you understand what it is you are doing when you write and perform music. Levitin’s insight will give you focus on your purpose as a musician, and the powerful and strange things that happen to your consciousness when you listen to music will seem just a little less ethereal. 

Most Interesting Piece of Information: The fact that inside your brain is an honest-to-god synthesizer. It’s so complete that if you were to wire up that particular part of your brain to a speaker, you could produce simple tones just by thinking about them. We don’t actually do this because poking wires into a human brain is generally considered to be a bad idea. We’re not entirely sure how this evolved.

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You Don’t Need Musical Talent to Make Music

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

You know why I believe in this so much? I’ll tell you why.

I joined the school band when I was in fifth grade. I played trumpet. I didn’t particularly like playing the trumpet and I only mildly enjoyed class. When, in high school, we had to learn music theory, I was almost completely mystified by things like the Circle of Fifths, chords and other musical concepts. I never did particularly well and and mostly languished in the beginner level classes while my classmates moved on to the advanced ones.

I never showed any real musical talent; indeed, folks around me probably thought I didn’t enjoy music at all. I didn’t listen to popular bands like other kids my age listened to and I was very vocal about my disappointment in the music on the radio. I appeared to be a pretty un-musical young person.

You know what though? Now I play piano and the banjo. I’ve learned and understand a great deal about music theory. I’ve made several hours worth of music. I went to school for Audio Engineering and got an A- on my final independent study (writing and producing a six-song album.) Someone thought my music was good enough to ask me to write music for their game. I write about music, for a site you may have heard of, and actually have people writing to me, mefor answers about making music. This is the guy who could barely stay afloat in band class! If those poor folks only knew!

Am I writing just to praise myself? Well, after putting all that together I have to admit it does sound pretty awesome, but that wasn’t my point. My point is that if I could do all that withoutany ‘inborn’ musical ability, then anyone else can do it too. I don’t see myself as a particularly self-motivated guy either, so I’m sure anyone out there can probably do better than me.

I’ve heard many people say that they won’t pick up an instrument simply because they think it is too late for them to learn. There are a lot of scientific studies that say people can’t learn as effectively past their teenage years and after age 17 your neural pathways are pretty much do-blah blah blah. Forget that crap. Maybe my neural pathways aren’t as flexible as they once were, but I have many other skills and traits that come with age that make up for that problem, like self-discipline, good time management, big-picture thinking, and the prospect of getting paid for what I do. I had none of these things when I was a kid, and my learning was probably much slower because of it.

The only reason you might think that you are aren’t a musical person is because society tells you that you aren’t. But the fact that you can enjoy music scientifically proves that you can also make it, since you use much of the same parts of your brain for both listening and performing. In many hunter-gatherer cultures, the concept of musical talent doesn’t even exist. Everyone is taught how to make music and dance from a young age. This is how our own cultures were until relatively recent times. Why the change? Different values? Elitism? Who knows? You shouldn’t let it hold you back.

So what are you waiting for? Angels to come fluttering down, bestowing upon you a golden guitar? You definitely have no excuse now. If you do still have an excuse of some sort, you can bet that the Makeshift Musician will do it’s best to unceremoniously blast that one out of the water tooGo pick up an instrument and start playing!

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Starting Out With Piano

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Despite the fact that I’ve been writing music and performing melodies on my various keyboards for something like eight years now, I’ve only relatively recently started learning to play the piano in a formal fashion. You know: proper hand position, sight-reading, stuff like that.

Although I’ve had some musical training and could, in fact, read music, I wanted to learn piano as a beginner, as if I couldn’t read music and had no training whatsoever. I did this so that I knew I wouldn’t miss anything important. This might be beneficial for you too, if you’re thinking of playing.

If you want to learn piano, here’s what I think you should do:

First get yourself a keyboard. No one who isn’t smoking hundred-dollar bills can afford a real piano, so don’t bother. I tend to make fun of Casio keyboards a lot for their uninspired, out-of-date sound, but in fact I have a Casio keyboard in my bedroom and practice on it every day. The piano sounds fine on it.

Anyway, get yourself a keyboard that has a full 88 keys. Any less and you’ll be hindering your own learning, and you don’t want that. DO NOT get anything that has fewer than 88 keys. If you’re really serious about practicing all the time, you will, within a few months, regret getting a smaller keyboard for cheaper. You’ll start trying to learn an awesome new song that you’ve always wanted to play and then find that you can’t because you don’t have enough octaves to work with. This is maddening.

The best place to find a nice keyboard is a local music shop. They’ll have a nice selection and can point you to a decent one in your price range. You can get one with 88 keys for around 200 to 400 dollars. It probably wouldn’t hurt to check a place like Best Buy too, though their selection is limited.

Now you need to actually learn to play. You could pay for private lessons and they certainly would be nice, but you don’t need them. There’s nothing wrong with getting lessons, but you can very easily teach yourself. I’ve looked through a number of beginner piano books and thebest one, the one that taught me to play, is the Hal-Leonard book Teach Yourself to Play Pianoby Mike Sheppard and James Sleigh. You can probably find this one at the same music shop where you bought your keyboard.

Teach Yourself to Play Piano assumes that you have no experience with music whatsoever, so its a good start for the beginner. It emphasizes using the left hand as much as the right, it teaches some basic music theory, and best of all, it doesn’t resort to godawful kid’s songs likeMary Had a Little Lamb or London Bridge to teach you music. You even get to play a genuinely enjoyable and satisfying étude at the end of the book. You will be able to play piano by the time you finish, and it’s only 50 pages!

After that, I suggest you find some beginner-level books of sheet music for you to learn from. Find books with music that you’ve always wanted to play, like from bands or composers that you really enjoy. This will make the learning process very rewarding. Not only will you be able toappreciate the songs on a more intimate and technical level, it’s also simply very satisfyingto hear yourself play a song that you love. I really enjoy music from video games, so I bought sheet music from old games Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana, both of which have great soundtracks. You can also find a near infinite amount of sheet music on the internet, if you know where to look.

As you keep playing, you’ll learn more and more about music theory. The best advice I can give you is: practice every day, even if it’s only a few minutes. Really, you should be practicing about thirty minutes every day at least. For maximum results, practice anhour-and-a-half or longer every day and your skills will skyrocket in weeks.

Now that you’ve gotten to this point, take a look at my other article, Piano Playing Tips for Beginners.

By the way, no one paid me to endorse the book Teach Yourself to Play Piano. I don’t get nearly enough traffic for anyone to pay me anything!

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Piano-Playing Tips for Beginners

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Now, I’m not a fantastic pianist, but I’ve been learning for a few years now. While I’m not going to teach you to play, (there are plenty of other resources on the internet for that) I can share a few things that I’ve learned about playing. They all tie in to one golden rule: with practice, skill comes automatically. These principles can apply to practicing with any musical instrument, by the way.

Forget the tempo: go for accuracy – The most important thing to remember when practicing with an instrument is to slow down. Play as slow as you need in order to play accurately. With practice, speed will come automatically. You never need to worry about tempo. The correct tempo will come on its own. Remember that: ACCURACY is the most important part of practicing and playing.

No problem is insurmountable – As you’re playing, you’ll come across parts in a song that seem too complicated for you to play. Most likely, this is because you’re going too fast (see above). There’s no leap in skill or ability required to nail a particularly hard part, just keep practicing it over and over very slowly and the skill needed to play the part will come automatically.

Reading music will get easier – Reading music was always a chore for me at first. When I would get to a new note, I would have to stop, look closely at where the note was on the staff, then go over the acronyms in my head (e.g. FACE) to figure out what note to play. It’s painfully slow in the beginning and really frustrating when all you want to do is play, but after several songs, you’ll just start to remember what notes are where, and the link between the musical staff, the names of notes, and the notes on your instrument will strengthen to a point where, once again, it becomes automatic.

Take frequent breaks – As soon as you start feeling clumsy, or if you’re like me, clumsier than usual, take a quick break. Do something else with your hands, like play a song you already know well or play a quick game of Tetris for a few minutes, then go back to practicing. This works wonders for me. Roughly for every 20 to 30 minutes of playing I’ll take a 5 minute break. I’m convinced that I’m getting better faster simply because of this.

Okay, so that last one doesn’t tie into my golden rule so well, but it is important, so I’m keeping it in there. Deal with it. Remember these principles and practice every day and you will be able to play anything. I promise.

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Picking up an Instrument

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Deciding to learn a musical instrument could be one of the best decisions you’ll make. But if you don’t know anything about music and don’t have someone who can help you, trying to decide may be difficult. What if I pick out an instrument and hate it afterwards? What if there are some hidden downsides? What if it doesn’t attract the opposite sex like I’m hoping for? For that matter, how do I start without looking like a total knob?

You could go to a local music shop and look around, but those places can be intimidating and occasionally irritating. There’s always some random guy there playing bass guitar like he’s Bootsy Collins just to show off and, with luck, you’ll see my favorite music store patron: the guy who subjects everyone else to the only song he can play over and over. It’s usually better to go when you already have a pretty good idea of what you want. Let’s go over some instruments so you can know what each offers.

By far the most popular instruments are guitar and piano. This is for a good reason. Their strength lies in their versatility. With a guitar you can easily play just about any song you’ve ever heard, once you know your chords well enough. The piano was originally built as a composing tool, and was therefore made to be adaptable as well. Lets look at it in more detail:

Pros – It’s light and easy to take with you. There’s already a ton of literature at music stores and all over the internet. If you want to learn any song, all you have to do is Google search for the song name followed by the word ‘tablature’ or ‘tabs’ and you’re done. The guitar can cover just about any genre imaginable, from obvious ones to folk, rock and country to other stuff like classical or blues.

Cons – Well, you’re fret fingers are going to look ugly after a while, but such is the fate of all string players. Seriously, getting a guitar is a great idea, especially if you don’t really know what to get.

I recommend getting an acoustic guitar to start with, instead of an electric one, because it covers potentially more genres and you don’t have to lug around an amp everywhere you go. Those things are like bricks suffering from obesity.

Pros – The piano is versatile just like the guitar, and like the guitar, there’s been plenty written out there about learning to play. Probably the best thing about learning the piano is that you will automatically learn a lot about music theory in general. Like I said before, it was built as a composing tool, so it’s pretty much a mechanical representation of the musical staff. You have no choice but to learn to read music by playing. Also, if you want to make music using a computer, piano knowledge is a must. And hey – playing piano is just classy.

Cons – You can’t take it with you. Until someone invents the telescoping keyboard, (I just had an idea…) lack of portability is the biggest disadvantage for the pianist. Getting a real piano is prohibitively expensive and decent electronic ones are pricey also.

Don’t think that if you’re starting out you should only get either a guitar or piano, though. If they sound kind of dull to you, or you just want to play something unusual to make a unique impression, you can choose several other instruments.

Some instruments work better on their own than others, however. Though learning any instrument is a good idea, something like a piccolo, which was designed to be part of a larger orchestra, just won’t be much of a hit at parties. If you want to share your music with others, generally something with a lot of range is better. Here are some more unusual ideas for something to play:

Cello – The cello is a favorite of many and has an incredibly expressive sound. There aren’t enough cello players in the world and it’s a crying shame.

Banjo – I’ve been slowly learning to play the banjo myself, and it’s a lot of fun. While there isn’t much out there besides folk and bluegrass to learn from, I believe the banjo has the potential to play other genres as well. It has a very unique sound that is pleasing to the ear when heard live.

Marimba/Vibraphone/Xylophone – These have many of the same advantages and disadvantages as the piano, since they’re structured similarly, but you can make an entirely different impression when playing.

Saxophone – The saxophone has an amazing dynamic range and can play very softly or extremely loud. Once again, it’s very expressive and though its generally used for jazz, it has a lot more potential.

Violin – A classic and elegant instrument. It is good on it’s own and can accompany in many other styles. By the way, the fiddle and the violin are the same thing; it’s all in how you play it. If you like folk and classical music, this is a good way to go.

Harmonica – The ultimate cheap, portable instrument (besides your own voice, of course.) If you happen to be a blues fan, than there’s no reason not to start learning.

There are innumerable other instruments you can learn. Things like bass guitar, drums, flute, or horns are great things to learn, but if you’re not planning on playing as part of a larger group, you might not be as satisfied with the results. The instruments I’ve recommended above all sound great both by themselves and when accompanying others. Now, there are people who can make any instrument sound great by itself, so if you’re set on playing bass like that guy from Primus, don’t let me discourage you.

Once you know which instrument you want to get, it’s helpful to simply go to a music store and tell a friendly employee what kind of instrument you want and the amount you’re willing to pay for it. In my experience, they usually know what they’re talking about and will point you in the right direction. Then you’ll be on your way to being the coolest person at social gatherings.

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