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Old 07-07-2008, 12:26 AM   #1
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Post Finding A Balance In Musical Study

I've seen a whole lot of threads concerning topics related to how and why people should go about learning different aspects of guitar study and music study in general. I think the thing people haven't realized is that balance is more important than anything, so my first thread ever is going to be a little long; just a heads-up, hopefully it'll prove helpful. Hope somebody can learn something from this.

Introduction
The study of guitar encompasses much more than many people think; in fact, just to say "study of guitar" includes a vast range of topics, concepts and practices that aren't defined well enough by simply applying an umbrella term to the playing of the instrument. In this post I'm going to focus on three elements of guitar and music that I feel are the cornerstones of building a solid foundation both in guitar playing and general musicianship. These areas are:

1. Music Theory
2. Technical Proficiency
3. Aural Skills

It's important to have a balance in all three, lest you fall victim to the inability to play what you want. All three relate to each other in this regard. For example, without any aural skills you won't be able to hear music (in your head or from an external source) and figure out notes and intervals; without technical ability you may not be able to translate what you hear onto the guitar, and without a knowledge of music theory you won't be able to describe the music or figure out why certain things work together.

However, the good thing about studying the guitar (and music) is that you're in control of what you want to do. Yes, there are exceptions, such as music schools or guitar lessons (in some cases), but generally speaking you are in control of your own "guitar destiny" of sorts. Don't want to write contrapuntal classical music? Don't. Don't want to sweep and eight-finger tap at 1,000,000 bpm? Don't. You determine exactly what you want to do.

With that said, I'm going to give a general overview of each of these three fields with a few tips and tricks, and hopefully outline the benefits of learning each as well as showing the benefits of balancing all of these concepts.

Music Theory
I'm going to start this section by saying something that a lot of people fail to realize: there is no way that learning and understanding music theory can inhibit your growth as either a guitarist as a musician. Music theory is a descriptive tool, so think of it with this analogy: learning a language is the same thing, learning different words to describe things. Improving your vocabulary in a particular language only enhances the ways in which you can construct sentences and allows for more intricate passages and descriptions. Following this logic, expanding your knowledge of music theory can only improve your understanding of music and will make the writing and improvising processes easier. You'll know how things work together and how to achieve specific sounds, so you'll spend less time guessing and more time pinpointing exactly what you want to do. This way, when you go to write some music, you'll already have some idea of the sound you want to create; all you have to do is figure out the specifics of how you want to achieve this sound. Music theory will allow you to understand exactly what you're doing and what the implications of those actions are.

However, theory is arguably the most daunting aspect of guitar study; very few preteen kids listening to Green Day in their rooms will want to study jazz and eventually perform Schenkerian analysis. Because of this, it's important to work theory into what you're already doing. Instead of just sitting down and trying to absorb diatonic theory, the Circle of Fifths and the theory behind chord progressions, try applying some theoretical study to what you already play. Look at how known (or unknown) musicians apply theoretical concepts; studying other people's music can never hurt. It'll only increase the amount of licks and harmonies you're opened up to, and can really open your eyes when you think, "Wow, I never even thought of using this scale like that." This will help immensely when improvising as well.

At the very least, you'll end up learning a pattern or two of the pentatonic scale so that you can use it when you jam with friends. Eventually, though, you're probably going to think to yourself, "Why does this work so well?" Hopefully the study will lead you in the direction of the major scale. If there is no other musical concept you ever understand, make sure you at least learn about the major scale. It's the cornerstone of Western music and is the starting point for everything you'll do musically. The pentatonic scales are born from their parent major and minor scales, so you'll be able to understand those better as well. If you understand the theory behind the major scale, you'll have a huge advantage when it comes to writing and improvising. So how exactly do you go about learning any of this?

Many options lay open to you. Sure, there are zillions of references on the Internet, and a great place to start is with the lessons on this site. In particular, the "Crusades" articles are great, and you can always ask questions on the forum if you don't understand things, and the Musician Talk theory sticky can be a useful reference to clear up a few things when you need. I'd highly recommend the book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory as well. It has a chord reference with guitar fingerings, some practice exercises and is full of information. Make sure that when you learn about theoretical concepts, you apply them so that you can hear them in practice; this will further your understanding beyond what sitting in front of a book for hours could ever do.

In short, learning theory can only make you more creative; it won't inhibit you in any way. However, realize this; learning theory does not mean you're going to be a better musician. It only means you'll have an understanding of why and how things will sound, and you still have to work at becoming a better guitarist and musician, which will hopefully be covered in the next two sections.

*continued in next post*
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Old 07-07-2008, 12:27 AM   #2
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Technical Proficiency
Sooner or later, you're going to hit a point where you simply want to play faster or more cleanly, or you'll encounter a part of a song that you simply can't play at your current skill level. There's no shortcut in these cases; practice is the answer. However, there's more to it than just saying "go practice this." Practice does not make perfect; correct practice makes perfect. In this case, the metronome will become your friend.

You don't need anything fancy in terms of a metronome. You just need something that will keep steady time. Korg manufactures a cheap metronome that I happen to love, and it's here: http://www.amazon.com/KORG-MA-30-Di...e/dp/B0002E2O2Q

When you're practicing technique, keep in mind that the physical aspect of playing the guitar boils down entirely to muscle memory. As your muscles become more accustomed to certain motions, they'll be able to perform these motions more quickly. Don't get ahead of yourself, though! Speed is a byproduct of accuracy. If you practice with economical motion and synchronized hands, your muscles will become programmed correctly and you'll be able to play faster and more accurately. I find it especially helpful to simply narrow down your top speed for a particular passage first; start at a relatively slow tempo, and increase the metronome by 5-8 bpm if you play the passage correctly three times in a row. If not, back off by 1-3 bpm. Repeat this process to zone in on your top speed, and track your progress; you'll see the results as a big ending rather than improvement every minute, and you'll be able to track exactly how much you've accomplished.

Make sure you avoid programming bad muscle memory, however; for example, you'll see a lot of people suggesting that playing the pattern 1-2-3-4 with one finger per fret acros all six strings is very helpful. This isn't exactly true, though; it doesn't help to promote finger independence, and if you do this too much your fingers will naturally expect to move chromatically. So do something like this instead:
Code:
e------------------------------------------------------2-3-4-1----------------------------------------- B-------------------------------------------1-2-3-4---------------------------------------------------- G--------------------------------4-1-2-3--------------------------------------------------------------- D----------------------3-4-1-2------------------------------------------------------------------------- A------------2-3-4-1----------------------------------------------------------------------------------- E--1-2-3-4---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

You can apply that pattern however you want across all strings or across one string; just make sure that your exercises promote correct practice, good posture, economy of motion and finger independence.

The simple fact is this: if you have great technique, you're going to be less limited in what you can write and play. By practicing technique well, you'll be able to control the instrument; when you're in control of what you're doing, it'll sound the best. Again, this website is a great resource: look in the Advanced Techniques forum for the "Ultimate Exercises" thread, read the FAQ there and look through Freepower's lessons. Looking for classical and classically-influenced pieces is always helpful as well; check out some classical caprices or something like Steve Vai's "Eugene's Trick Bag". Vai's "Ten-Hour Workout" is very helpful as well; it helps to also explore some aspects of playing that are considered emotive, such as vibrato and moving some arpeggio shapes.

Some sight reading can also do wonders for your technique since you won't always be looking at your hands. William Leavitt's "Complete Guitar Method" and "Melodic Rhythms For Guitar", both available through Berklee Press, are two I'd highly recommend.

Aural Skills
All the technique and theory in the world, however, will not do you much good if your ear isn't trained well. In an improvisation setting this really separates the good from the great; if you can hear what you want to do, you're going to sound exactly the way you want to. Ear training can be a little bit boring most of the time, so you'll have to do it in smaller doses. You'll need great discipline, but the rewards will be even greater.

In my opinion, the greatest thing you can do to improve your ear is to transcribe music. No matter what genre you listen to, you can put on a pair of headphones, get some sheet music and write out the song. After consistent practice with transcribing, you'll be able to hear not only notes, chords and progressions, but also be able to zero in on specific rhythmic ideas. This is where sheet music transcription will serve you better than TAB transcription; writing out rhythms will prove beneficial. Again, the "Melodic Rhythms For Guitar" book I recommended earlier will come in handy.

Another thing you can do is find a backing track and as you play along with it, sing each note before you play it. This will allow you to hear what each interval is going to sound like, and how it's going to relate to whatever you're playing over. This is a good habit to get into, because then when you hear music you'll know what intervals are being used. There are ear trainers you can use online as well; study intervals as often as you can and your ear will develop. Studying chord progressions will help as well; you'll learn how nice a I-IV-V will sound and why a V-i sounds more resolved than a v-i. Sound odd to you? A little bit of theory study and ear training and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

It's a slow process, but if you can train your ear you will grow into a much better musician; learning to listen well is a huge step in learning to play well.

Final Thoughts and Ramblings
Hopefully this little post will help anybody in some way. These fields are simply the three most important that I've come across in my study of music. Like I said, find a balance between all three of them; you'll probably benefit more from being a well-rounded musician and guitarist than a theory whiz with no ability to play or an incredible shredder with no musical sensitivity.

Again, keep in mind that you're free to do what you want so that you can define and achieve your own goals. However, as with any skill that you try to build, always remember that you're going to get out what you put in. Always remember that no matter what you learn and do, that there's one rule that goes above any other.
*drum roll*
The guitar is a damn fun instrument. Enjoy it.
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Old 07-07-2008, 12:44 AM   #3
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well said
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Old 07-07-2008, 12:51 AM   #4
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Thanks, guys -- hope your wrist gets better, Galvanise. Good to hear you're using the "off time" well.
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Old 07-07-2008, 01:01 AM   #5
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Thanks I really needed some of that
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Old 07-07-2008, 01:03 AM   #6
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"Bookmarked"



Thanks I really needed some of that

*Ego level up!*

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Old 07-07-2008, 01:04 AM   #7
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It was a good read, should be stickied, or at least put the contents into an existing sticky.

People need to understand that music theory doesn't limit you, it lets you understand what you're doing rather than saying "Oh, that sounds good, I'll play that even though I don't know what I'm doing". It lets you build on that rather than leaving it up to complete guesswork and instict (which are not bad in any way).
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Old 07-07-2008, 01:08 AM   #8
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^Thanks, that was one of my main gripes with some posts I've seen; there's no way that learning theory means you're just going to be running scales back and forth.
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Old 07-07-2008, 01:14 AM   #9
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Well written. Well this may not help me, this will be excellent for many users! Thank you for taking the time to write this.

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Old 07-07-2008, 01:14 AM   #10
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That's a great overview :-D. I especially think that ear training should not be ignored, as it so often is by guitarists.
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Old 07-07-2008, 01:17 AM   #11
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^Thanks; and yes, ear training and sight reading are hugely overlooked by many people.

^^It won't help you?
But you're welcome.
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Old 07-07-2008, 01:22 AM   #12
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I already know most of it. That being said, I haven't practiced it, which is something I should really start doing. So I know of it, just haven't applied it.
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Old 07-07-2008, 01:29 AM   #13
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Thanks :-D. Added to the FAQ for reference, couldn't think of a specific category for it, so I just stuck some linkage at the bottom.
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Old 07-07-2008, 01:36 AM   #14
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^I don't know what the category would be, I think the link describes it well.
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Old 07-07-2008, 01:44 AM   #15
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Firstly, everything you said is very true and will be helpful to me and many others. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

Sadly, you actually dealt very little with the idea of balancing these areas. You mostly made arguments for working on those things, not balancing them.

Here are a few questions that I've thought of that you might like to answer:

What is a good balance of knowledge and how can I find one that suits me?

Should I devote equal practice time to these three areas to achieve balance?

If I'm already advanced at one of these areas but have neglected the other two, should I devote all my time to the other two to 'catch them up'?

What other areas could I practice/study? Are they less important than these three areas? How much weight should I give them in my balance?
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Old 07-07-2008, 01:56 AM   #16
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Originally Posted by Ănimus Prime
Here are a few questions that I've thought of that you might like to answer:

What is a good balance of knowledge and how can I find one that suits me?

Should I devote equal practice time to these three areas to achieve balance?

If I'm already advanced at one of these areas but have neglected the other two, should I devote all my time to the other two to 'catch them up'?

What other areas could I practice/study? Are they less important than these three areas? How much weight should I give them in my balance?

Thanks for the constructive comments.
Answers:
1. A good balance of knowledge differs from person to person; it's going to be based on what you hope to accomplish musically and where you are. Generally speaking, with this balance you would be able to hear and compose what you want, describe and understand it accurately and play it well from a technical standpoint. You can find it by evaluating yourself in these areas in any way you want and seeing where your strengths and weaknesses lie.

2. In my opinion, yes. If you honestly devote balanced time and practice these concepts correctly, you will become a well-rounded player who should be able to bring a solid musical and technical approach to whatever you're doing.

3. Not all of your time; as much time as you can put in while remaining focused. It's quality over quantity, and as long as your brain stays engaged feel free to keep practicing. After a while you'll most certainly get tired, so take a break in order to maintain interest; certainly devote more time to the areas you're lacking in but make sure that you at least maintain your skill in the other areas even if you're not progressing as fast while you focus on other things.

4. You could practice composing, which will help your overall musicality, and you should listen to a wide range of music in order to do so. Everything that I can think of, however, is going to relate in some way to these three core areas so they're not less important (in a general sense) but simply offshoots of the areas I described. I was giving what I feel to be the most important concepts, but that's not to say everyone will feel the same way. Give them as much weight as you feel necessary.
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Old 07-07-2008, 02:30 AM   #17
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Thanks for the constructive comments.
No worries, glad you addressed them.

I would also add that developing a repertoire is important, as well as improvisation and performance skills (depending on what you want to do of course). It's also fundamentally important to know how to practice these things so that improvement is possible. Practicing how to practice, learning how to learn if you follow me.

Theory
Technique
Aural skills
Songwriting/Composition
Repertoire
Improvisation
Performance
Practicing

These are the areas I can think of that a musician should at least be aware of, and should assess himself (sorry sue) on to see if he is where he wants to be and what he should work on. I wouldn't think of any of these as off-shoots, certainly aspects of some are used in others, but it's a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation.
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Old 07-07-2008, 02:59 AM   #18
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Great read!
Maybe you should have added compositional skills, or the "application" of music theory in there too...

I am severely lacking in aural skills
I only practised a little back in the music college I go, and I can't even correctly transpose a simple 5 note song
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Old 07-07-2008, 05:01 AM   #19
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Excellent.

Quote:
Originally Posted by bluesrocker101
I already know most of it. That being said, I haven't practiced it, which is something I should really start doing. So I know of it, just haven't applied it.


Believe me, if you haven't practiced it, you don't know it - theres all sorts of depths to "simple" practice and technique that need to be experienced. I don't mean this as a slight, but rather to point out the wonderful nature of correct practice and disciplined focus. It's good for you as a person and it's damn good for your playing.

And once again, nice article/thread.
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Old 07-07-2008, 05:53 AM   #20
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nice, i'm going to do some self-evaluation tonight and add some transcription exercises to my practice routine.

thanks alot :-D.
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