The Key to Playing Music People Want to Hear - Part 1

What I wish I was told from the beginning. A change of focus for young musicians.

Ultimate Guitar

There is a common perspective that there is something "out there" that one must learn in order to be able to play music. This sounds logical. For example, generally you must go to engineering school to learn how to engineer, or you must learn from a baker before you can know how to bake.

I have news for you. Unlike baking recipes or engineering plans, both of which you must first find and then follow to produce a desired result, music does not have to be "acquired" externally in order for you to play it. Music is already inside you.

Think back to when you learned your first language. How did you learn to speak? You probably learned by listening to others who could speak fluently and by mimicking them.

After a few short years, you were able to hold conversations and to communicate effectively with the correct words in a given context. You didn't have to think about it; it was natural. You could communicate by matching or using the right words, based on what you thought, in the right situations.

You Don't Spell Before You Speak

Have you ever learned a scale or piece of music theory only to find yourself thinking, "Ok, now what do I do with this?" You may have memorized the concept, but perhaps you weren't quite sure where to put it, or how to use it.

When this happens, the usual thought is to "learn more" because "If I just learn a little more, I might finally 'get it.'" But by following this process again and again, you eventually end up with many "pieces" but somehow can't quite seem to ever put the whole puzzle together.

I have found this to be a major source of frustration for many people.

There is a key to this puzzle and it's this: music itself is a language.

It's is a language through which to communicate emotion. Music is the language of the soul.

Did someone teach you the alphabet before you began to say words? Of course not. It was only after you could speak the language that you were taught the alphabet and how to spell, read, and write.

If music is a language, then why should learning music be any different than learning your first language? You can learn all the scales and modes in the world, but nobody cares unless you can play music with those scales and modes.

If you don't communicate ideas or feelings in your playing, no one will want to listen. Have you ever been around someone who talks a lot but never really says anything? Surely you didn't care to listen for long.

How to Play Your Music

Listen to blues guitarist B.B. King. He could play just two notes and make you want to cry. Not because he knows about scales and modes - he can barely play a bar chord - it's because he is able to communicate what he feels. He is able to play the music that is inside of him. You hear his soul talking!

Music comes from inside you. It comes from what you feel. No one has to teach you how to feel, just like no one has to teach you your opinions. The idea is to express these feelings through some form of "instrument."

Five-time Grammy Award-winning bassist, Victor Wooten said that unlike verbal language, "Music doesn't have to be understood to be effective."

And it doesn't matter what instrument you play, or don't play. You do not have to know how to play an instrument in order to create music.

A guitar is not a musical instrument; it does nothing on its own. You are the musical instrument. The guitar is simply a tool through which you can communicate in the language of music. How you use this tool depends on what you want to communicate.

If you want to play great music that people will want to listen to again and again, surround yourself with others who can communicate fluently in music, and practice playing what you feel, even if it's completely unconventional. Practice playing music, not simply notes.

About the Author: Jonathan Boyd is a professional musician, guitar teacher, blogger, and luthier in Birmingham, Alabama. Take guitar lessons with Jonathan at or visit his innovative guitar blog at

14 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Good article. I think that I struggled with this for many years as a child and into my teens -- I NEVER wrote music because I always thought "one day I'll get it" or "some people have it and some don't, and I don't". It wasn't before I was 20 that I realised that writing music is a skill that needs to be developed (the same as practicing scales or licks or whatever) This is the biggest piece of advice I can give for young musicians: START WRITING SONGS. RIGHT NOW. They will SUCK at first. They will be [i]the worst songs you have ever heard in your life. You will feel bad about it, but don't stop! I promise that in a year or two, or five, after writing songs consistently, you'll start coming up with things that you'd never have thought yourself capable of composing. WRITE WRITE WRITE! Do it! Oh, and Guitar Pro is really useful for developing songs ! Good luck! Edit: Might seem like I was a bit off-topic, but I was developing on what the article said; the skills you learn from practicing those scales -- that "language" -- needs to be used. Use it to write music
    Off-topic or not, I couldn't agree more. You don't just magically learn how to write great songs overnight. The first songs you write will be terrible and you'll want to rip out the pages of your notebook (and delete your GP files) so that nobody anywhere will ever see them ever. But going through that is the only way to get better!
    What if I can only write a riff or two and then run out of fumes? The wonders of ADD are nothing short of nerve-wrecking.
    but still gotta learn how to play, right (how can you get the tools in order to be able to express yourself?)? por am I missing something?
    exactly right. the article is a nice sentiment, but for most there is a certain level of ability required to express yourself properly. certain ideas cant be expressed in language without a large enough vocabulary and music is similar in that regard
    I think the point of the article was that you should first learn music and then all the technical stuff, not the other way around. Not learn to sweep pick first and then wonder how to use that technique, but be inspired by a sweep picking solo and learn to play that, and that way you'll understand how the technique is actually used. Or if we use the example in the article - first learn all the scales and then wonder how they are used. It should go the other way around. You first hear music and then wonder what's happening. It becomes a lot easier to understand theoretic concepts if you know the sound first. Treat all the technical/theoretical stuff as tools. They don't tell you what to do, they just help you with playing what you are feeling. Of course you need technique to be able to play something. But you can have musical ideas without knowing how to play. Technique and theory don't really give you ideas on their own. The ideas come from you.
    Yes, you're right. The thing is, many musicians only care about the tools and, more important than that, don't know how to use them to express themselfs, so the tools should come from a necessity of finding new ways of expression.
    I entirely agree. something I think is possibly overlooked by many is playing by ear. if you have good relative pitch and can hear what interval you want to come next and translate that to a fretboard you'll be able to play exactly how you feel
    You just changed my view on songwriting. Thanks a lot man.
    Didnt't quite revolutionize my writing, but he hit the nail on the head with what he said. Good article! Like John Frusciante said: "I don't play the guitar, the guitar plays me".
    The main gist of this article is correct but there are some things that don't exactly work like that. Music is a language but learning that language helps you express your "feelings" more fluently. Otherwise you have the vocubulary and understanding of music as a toddler. Which will explain the massive appeal of the emotional and structural equivalent of nursery rhymes to most people that is referred to as music these days.
    I get where the author is coming from, but who is going to sit and listen to a toddler speak. The title of the article is "playing songs people want to hear." Nobody wants to read a book written by a 5 year old, and nobody wants to listen to a song written by a musician with the equivalent musical vocabulary. The people who inspire others through prose or speech do so through a profound knowledge of language and the nuances of the written or spoken word. I submit that the people who write great songs have the same understanding of music.
    False. The Ramones, Nirvana, Burzum, and countless hip hop, country, metal and rock musicians know nothing about music theory. Big words don't inspire big emotions, and a vast knowledge of music is useless if you don't have something to say. Even if you don't know what they're called, you can always find the notes to say what you want to say.