How to Master Music

It's hard for many beginner, intermediate and even some advanced players to see all the material they need to master to reach their goals. In order to help the players who can't see that full view yet, I've written this article to discuss the aspects that are crucial for success as a musician or artist.

Ultimate Guitar
If you've studied an instrument before, you focused on reading music, playing the actual instrument and some bits of music theory, like scales. Chances are that's about as far as your knowledge goes. Maybe you've taken a basic theory course in high school as well.

Most people stop at the physical side of playing an instrument and don't go further. The technical side is important, but music is not a physical act, it's a mental one. You're representing an emotion. By only learning the physical side of things you're doing yourself a great disservice. You can play the instrument, but do you know why you're playing what you're playing, or are you just moving your fingers? Do you know what feeling you're giving off when you're playing? Do you know multiple ways to represent that same idea?

This issue is not the students fault. It's their teacher's fault for putting all emphasis on the technical side of music. Beginner, intermediate and even some advanced students cannot see all the things they need to master. It's up to the teacher-to educate them properly.

In this article, I want to talk about the full view or all the aspects of music you need to study to truly master music. I hope to open your mind a little about what's out there, inspire you, drive you and help you succeed in all your musical endeavors.

So let's talk about the full view.

The technical side

A side many people are familiar with but surprisingly still neglect. Ken Tamplin, a vocal coach I studied under said it best:

"Your technical side as a musician can be compared to an artist and the number of colors he has to work with. The more colors the artist has to work with, the more variety and more expression he/she can achieve. If he only has three colors, he can only paint so much. We can compare a musician and his level of technique in the same way. The higher your level of technique is, the greater your ability to express and craft the music you desire. The lower your level of technique is, the more limited your art will be."

Technique is a vitally important aspect of playing - many focus on just the ability to play. Many others ignore the technical side assuming it as only something classical, metal or jazz players develop. 

This is almost criminal.

Technique is how you control your instrument. If you are burdened by the act of playing the instrument, you will never be able to focus on the actual act of making music.

Technique can be grouped into many categories. This is a short article, so I will only give the general categories:


1. Melody/lead
2. Harmony
3. Phrasing nuances
4. Integration (transitions)

Ear Training

The next piece of the musical puzzle is your ear training. If your ear is poor and you can't hear what is going on in a song, you're in trouble. As a musician, your ears are one of your most vital tools. If technique is the amount of colors you can paint with-then Ear training is like the size of your paint brush. Ear training is your ability to understand, interpret and re-represent music.

Having a proficient ear will allow you to express yourself through your own music in greater detail and accuracy, just as an artist uses different sized brushes to detail his work and give him a greater ability to express himself.

Ear training is essential to anyone who wants to compose their own music. It also allows you to enjoy music on a much deeper level than the common person. It is a skill that most musicians fail to develop, making it almost impossible for them to reach a true level of mastery.

The final area of ear training, which I'm usually surprised if a student has developed at all, is the ability to recognize emotion. If you play a specific note over a chord, do you know what emotion it's producing? Do you know the emotion each chord is giving off? Probably not, but if you did, you would be able to represent and create any emotion you wanted under any circumstance. Can anybody say super power?

Ear training can also be divided into many categories:

Ear training:

1. Melody/ Harmony:

- Intervals
- Chords
- Scales
- Phrases

2. Rhythm:

- Sight reading
- Diction

3. Recognizing emotions:

- Notes
- Chords
- Scales


Another underrated skill for most musicians is visualization. Many instruments can ignore this section because visualization is only a skill that applies to instruments able to create harmonies. Such as guitar, piano, organ, harp-etcetera.

Sticking with the analogy of the artist, your visualization skills would be considered the size of your canvas. Visualization is your ability to know where all the notes, scales and chords on your instrument lie in relation to each other.

Knowing this will give you the ability to represent the same idea in many different ways. Going back to our analogy: If a painter has a bigger canvas, he can paint the same color in a different position on that canvas. As a result, he is able to express himself differently, by applying the same color in a different position.

The more you are able to see the notes, chords and scales along the fret board(or any other harmonic instrument surface) and integrate them together, the more options you will have to express your idea in a different position on your instrument.

Your visualization skills can be considered the size of your sonic canvas.

Most musicians develop only their ability to see notes. Some develop scale knowledge, but it's usually too weak to be more beneficial than letting them stay in key when they improvise or write.

The basic categories to work on for visualization are:


1. Notes
2. Scales
3. Chords
4. Integration

Music Theory

Regarded by some as restrictive and regarded by others as rules.

Let's set the record straight. Music theory is not something that should be neglected. Is it a set of rules? No. Is it restrictive? Only if you treat it as a set of rules.

Do you need music theory? No, but it can be a great tool and save you from a lot of guess and check work. Music theory was made by a bunch of guys who gathered in a room studied Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and other musical masters and figured out the patterns in their music.

So knowing theory can help you practice and create your own style by finding what you like and what you don't. If you get stuck while composing a piece, you can use theory to help you figure out where you want to go with it.

Theory is a set of useful guide-lines and it will be much easier to break these guidelines if you know what they are and their purpose. Theory principles are standard and most people who ignore them end up composing things that fit into theory anyway. So the question is, why you would recreate the wheel?

Learn theory and expand upon it to create your own style.

Theory can be divided into:

1. Melody studies
2. Harmony studies
3. Rhythm studies
4. Song Analysis
5. Reading Music:

A lot of people consider reading music part of music theory. I have a hard time sharing this opinion. Would you say your ability to read a book is studying an author's word choice? I wouldn't because I'm not analyzing anything, I'm just reading it.

Technicalities aside, the ability to read music is going to be very important to you as a musician and artist. It will make it easier for you to build music without getting stuck in your pieces. It will give you more control over the musical elements so your songs won't sound the same. It will also allow you to write music away from your instrument, allowing you to focus on the emotion you want to get across, rather than playing the physical instrument.

Reading Music can be divided into:

1. Clef reading
2. Time signatures
3. Tempo's

Self-taught musicians often get intimidated by reading music. Especially, if they have skill in other areas. Many people think learning to read music takes years, but there are plenty of ways you can speed up the process.

As far as music is concerned, these are all the categories every musician should focus on. Notice I didn't mention improvising or songwriting. There's a simple reason for this. All the area's above are isolated aspects of improvisation or composition and creating a category for both separately would just be redundant. The only thing that would be added by including those pieces would be the process of integrating and applying everything together. So, rather than include songwriting and improvisation as separate categories I will write this:

Everything you learn must be integrated and applied together for your skills to function together and make all this practice beneficial. If you learn theory and don't apply it, it's useless. If you develop virtuoso speed on an instrument, but can't read music and have poor visualization skills, it's useless. The person who just song writes when most or all of their isolated skills are low will compose poor and amateurish music.

Neglecting any of these categories is going to make you a lopsided player.

Again, all of the above categories can all be divided up even more than they are, but that is not the purpose of this article. I want you to be able to take a look at what you're practicing and see where you need to spend more time.

It's hard for beginner, intermediate and even some advanced players to see the whole picture. If you need specific help in any of these areas and don't know where to start, find a teacher who has the knowledge to help you improve in these areas.

About the Author:
By Chris Glyde.

2 comments sorted by best / new / date

    As an amateur musician for the last 14 years, this was an awesome article. Good job man.
    I really like this article. I kind of recognised this whole vision in my head, but instead of it being completely fragemental and unstructured, I can read the fully structured and complete version here. So that helped me to see the bigger picture indeed. And that helped me realise that I have to improve my visualisation (relatively to the other aspects, since i could improve basically everything still very much). Thanks for this lesson, i found it very interesting! Edit: I have to add though that I clicked on this article because I thought it was literally about mastering music. You know.. as in master effects after EQing and such. But this was a very pleasent surprise in that way!