Music – The Universal Language
For many of us, music is a vital part of our everyday lives. Music wakes us in the morning, brightens our commute, accompanies us when we exercise and acts as the social glue on a night out. More than simply entertaining us, music has been at the heart of storytelling for millennia; becoming a vital character in film, tv and theatre. Music is used in religion, in protest and in celebration. It is one of the truest forms of emotional expression and is enjoyed in every nation on the planet. Other species on our planet are known to enjoy, and in some cases, express themselves musically. Even bees hum because they want to, not because they have to. Music has even been used as a method to communicate with extra-terrestrials. Music is, without a doubt, truly universal.
Any gentleman can enrich his life and knowledge by cultivating an understanding and appreciation of music. Listening to a wide variety of genres and actively seeking new music to listen to can greatly enhance the experience. I frequently ask friends to recommend music in the hope that I will discover something new. For the those of us who are more “hands-on”, learning to play an instrument can be a rewarding and satisfying activity. Learning to play that instrument as part of a larger group can open your life the wonderful experience of performance, and the joy of sharing music with others.
My Own Experience With Music
Our musical “education” starts before we are born. Prior to birth, our ears are already fully formed. For some weeks, we are able to perceive the calming and regular tempo of our mother’s heartbeat and the music she is listening to is transmitted to the womb. After we are born, we hear the music our parents listen too. Our parents use the music of lullabies to sooth us and nursery rhymes to teach us language and fables. On children’s TV, nursery schools and parenting groups, music is used as to teach and to share knowledge.
Honestly, I can’t imagine my life without music. I can recall my parents and grandparents sharing their music with me, and seeing how the emotional aspect lifted their spirits. I remember music lessons at school and singing in school plays and nativities. I remember the first record I bought myself and the delight of having my first radio so I could discover my own music. Over the years my musical tastes have evolved; I listen to music from my teens with fond memories and revel in the chance to listen to something new. My social circles have been shaped by the music we listened too and shared with each other. I’ve learned to play the guitar and sing well enough to perform live in a rock covers band. Music for me, like many of us, has been a soundtrack of my life, with different stages of my own growth picked out in musical styles; punctuated by specific songs and pieces that are forever linked to key events.
Learning to Play Music
Taking the plunge and learning to play an instrument can, at first, be quite a daunting prospect. The first point to remember is that it is never too late to learn a new instrument, even if you are already a musician. Being able to play an instrument for your own pleasure is satisfaction enough in itself. Being able to share that with others is pure joy. Learning to play an instrument can be incredibly cathartic to an almost meditative state. Recent research has also proven that engaging in learning an instrument, song or new piece engages both the creative and logical centres of the brain, and can lead to enhanced mental health and well-being. I can only really talk empirically and say that I genuinely feel really good after playing or learning music, be that a new instrument or piece. I can easily lose myself in a piece I am playing, or let my feelings flow in an improvisation.
It‘s a pursuit that, most obviously, requires us to learn the language of music and to develop the muscle memory and coordination required to play our chosen instrument. Beautifully hidden is the impact of physics and mathematics on the creative nature of music. There’s a wonderful logic in the construction of music that, once learned, opens up a wonderful palette of sound to be unleashed by your creativity. Before you know it you will be talking about tempo, pitch, harmony and counting through the keys of the scale.
Making the choice of instrument, though, can be quite difficult. In some ways, this is defined by the music you enjoy. For example, if you are into rock you are more likely to lean towards the guitar, whereas a classical music enthusiast may consider the violin, oboe or flute as a starting point. And don’t forget our own voices which have evolved over millions of years to provide a powerful and immeasurably flexible instrument built in.
Here, then, are my recommendations for instruments to start your musical journey on along with the benefits and drawbacks.
The piano is, literally, music theory laid out in black and white. The layout of the keyboard is based around the ‘scale of C Major’. If you can find C on the keyboard, and then play all the whites notes sequentially up to the next ‘C’ you have the full scale. Take into consideration the black keys and you can learn the gaps between the notes for the major scale in any key. Sheet music is ideally represented on the piano, with the lines and spaces all being playable on the white keys and the black keys being represented by sharpening or flattening the tone of the white key. If you are serious about learning music theory, then the piano probably makes this more apparent, and so easier, than many other instruments.
Unfortunately, the piano is not the most portable of instruments, even an electric keyboard with a wide range of full sized keys takes up quite a bit of space.. Even if you are not planning to take your instrument anywhere, allowances must be made for the space required for the piano, it’s stand or cabinet, and the stool. You can pick up a new electric piano for less than £200.00, although the quality of sound and the action of the keys increases substantially with the price. A new acoustic piano, such as an upright, will set you back the better part of £1000 and will need a lot of room at home.
Read our article on learning the piano to find out more.
Very common in blues, rock and country music, the guitar is often associated with popular and, more often than not, rebellious music. A guitar is very portable and you can usually pick up a fairly decent instrument for between £100.00 and £300.00. One of the remarkable things about learning the guitar is how many pieces of popular music can be played with just a few basic chords. Whilst they might not be 100% accurate, you will certainly be able to do enough to sing along to. The guitar, it is said, can take a few hours to learn, but a lifetime to master. One of the big benefits of learning the guitar is the sheer volume of popular music that can be played on the instrument. For this reason, along with its portability and affordability, the guitar has replaced the piano and become the instrument to get people together and while an evening away singing songs together.
The guitar does have its drawbacks. The fretboard does not lend itself to making music theory as obvious as the piano does, with the naturals, sharps and flats visually indiscernible. It can also be quite confusing where to play a note as the same note at the same pitch can occur in several places. This confusion led to an alternative notation for the guitar called tablature (or tab for short). Tab uses 6 lines to represent the strings and numbers to indicate which fret needs to be played on which string. Tab does require that the reader knows the song first, but it’s a great way to learn a familiar song quickly. On the downside, guitar tab is not ideal for teaching music theory.
A viable alternative to the guitar is the bass guitar, giving only 4 strings to contend with. The Bass guitar is, however, a much longer beast, and will require some serious stretching of the fingers, along with a long period of blisters whilst the callouses build-up on the fingertips. Nobody said music wasn’t painful!
Often seen as the fun cousin to the guitar, or, due to its small size, a toy instrument, the Ukulele is enjoying a long-awaited and much-deserved resurgence, and is featuring more and more in mainstream popular music. The happy, plucky tones and its apparent design as an instrument of accompaniment have made the Ukulele very popular as a party instrument. With only 4 strings, a much shorter fingerboard and being incredibly portable, the Ukulele is a great instrument to learn if you want to encourage people to sing along without taking themselves to seriously. Ukuleles can be surprisingly cheap; my first one costing only £20.00. You can even pick up electric and bass ukulele’s these days.
Despite the amount of fun one can have with a ukulele, it’s still not considered to be a mainstream or serious instrument. They can be quite quiet and, if you are of a larger stature, it can be difficult to squeeze your fingers in on the fretboard. That said, I have had endless hours of fun with a ukulele. It’s a great instrument to get friends to join in or to help children learn how to make their own music.
The Violin And Other Stringed Instruments.
If you are a lover of classical music than the violin has to be one of the favourite tones. Unlike the piano and guitar the violin, along with its stringed cousins, is primarily aimed at picking out the melody, and so often is used to play one note at a time, which simplifies the initial learning curve. You can pick up a new, full-size (4/4) violin for under £100.00, including electric violins. Learning the violin is an exercise in co-ordination, memory and patience. Nobody ever sounds good when they first start playing, but everybody progresses with practice and dedication. The reward of being able to play a favourite classical piece or arrangement of a popular song on a violin is hard to explain, except to admit a glowing self-satisfaction of getting it right and having the violin sing beautifully.
Learning a stringed instrument does require a lot of dedication and faith in yourself to improve over time. This family of instruments do not (save for the plucked instruments, such as the guitar, ukulele and banjo), do not have frets with which to define the tone or guide you as to where your fingers should be, making it far more difficult to master. This difficulty has been addressed to some degree with adhesive finger guides. The violin (and viola) have the additional difficulty of the unusual position the instrument appears to you, being out to one side of your face and gripped by the chin. Without question, this is one of the more difficult instruments to learn and master but if you enjoy a sense of achievement over instant gratification this may be the perfect instrument for you.
The Saxophone and Reed Instruments
The saxophone, despite being made of brass, is actually a reed instrument. The reed is part of the mouthpiece and gives the sax, along with clarinet, oboe and their cousins the unique combination of warm and harsh tones. The saxophone is usually associated with blues, soul, big band, and romantic music more than with its roots in classical music. The saxophone’s portability is a bonus but the real deciding factor for most people is the warm and sensuous tone of the saxophone. The appearance of the saxophone in many romantic hits is no coincidence. The sound it makes can convey sensuality, tragedy and joy. The saxophone has earned its place as one of the most popular instruments to learn.
Saxophones aren’t cheap, though, and to my knowledge, there is no adequate digital/electric version of the saxophone. A realistic starting point would be about £250.00 new, though expect to pay a lot more for a quality instrument. When you are learning, every squeak, bum-note and bR&Bodged riff will be out there for anyone within earshot to hear. You can muffle the sound, but something will still be audible. Recently, I also found out that a saxophone’s tuning is entirely dependent on how far the mouthpiece is placed into the instrument. There are no real guide marks for this so it has to be done by ear. I assume this is the same for other reed instruments too.
From the cornet and trumpet to the tuba and euphonium, the range of brass instruments is huge, but they all work on the same principle of being able to produce a sound by amplifying the sound vibrating the lips together. That sound you make when trying to impersonate a balloon by squeezing some air out through tightened lips is called an embouchure and can really tingle! Just think of making the letter “M” shape with your mouth then forcing air out over your tightened lips. That’s what you need to be able to do to play a brass instrument, and it takes a lot of practice. Once you have nailed it though you have access to some great music ranging from classical pieces to soul, traditional R&B and big band swing. A trumpet will typically cost around £200.00 and will usually come with its own case.
The embouchure is a hard thing to master and is the main thing that produces the tone and pitch of the note being played. The keys on the many brass instruments and the slider, in the case of the trombone, modify the pitch to some degree but do not generate the initial pitch. The lack of visual cues as to what pitch will be played can be very challenging. My own experience of brass instruments has been that it’s very difficult to learn the basics or even make a pleasing sound, but it’s eminently rewarding once you have done so.
Drums and Other Percussion Instruments.
I won’t go into any drummer jokes here, simply because I know how much discipline and coordination goes into even the most simple of grooves. Drumming is about timing and attitude. Learning to play means learning to get your limbs to all be doing different things at the same time. The most other musicians generally have to worry about is the arms. Like all other instruments mentioned here, starting slow, learning the coordination, and building up the tempo over time is the key to success. This applies doubly so to the drums. Why? Because the drums are the tempo! Whilst learning other instruments, we often have a metronome to set the tempo for us. If you perform as a drummer, though, you are the metronome, setting the tempo for the rest of the band.
There are 3 big downsides to learning to play the drums. Firstly, and probably foremost in most people’s minds, is having very a very understanding family or housemates, and incredibly forgiving neighbours. An electric drum kit can really help here, but I am told by my drummer friends that the response and feel of an electric kit never “feels” the same as the skin on a proper drum-head. A decent basic kit will cost you the upwards of £200.00, even for an electric kit.
Probably the cheapest approach to making music and probably the one that requires the most practice, dedication and patience. Most people are born with the ability to sing. Very few of us are born with the natural ability to sing well. Singing well is more than just belting out the lyrics to a favourite song. Like any instrument, singing requires the understanding and development of technique and muscle memory, as well as practice. Singing is, without a doubt, a physical workout for the upper body. To sing well the vocalist must engage the abdomen, diaphragm and vocal chords. Posture, relaxation, breathing and even the shape of the face affect the outcome. Through my own training, I’ve been asked to pant like a dog, utter tongue twisting scales, and even perform sit-ups whilst singing, all to develop and hone the instrument that nature has provided me.
Singing, too, has its drawbacks. Firstly, in the pursuit of perfection, one can become overly critical of one’s ability. It’s best to counter this by employing the services of a singing coach, who will help guide and hone your voice with encouragement and well-tested teaching methods. Another drawback is drumming up the support of friends and family. Of all the ways to perform, singing is probably the most personal. Your voice, and it’s tonal qualities are part of you, so any slight against your performance, even whilst practising, can be really disheartening. With any luck, you will have people around you that are supportive and understanding of your endeavours. This is not always the case, though, so I can only offer this advice. When someone is rude or negatively critical about your singing, remember that you are learning, and it takes practice to improve. Moreover, as with any of the instruments here, you are doing this, first and foremost, for your own satisfaction and personal development, not to satisfy someone else’s need for self-importance by judging and demeaning others efforts.
Enjoy The Rewards of Learning Music
The benefits of learning an instrument are well documented. The act of learning engages the analytical, logical and creative centres of the brain, and some studies suggest, can improve brain function. Students are frequently encouraged to take up a musical instrument as part of their learning cycle not just to enhance the cognitive process, but also to provide a release of the stresses of learning.
Taking the time to learn to read music, and to understand music theory is worth any effort and frustration at the beginning of your musical journey. There is a certain delight attached to looking at a piece of music and having a rough idea of what it should sound like. It’s just like being able to read a foreign language and having a rough idea of the meaning and context behind it.
It’s never too late to learn a musical instrument. Learning and playing, even for your own satisfaction, can be a rewarding and cathartic experience, offering an escape from tension and a route to flexing one’s creative muscle.
Music offers the modern gentleman a way to explore the creative arts in a personal and involved way. Being able to reproduce the work of a great composer, perform a song, or entertain the kids gives us the chance to share in the creative process and put our own emotional stamp on it.