With music, there’s always something new to learn

With music, there’s always something new to learn

Music never stops surprising me and amazing me. There’s always something new to learn, whether you’re listening to music or creating it. I believe that this is one reason music makes us feel so alive. It’s an endless quest of new discovery. Even when we think we know quite a lot about music in general, or about a specific genre, or how to play an instrument, the truth is that we really know only a fraction of what music has hidden in its secret, wonderful folds. Even the virtuoso will learn something new when she branches out into areas beyond her expertise. It’s endless. And as listeners, we are offered a joyful variety of musical explorations which just wait for us to tune in. This happens constantly without us ever really thinking about it, and yet, every once in a while something happens that hits with a different significance. That’s what happened to me today.

Musical clef and frequency graph
Music leads us on a wonderful journey of discovery that never ends.

This afternoon I got together with my good friend Michael. He’s a member of a band called Common Chord, and they’ve invited me to do a small guest set at one of their upcoming shows. I don’t play out very often–in fact, it’s been nearly two years since the last time I guested with these guys, and that was the last time I performed. So Michael and I got together to go over some of my songs and work out the arrangements, solos, and so forth.

We’d just gone through one of the songs when he told me that the band had been having a debate at their rehearsal a couple of nights earlier when they were playing along to a scratch recording I’d made for them. The song is sort of an Appalachian gospel number and in the bridge I’d used a certain guitar chord. The band wanted to sing a harmony and the chord I’d chosen didn’t fit what they’d wanted to do. For those musicians out there, the song is in E, and the chord I used was the two chord, which in the E scale is an F# minor. I have to admit that the chord, although I knew it was the right idea, always felt just a little bit…wrong to me. It just wasn’t the¬†perfect chord. But I don’t think I really knew this consciously. It was just a feeling. Since logically I knew that, by the rules, in a major key, the two chord is a minor chord, I never thought twice about it.

That’s an example of being too rigid while making music. What the band wanted was not the minor second chord. What they wanted was a Dominant 7 two chord–F#7. And here’s the part where I learned something new after all these years of playing. When Michael was explaining this to me, he didn’t think of the chord as the two chord in the E scale. What he called it was the fifth of the fifth. I won’t go into the musical theory behind that here, because it was a completely new concept to me and I’m not sure I understand it well enough to explain it just yet. Time to do some research! In this case, the fifth of the fifth works out to be the F#7 chord they were looking for. As soon as I played it instead of that F# minor, I understood. I mean instantly. It felt perfect. It was the chord I’d wanted all along.

And this little story points to one reason why I love music and why I love playing the guitar. I have been listening to that kind of music for at least 30 years. I’ve probably heard the fifth of the fifth hundreds of times. I’ve been playing guitar for around 40 years. And suddenly, out of nowhere, this brand new piece of information hits me, and once again, my musical perspective has changed. Those of you who are musicians may get a chuckle out of my ignorance, but I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. Those precious little moments when somebody shows you something you never saw before. Or even better, those times when you stumble upon a musical relationship that you never knew existed and suddenly a new dimension in understanding and playing music unfolds before you.

These little moments have happened to me over and over again throughout the years of playing music. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon. How can one play for so long and still lack so much knowledge? Sometimes it’s as simple as a little musical connection which helps you suddenly understand why things work the way they do. Playing music, and for me, specifically the guitar, has provided years of exploration and discovery like that. Just when I get comfortable in my knowledge, something new drops on me and I go a different direction with new understanding.

That’s what Michael did for me today by unveiling the “secret” of the fifth of the fifth for me. It’s so cool. It almost makes me giddy. For me, that’s a big part of the joy of making music. And today’s experience is a valuable reminder that while music has rules, there are no rules in music that can’t be broken. The important thing is finding what sounds right. What sounds good. Those rules provide an invaluable foundation for making music, but the foundation is there to be built upon. In my case, I was on the right track, but I should have listened to that piece in me that was trying to make me uncomfortable. It was trying to let me know I wasn’t done with that song yet. I didn’t have it right. I need to learn to listen to that intuition and break a few rules in search of what does sound right.

And as listeners, we are the constant recipients of this type of creative discovery in the artists we listen to. When you hear something that sounds different than everything else, that’s perhaps a musician who is breaking the normal rules of music making. Or it could be a musician who’d just had one of these wonderful discoveries and then used it to create something a little bit different than what they’d always made before that. We don’t really know as we listen. We just know we love the results. And in that way, we listeners realize the joy of the discoveries our favorite musicians are making. That’s how we’re all interconnected in this musical odyssey. There is always something to learn, and whether we are creators or listeners, part of the joy of music is that very learning process.

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