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Making Music, Update 1

I expected learning musical notation to be like learning another language, and it is. But unlike learning a phonetic language that uses a familiar alphabet, music’s symbology constitutes its own unique alphabet. And while its symbols can be interpreted vocally, they’re just as likely to be interpreted with an instrument (in my case, a guitar). Rather than an English speaker learning Spanish, the process is more like an English speaker learning Arabic and translating it to Morse code—while also learning Morse code. That probably makes it sound harder than it is, but regardless, as you might imagine, it’s a slow process. It can be humbling to haphazardly pluck out dead-simple melodies as an adult in the same tentative manner a 6-year-old might stammer through Fun with Dick and Jane, though I thankfully have yet to get discouraged. To whit, here I am cautiously working my way through a sight reading of “The Star-Spangled Banner:”

As rudimentary as it is, this recording tells a pretty good story of my progress so far:

  • It involves a total of 11 distinct pitches, all but one of which are natural notes, played entirely on the first three frets of the guitar’s first five strings, except for the F♯ on the fourth fret of the D string. (My playing so far also extends to the sixth string, though it’s not used here.)
  • It’s in 3/4 time and involves whole notes, dotted half notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes.
  • The playing is pretty stiff and undisciplined. I’m mostly concentrating on staying in time and hitting the right notes. Some notes are struck louder than others, and extraneous string noise remains the bane of my existence (though I’m getting better at managing it).
  • It probably took me a couple of dozen takes to get to this one, so this is arguably an idealized representation of my current ability. That said, absent the performance anxiety provoked by recording, I think my playing is generally more relaxed and less error-prone. Of course, since that can’t be knowingly recorded, we’ll probably never know. Catch-22!

My guitar and theory studies aren’t running in parallel, but they did both recently start getting real in similar ways. In both cases it has to do with compound information: It’s no longer as simple as knowing which position on the staff corresponds with which pitch, how that maps to the fretboard, and how different note values work within time signatures. Aspects of dynamics (loud/soft), tempo (speed), articulation (manner of playing), repetition (economy of notation), and accidentals (pitch adjustment) have now been introduced.

Most of this is still on the theory side of things, so I only need to understand it intellectually. So far, so good. But my guitar book’s introduction of key signatures is something I need to interpret in real time as I’m playing. It’s mercifully limited to F♯ for the moment, which means knowing where the Fs are (there are three of them in my current 18-fret universe) and to play them one fret higher. This has been a good reminder that I need to maintain a real-time awareness of the names of the actual notes, not just how the symbols map from the staff to the fretboard.

Those other types of compound information—dynamics, tempo, etc.—will eventually need to be interpreted in real time as well, and I assume they’ll each be introduced in due time to avoid being overwhelming. But at this early stage, it’s still hard for me to imagine being able to parse it all while sight reading.

Song sketches

My guitar and theory studies have thus far had limited influence on my song sketches, which are still governed mostly by instinct, but I’m starting to learn about scales, which may turn the tide. My rate of sketching has slowed down (I’ve averaged about two per week over the past month), but I’ve done enough of them now to notice some patterns and identify difficulties, areas of interest, and opportunities. Some things I’m thinking about:

  • Creating busy rhythmic patterns and removing different pieces of them on each repetition
  • The rhythmic interplay between the instruments, creating compositions with all three instruments in lockstep and then shifting each one slightly
  • The different qualities inherent in staccato and legato as they relate to the bass
  • The vibes’ lack of direction. Most of what I’m doing with them still feels compulsory, probably because they’re the most inherently melodic instrument in my ensemble, and I’m clearly more focused on rhythm. Rather than just omit them, though, I think it’s important to figure out how to make them work for me. No specific ideas for that yet, but I’ll keep exploring.

Some recent sketches:

I figure I should reach the 50-sketch mark right around the middle of the year, which seems like a good point to start taking the sketches and academic knowledge I’ve accrued and try to start making something more substantial out of it all. I still have only a very vague sense of where it’s going, but I’m fine with that for now.