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I have seen people who can play instruments well, but can't:

1.Read sheet music.

2.Do not know anything about music theory.

3.Do not know the structures or rhythms of sound, acoustics, or the such.

I have, on the other hand, studied music theory for a few days/weeks now, multitude of hours (dedication put in, yes), practiced on piano playing software (I can't afford instruments) that mimics horns, drums, guitars, etc. I even tried other interactive, software-powered musical programs.

All in all, I have tried digital piano keyboards ... I can't seem to "create" music, and I have loads of trouble "understanding" how to play well.

The best I've done is play "twinle, twinle, little star", and some of "The London bridge is falling down".

I want to be able to play songs well that I like, and one day (possibly) create my own small music/songs. However, I am puzzled at how some people lacking obvious knowledge of music theory in all angles can adapt and formulate tones, music, and rhythmatics from existing songs, etc.

I have a brother who does just this ... never had a good piano lesson, never studied in any way, shape, form, etc. Give him a guitar, piano, etc., and he can play well, just from the fact that he has experience playing.

I have tried "just playing" without knowing the instruments, but I can virtually never play good music; not of any kind. Is there a secret or something?

Why can some "just learn" music without learning theory well, etc.? Is this dependent solely on the person's brain? Should I throw the towel and just admit this isn't for me?

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It's not clear for how long you've been playing, or on which instruments. There are definitively differences in people's potential, but I'd say it takes quite some time (years) to be able to play at a decent level, unless you are unusually talented. –  Meaningful Username Feb 21 at 22:32
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Also, I think you've got it backwards. Theory is just a way to explain the stuff played by people who know music well... –  Meaningful Username Feb 21 at 22:33
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Please bear in mind that there are many different ways to 'know' music. A great deal of music making is based on convention, and it's entirely possible for people to internalize musical conventions without knowing or using the vocabulary of music theory. People who play well definitely know music. –  kiprainey Feb 22 at 0:48
    
You said you've been learning for a few weeks? That might explain some things :) –  AsianSquirrel May 9 at 3:18

9 Answers 9

Definitely don't throw in the towel. Everyone is different. Some amazing musicians have no grasp of theory at all, but over time they learn what sounds work and what sounds don't.

For most of the music I play, theory is unnecessary - but it helps once you have some physical capability.

So I could, for example, play basic rock chords in a 4/4 rhythm and it would be fine.

Or - I could understand that I can use Dorian and Mixolydian in a solo, and create a bridge that varies from the rule of fifths, and generally build a better tune.

Or - I could just try things and some would sound fine.

Those folks who have no theory may have more of an affinity for notes, melodies, chords or progressions - which is fine.

The best option is to have that and theory (in my opinion) - I have a bit of theory, and a lot of practical experience, and wish I had learned more theory when younger as it takes a lot of effort at this age.

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Lots of people have natural aptitude to something - be it swimming, painting, playing football...

Those lucky enough to have it in music will be able to just play.Maybe not brilliantly at the start, but progress is usually good,

Getting to know the instrument is paramount.Theory not so. More later. With a complete beginner, I get them used to the instrument,how it makes sounds, how they can affect those sounds, making up their own ditties, etc.No music to read, certainly.Only when they are totally happy with making their own noises on the instrument will written music come along - maybe.

My theory on theory is that it explains what happens. As in the practical part already exists before any theory can be attached to it.You can't theorise without something tangential to hang it on. In other words, theory didn't come first, so it shouldn't be tackled first.Most players who have experience will glean theory on the way - it should become apparent that certain patterns work most of the time, etc. Humans seem to be programmed to see patterns - once bitten, etc !

In your musical journey, try to play by ear initially. If this works, move forward. If it's hard work, you probably need a teacher (a brilliant move, anyway), but some people can only play from music, once they have learnt.It's a fact that some rely on the dots totally. This makes them great pianists, guitarists, but somehow maybe not great musicians, as they will be able to produce only what already exists. The difference between a reader and an orator, maybe ?

Don't give up because others are better and quicker than you - we all learn at different rates.

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I disagree with this somewhat. The way I'm wired, I've always been interested in why music sounds the way it does, and as a result, in theory. As a result, I quickly started composing music, and whenever I played on an instrument, my greatest strength was understanding what was going on in the piece, not having good technique. If you tried to teach me music by having me play an instrument for a while before showing me a single note on paper, I would have been very bored and disengaged. –  Kevin Feb 23 at 1:33
    
All this to say: To each his own, so I disagree that focusing on playing by ear and developing good instrument technique is the best path for all or even most musicians. –  Kevin Feb 23 at 1:34
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Whilst agreeing somewhat with your comment, that some people will need to know why things happen,the OP was attempting to understand why people who play with NO theory can actually do so.Disagree or agree, if the answer to the original question is in your comment, use it as an actual answer. –  Tim Feb 23 at 7:42
    
Good point. Your answer does explain what the OP is asking about. +1 –  Kevin Feb 23 at 7:51

Some people just have a good ear and had an opportunity to start playing at a very early age. They have an instinct to respond to music around them and it is like a language. Many blues players have no idea how theory works and are amazing. James Hetfield who wrote all that complicated music admitted he can't read or write music in an interview that I once read. I can only think he had a drive that only few have and an all or nothing approach to play and write. What's funny is how people try to analyze compositions with theory when the composer was not thinking about theory.

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Sounds like you are trying to intellectually and analytically "understand" music. In my opinion, this can be done to some extent. Just like you can intellectually understand language and grammar, and use that understanding to write poems, novels and short stories. However useful it might be, it isn't really necessary to write great stories. What makes a novel interesting is the more vague concept of 'feel', which can't easily be systematized. Some people grasp this without any formal grammar knowledge, either intuitively, and/or through lots of practice. Just the same with music; purely intellectual music can be technically interesting, but not more than that.

I'm a mathematician, and have a knack for logical systems. As yourself, I've used an analytical approach to learn music. So for many years, I've been improvising and playing based on what is 'logical' and/or technically interesting (and some times intentionally breaking those 'rules'). But lately I've more and more discarded this logical paradigm. Using it only for practice sessions. Instead I try to "let it happen".

My point is - and I don't know if this applies to you - that a purely analytical approach to music can somewhat miss the point. Theories and analysis can help you to control what happens - a kind of 'safety net'. These can be very useful in learning to master the instrument. But the real joy of playing and sharing music is to let go of control, and be free and honest here and now, in the moment.

That being said - mastering an instrument takes time - so don't give up. Find exercises and pieces you enjoy playing at the level you're on right now. Enjoy playing twinkle twinkle, and make your own jazzy balkan-metal version of it if you feel like it. Good luck, and have fun!

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I'd upvote this twice if I could. Great answer. –  user2808054 May 8 at 9:05

I suspect the answer may lay in the way you go about learning to play.

Notice I didn't say "learning music". I think the term "play an instrument" is absolutely appropriate, because it is literally play : creation, imagination, "what if" scenarios, no limit on what you can do. You can play any note you like, however you like. No right and wrong.

If you want to learn to 'just play' then the best way is to 'just play' anything.

This isn't as empty a statement as it sounds : What will happen is you'll 'find' things that work, establish 'points of knowledge' (not sure how else to put it) which you can re-use and begin to understand how the notes of chords and melody can fit together. Doesn't matter what you play : covers, your own thing.. just play and see what you find.

This is NOT the same as learnign from a book ! If you go about things this way you'll eventually discover the chords and scales - they're all on the instrument waiting for you.

Admittedly some help from music thory etc shortens the learning curve, but I think there's a big difference between learning a chord by its shape (eg from a book or course) and playing it so that you understand what it feels like. Especially if you've worked out the notes in the chord yourself through just mucking about.

I've overstated my case a little bit here just to make the point- Music theory does of course have huge value and learning from books helps to get you going. But if you want to "just play", then what I say here may be of value.

Ps. This is how I started learning 25 years ago - still am learning - and I love it !

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Your playing abilities are currently basic. Music theory is about as helpful to you as a thorough knowledge of some language's grammar is to somebody who knows about 100 words in that language.

How can any kid talk better in that language without even a clue of the underlying grammar?

The point is that a grammar is something that emerged along with the language itself. It's good for deducing things about the language and structuring the way you learn and understand it. But someone having read several dozens of books will still tend to be able to write a better speech than somebody having read a grammar, even though he won't be able to explain what he does.

You'll probably progress a lot over time and be able to play much more complex stuff. The difference between a "natural speaker" and somebody with an accent will, however, show itself more with the simple stuff. Once you proud yourself at playing some pretty complex stuff, try playing "Twinkle, Twinkle, little Star" again. More likely than not, you'll be annoyed how hard it is to play it in a pleasant and natural manner, with a nice phrasing and pacing.

Music theory is like a grammar, being able to read music is like being able to read a book (rather than have to learn a language just by listening). Both help you working "offline", without interacting with other musicians, for acquiring skills. But music is not a dead language: your real level of mastery will develop when you interact with your instruments and other musicians. You can prepare yourself to make this more effective.

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Why can some "just learn" music without learning theory well, etc.?

Because learning theory is not necessary. Consider singing, or child prodigies, it's a fallacy that you can become an expert in anything before you even start practising it. I feel that anybody that starts anything with theory, is doing it the hard way. Start by trying. Studying theory at the instrument is alright, that would be marginally more exciting than theory in a classroom.

For example, you can study physics, motion, inertia, dynamics, geometry etc all you like, it will not make you any better at football, neither will studying other players, watching games and post-match analysis, categorising skills, abilities, statistics, anything. You might certainly get tips, inspiration and motivation, but acquire no skills without actually practicing.

Everybody you know who is good at playing/creating music, famous or otherwise, only got so good because they enjoyed it. You should only throw in the towel if you do not enjoy it.

You need a real instrument. I bought a cheap guitar once, it was unplayable, even friends that were good on guitar refused to play my guitar, they hated it, if they got no enjoyment from it, how could I? I didn't learn guitar.

Piano however; my grandparents gave me their Lorenzo electric reed organ when I was very young and a load of sheet music but all the notes were numbered as was the keyboard, and I was able to play songs without learning how to read music score.

You can get some toy synths that are useless (e.g. inadequate polyphony), but for not much more, you can get a real instrument. Or you can start simple. You can get a diatonic harmonica with "how to play harmonica" book at very little cost, Silent Night always sounds awesome on harmonica. If you really really enjoy it, you will soon be saving for a good chromatic harmonica.

There are many youtube videos that show you how to play. You can learn to play something a bit cooler than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Imagine for example, that's quite easy. It's easier to learn to play music that you have heard many times, too.

Once you can play one piece well, you will be thrilled. Progress in whatever way you find effective and enjoyable, learn theory, even, you may even understand it then.

If you want to write, most composers find this easier at their instrument, even if they're going to punch it into a sequencer later (or transcribe it) because you need the instant feedback from the experimentation, free play and creativity, personally I find it easier to work from lyrics, with lyrics, the melody soon comes, then once there's a melody, the chord progression is just there, everything else falls in to place, it's difficult to explain, particularly when I don't know the theory behind it. To me, the theory would only describe what I composed, but not the process or approach that I took.

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Excellent question. It's because these people learn to play by ear, they learn how to use music as a language of its own, and usually this learning process is done by listening, imitating, noodling and experimenting. Doing that enough will get you to a high degree of proficiency without needing music theory. There's also probably an element of having a "musical ear."

But don't dismiss yourself. Anybody who has an interest in music can find a role to fulfill. In your case, I would suggest a good teacher (a pop or jazz teacher) who can teach you how to play by ear and improvise.

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You last question is a non-sequetur. The question of whether or not you do something has nothing to do with how easy it is for others to do.

The question before you is whether you want to put in the time and effort to bring yourself to the level you want to be at. I have seen people with great natural talents squander them because they didn't care to invest the time and effort it would have taken to bring them to the level they felt adequate; and I, myself, who much like you am someone for whom almost everything in music came hard, decided that the extraordinary effort it would require of me was worth it, and so I put in the epic number of hours. I'm not talented: I'm the poster child for practice and hard work.

So the question is where do you want to go, musically -- that is what do you want to accomplish -- what will it take to get you (not anybody else) there, and are you willing to do that?

I used to have frequent occasions for a conversation that went like this:

Random fan: You play so awesome! I'd never be able to play like that.

Me: Can I ask you how old you are?

RF: Me? I'm 20.

Me: Do you think that when you're 40, you'll still want to play as well as I do today?

RF: Well, sure!

Me: Well, I started studying an instrument at the age of 6. I'm now 26. It took me 20 years to learn to play like that. I know that sounds like a long time, but just think! If you want to be able play like I do, start now: and then when you're 40, you will!

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