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I started playing the piano about 2 months ago. Various people have told me several times to "try to focus on music more than the instrument", but I don't quite get the notion. It'd be great if any of you could elaborate it a bit.

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    I agree with Laurence‚Äôs answer: learning the mechanics (often called technique) is super important, and in my personal opinion should come before learning the finer elements of expression and musicality. Technique enables musicality, not the other way around. – Todd Wilcox Sep 7 at 16:09
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    @ToddWilcox Technique enables musicality, true; but musicality motivates technique. – Aaron Sep 8 at 4:58
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    @Lefty - you've fallen into the trap that so many others have, judging by the questions. The theory is there to attempt to explain how and why certain things work. Use them as tools, if you like, but not as signposts to be followed. Refer to theory as an afterthought to your playing, instead of (even) a guideline. – Tim Sep 8 at 11:02
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    @ggcg Yes, I'm beginning to see that as my understanding improves. I've known and loved songs for decades, then I learn that they do something totally "outrageous" from the perspective of "The Rules". I didn't care, not do any of the thousands of people that sing-along to the song every day. I suppose that's where my "musical journey" has led me to date - trying to reconcile those 2 things. It's a work in progress, I've never had a single music lesson, just gleaning what I can from various places. – Lefty Sep 8 at 15:26
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    @ggcg So, a bit like "All those Newtonian laws of motion you learned, well, they aren't really true. Welcome to Relativity 101!" – Lefty Sep 8 at 16:28

13 Answers 13

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You can get tied up with the mechanics of playing an instrument. And, of course, the aim is to produce music.

But I don't see the point in saying that sort of thing to a 2-month student. Until the mechanics become second nature it's pretty impossible to be artistic!

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    "I don't see the point in saying that sort of thing to a 2-month student": really? Even if a beginner won't be in much of a position to play expressively, having that goal in sight seems useful. – phoog Sep 7 at 19:22
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    Impossible to be artistic, maybe, but not impossible to be expressive. – Aaron Sep 7 at 23:25
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    Honestly, for a beginner it is harder to play with expression due to lack of control-- but it still helps to understand and enjoy the music nevertheless! And you still would have a range of expression that grows as the player matures. Focusing on the music could also mean simply enjoying the art form and conveying emotions. – kat Sep 8 at 3:32
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    Totally agree, don't project your own expectations on people, it depends on what one wants to do, not every player wants to be a musicologist. My brother is a pretty good guitar player and never bothered with theory, he doesn't want to compose or improvise, just play. On my part I was interested in theory and worked on it.. different goals, differents paths to take – Kaddath Sep 8 at 11:47
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    @Graham my experience is contrary to that. There are pieces of music that are simple enough that a two-month beginner can "physically hit the notes they intend to, most of the time," and encouraging them to focus on the piece as a piece of music, at least some of the time, helps immensely with problems relating to tempo and meter as well as with expression. I'm not talking about subtleties of dynamic expression that would be analogous to dancing prima ballerina but about things such as recognizing phrase structure and other organizing principles underlying the piece. – phoog Sep 8 at 17:19
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My read of the statement is that one should always keep a focus on the expressive qualities of music, even in the earliest stages. Even the simplest exercise or song can be "played like a dinosaur" or "played like you're tired" or "played like someone running down a hill." Even for a beginner, it's valuable to ask "why should I play loud/fast/staccato here; what effect does it have?" And "how loud/fast/staccato fits this piece?"

To the limits of one's ability, always play music.

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When learning to play an instrument, it is useful to learn the patterns of the music itself. Later, when learning other instruments, knowing these patterns will help. Much of music is independent of instrumentation. As you learn more music and different instruments, you will get the idea of what types of musical ideas fit well with each instrument.

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  • damn! I thought that had something to do with audiaton skills which are pretty tough for me right now to master or even start with because I frequently get lost in piano. Thanks man! for such a short and simple answer – hakiki_makato Sep 7 at 17:09
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In any musical instrument there are aspects of your own body movement that need to be mastered. The mechanics of the instrument will not be mastered simply by trying to play songs, though some players will disagree and claim that they have indeed mastered an instrument by playing tunes. On this other hand, as others have mentioned, the goal of that mastery is the creation of music and music transcends the instrument. You can play trumpet music on the guitar and guitar music on the cello, etc.

Focusing on the instrument means focusing on the mechanics of movement, getting clean and consistent attack every time, eliminating unnecessary tension in the muscles and eliminating extemporaneous movements

Focusing on music could mean either focusing on playing tunes or focus on music theory, those elements of musical training that are not instrument specific.

They are both important and for a true beginner you will need years of mechanical training to master the piano, or any instrument.

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  • You can indeed play trumpet music on guitar, etc., but it most likely won't come out the same. – Tim Sep 8 at 11:41
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To learn "music", means to learn musical concepts. What is an octave, how many chromatic notes are between? What is an interval, what intervals are significant and why? What is a chord, what different types of chords are there? What different types of scales are there? What are modes? What does it mean for something to be in a "key"? What's an arpeggio? What is staccato? What is a time signature? What are the units of rhythm that divide up a measure? What is syncopation? What is a "groove"? What is a chord progression and what chord progressions are common, especially in certain types of music? What is melody? Harmony? Dissonance? What is tension? How can you "transpose" something? These are all questions about "music", concepts of "music theory".

To learn an instrument is to learn how to put your hands on that instrument, how to hold it, how to use your fingers on it. Picking up all manner of different physical muscle memories by dogged repetition: clean sounds, steady rhythm, specific chords and scales, licks and songs. This is all about familiarity with, and training muscle memory around, a physical object. These are usually called "techniques".

Techniques get you playing, but learning theory helps you understand the music. Theory helps you understand a song's construction, which helps you learn the song faster and remember it. It helps you work out the notes to something you don't have sheet music for. It enables you to write music that doesn't sound like a random number generator. It helps you structure your practice. Theory also helps you switch to a different instrument and pick up new ones quickly, because the theory is the same.

Neither of these is more important than the other, they are just different things to learn. You cannot play without technique. You cannot understand/write music without theory. Together they have synergy.

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So, someone gave you a paintbrush, so now you're going to be an artist ! Or a painter and decorator - or neither!

Making music needs a medium - whether it's a guitar, sax, piano, voice - the list goes on.

Each and every instrument has its own foibles, its own limitations, its own way of producing music. Those in themselves are problematic in that anyone wishing to play them needs to learn the techniques involved.

Bending a note on a sax is somewhat different from bending a note on a guitar, and damned well impossible on a piano. So - music becomes at that point, divorced from how to do it. I've always said that making music and playing an instrument are related, but that's about all. We can spend a lot of time with one instrument, and learn to play music on it, but the transfer of music playing to a different instrument will rely heavily on the techniques required for playing that second instrument. Put another way, if I hear some music, I will go to a specific instrument to try to reproduce it - knowing it will be more effective on that rather than other instruments. And it won't necessarily be that same instrument that I heard it played on initially.

EDIT: after only two months, you're still finding your way round the instrument in question (piano here, but could be any). Using its subtleties to produce music will most likely be a little out of reach yet. After much time playing and learning what your instrument is capable of, you'll start being able to mould those notes into what sounds more like 'music' than merely pressing key after key, somewhat like a child barking at print. At that time, you'll be able to answer your own question! - And worry not - after 60 odd years, I'm still discovering some of those subtelties...

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Music is about expression. You do not listen to music because it has a certain sequence of notes, you listen to it because it inspires emotions in you.

If you play an instrument, or the notes, or however you express it, it's something purely mechanical. And mechanical is how your "music" will sound. And nobody will feel emotions because of a mechanical sequence of notes.

If you play the music, you are putting in expression. You are feeling emotions as you play, and you put them into the sounds that you produce. This makes it much easier for a listener to connect to the music you are playing, allowing them to enjoy the experience.

Playing the music is also a key ingredient to starting improvising. You cannot express what you don't feel. And if you never made a connection between the notes you are playing with your feelings, it is hard to express those feelings that you wish to express.


As an analogy, think about learning a language:

You can learn the rules of pronounciation, and start reading a text in that language out loud. You could become quite proficient at reading texts, without ever learning the meaning of a single word. Computers can do it. It's perfectly mechanical. However, listeners will tell you that there is no expression in your voice. That you sound like you don't mean any of it. Which is true, because you don't understand what you are reading.

Once you start learning the meaning of the words, however, it will be much easier to give your speech the right kind of melody and emphasis that makes your listeners believe what you say.

Also, once you know the words, you can also start building your own sentences. You can start expressing what you want to say, rather than what others have said.

But you are not truly proficient at speaking a language unless you start dreaming in that language.


When learning to play music, it's all too easy to stop at the first step of reproducing notes (reading the text without understanding it). That's why proficient musicians will always try to nudge you into the direction of expressing yourself, of playing music, etc., however they express this. It's hard to put into words that new music learners will understand. I've tried, others have tried in this very thread, but I'm very certain that some readers won't understand what I'm saying. After all, it took me decades to understand that mystery for myself...

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Ignore platitudes. There's plenty of them floating around (and when they involve "feelings" - run!).

"Being a musician" has many facets and there is a lot of different skills involved. Everyone's blend is different: some people are better at playing by ear, some at ideas for improvisation, some at conducting, some at remembering scores, some at moving fingers really fast. Unfortunately, it't not an RPG game: there's no "assign experience points" screen, which let's people select skills they want to have. Nobody knows if a road to great improvisation leads through analysis of works by masters, or by spending time honing manual skills (there are many heated debates around this). So, in the real world, you just end up trying different things, not limiting yourself to just one aspect and - in general - trying to practice the things you want to be good at. If you want to play piano - practice playing piano.

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Musicians rely on certain fundamental skills, such as:

  1. Accurately playing notes at the right time, as opposed to just "near" the time
  2. Being able to keep a steady tempo (unless it's intentionally changing speed)
  3. Ensuring your notes are neither too quiet or too loud, unless intended
  4. Being able to hear the intonation of an interval very clearly (e.g. for singers or violin players)

Most of these skills are instrument-independent (except 4 perhaps). Many can be developed by playing with a metronome, or, if that doesn't fit the style of music you're playing, they can be developed by trying to emulate someone who is further along in their musical development than you are. When they say: "learn music, not instruments", they mean to develop these fundamental skills instead of focusing on the mechanics of playing.

FWIW my opinion is that this is too idealistic. For example, as an amateur bouzouki player, it's imperative that I do the warm-ups and exercises that get my fingers moving quickly, otherwise I sound TERRIBLE. I think that sharing time between mastering the mechanics of the instrument and developing general musician's skills is a reasonable compromise.

Here's a reasonable breakdown of how to use your time:

Suppose you're going to practice for 2 hours each day. You could break this up into two halves.

In the first half, you can alternate between doing exercises and playing phrases you're having difficulty with. It's probably best to play them in a disciplined manner, with a metronome, or else to play along with someone whose playing you admire, doing your best to emulate their timing and articulation. Also, try putting the metronome very fast and very slow, so you can practice playing at different speeds.

Then in the second half, you can kind of "have fun". For example, you can practice playing expressively "your own way". Instead of emulating, feel. You can be less disciplined in the second half, in order to help to develop your own musical identity. Learning new songs is also a great idea; you never want to be "too comfortable".

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It means that they can play Glass but not Chopin.

Would you say to a child that it was more important to learn how to construct an essay in a particular style than it was to learn to read and write? Or that it was more important to learn differential analysis before the rudiments of arithmetic? Or how to cook a souffle before basic kitchen safety and hygiene? Or...

Do you prefer listening to Wakeman- who had formal training- playing a keyboard instrument or Lord (who, bless him, didn't)? Or Glennie or Paice? Or...

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I'm entirely self taught. As a result I am more into composition. As someone who is 44 years old and self taught (I mean never read a book on the subject even) I have a very atypical relationship with the piano.

But it only really took off when I played rhythm guitar. I think the 6 months of basic chords I did in rhythm guitar did more for my piano than perhaps 5 years of piano alone.

I can't read notes but I can play. But I can't transpose well. But I can compose on the fly miles better than most pianists.

What I am saying is: you CAN play music without having anyone guide you. but it's just not all it's cracked up to be: especially when you want to play with other people. There are things I find easy (such as playing by ear, and composing on the fly) there are things I find hard (such as transposing to help a fellow musician stay in their preferred key)

so the answer? The best talented people seem to be talented no matter what. They just "get" the instrument. The rest of us need to take a path. Learning the keys, music theory etc would have probably stopped me practising (it seemed to squeeze the joy out of it)

The trick is to KEEP PLAYING

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If you have not learned to play other instruments before and if you are not interested in the most abstract and theoretical aspect of music right now, you can ignore that truism for the time being. It will become more important later on, once you are able to play the piano fluently.

If you are interested in the abstract and theoretical aspects: in order to play any instrument (even the vuvuzela and the orchestra cymbals), you need a notion of things like rhythm and tempo. To be an accomplished musician you should also be able to play music by reading it from tablature or preferably scores.

Once you know the theoretical aspects, you should be able to look at musical notation and understand what is being or would be played from that notation. You could also read a score for another instrument and be able to play that music in your instrument of choice - for example, you can read a score for guitar and play it on the piano and vice-versa. You will be able to compose or arrange music for other instruments, and you will be able to discuss with fellow players about how to perform a piece.

Once you reach that level, learning how to play a new instrument is just learning new movements. You will be thinking notes, not drums/strings/keys. And you will be able to understand and play music in a whole new level.

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I started playing guitar almost twenty years ago but for years it felt like a hit a wall. I turned my focus on music theory and started learning jazz harmony and it really changed the way I view the instrument. Once I understood music theory, a lot of doors opened for me and original artistic expression is something that seems attainable for me. Whether or not what I do is any good is another story... haha.

Another side effect of learning music theory is how much easier it's been for me to learn new instruments. I recently sat down at the piano and even though I was lacking technique and had never taken lessons, I could figure out how to play the chords and melodies I wanted. Same thing for trumpet. I know what I want to play and with enough woodshedding it, I can piece together what I want to express. I truly feel that with enough practice, I can learn how to bang out music on any instrument now. (That's not to say I can self-learn proper technique). That would never have been possible for me had I not devoted time to learning music and not the instrument.

To me, that's what I think your teacher is hinting at when he says learn music and not the instrument.

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