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I am a deeply technical/mathematical person. I do enjoy understanding stuff around me and this curiosity was one of the reasons I started playing guitar few years ago: I wanted to understand how it works. I'm that kind of guy who asks the teacher a lot of weird technicalities, starting from how instruments are made up to why music is the way it is.

Unfortunately, this made playing a never ending practice. Basically, I'd pick a song, get its tab/music sheet, practice it for ages (also, I'm a perfectionist; a little mistake means usually starting over), and after hours and hours of practice i'd make it. Then, while "performing", i'd add a hint of something of me. Not too much.

You can easily see my issue here. I basically managed to transform playing from an art to a mathematical routine, where each note is a number in an equation. Basically, I cannot speak music. This is also enhanced by the fact that I need some practice to feel the rhythm (e.g. while playing on a backing track), and huge issues with conveying it (for example, if I play fingerstyle, my accents are usually a finger convenience rather than something that convey a rhythm). Notes durations are basically a way of saying "this is kind of longer than this". As for my hearing skills, I can pick up disonances and consonances, I can tell some pitch differences, but I have no relative pitch or anything else.

Now, I'd love to start playing again, but I'd like to actually enjoy it, to be able to "speak" music and "talk" to others (currently, if you get me a backing track, I'll see that it's in Am, I know the notes in the scale, do my random stuff while the backing is playing). Do you have any tips for me?

Edit: (Just some small clarifications) The perfectionism I mentioned above makes me waste a lot of time, but I do not think it is the real problem. The real problem I find it to be the fact that I am not able to "speak" music. For me, playing has become following a recipe, like a robot, unaware of the surroundings. This has happened because my native skills are not the best, and I guess it was easier for me.

I had some "clicks" during my practice period, when I started feeling the consonances and disonances, when I started feeling the harmony between my voice and the instrument and so on (you can easily see that my ear also needs some training). But I'm looking for a way to move from blindly following a music sheet into the ability to make the music mean something more then a bunch of notes on a score. And the best example is that when I try to play on some backing track meant for improvisation, I end up randomly picking notes rather than having some feel to what I'm playing.

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    Do you ever enjoy music when you are just listening, rather than playing? If so, when? – topo morto Nov 27 '16 at 21:38
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    While there is some great info and advice in the current answers, to my mind topo's question is crucial and cuts to the heart of the issue. Understanding how to feel music while playing it begins with playing music that you feel strongly when you are merely listening to it. Through practice, you can transcend the mechanical processes of reproducing the music and become once again a listener who is also actively involved. Going through that process with music that speaks to you gives insight in how to connect with all kinds of music and find the feeling in it. – Todd Wilcox Nov 28 '16 at 2:25
  • Switch to improvising to a backing track from time to time. Do not stop the backing track when you make a mistake (there are no mistakes in improvising), keep going and work on expressing a mood/sentiment instead of trying to perfectly reproduce a written line. – Erno de Weerd Nov 28 '16 at 8:39
  • @topomorto I do enjoy music quite often. Actually, I listen at least 8 hours of music per day (i work as a programmer) while I'm working, and sometimes I get quite engaged into the music (gets to the point where my typing speed varies with the music). The problem is that, quite rarely I get the same feeling. Quite soon after I start playing I start noticing that I missed a lot of notes, that I need to practice more some part and it becomes more about following the music sheet rather than a feeling. – Paul92 Dec 2 '16 at 23:36

12 Answers 12

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The first and foremost way to learn to feel the music is to play music. Not "practice" not "perform," but "play." The key difference between the former two and the latter is that the former two typically have a very directed purpose to them. Playing around has less direct purpose, and more just seeing what happens.

The second most important part of learning to feel the music is to go out and listen to music of that genre. I'm sure you already do, but it's worth pointing out how essential it is. There's a famous piece of Russian music which sought to replicate the American Jazz movement (Edit: I'd forgotten the name, but margalo's most excelent sleuthing found it: Jazz Suite No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovic). As it was explained, the Russian composer had never heard American Jazz, but got his hands on some jazz scores and made his best guess as to what American Jazz sounded like. He wasn't even close!

Now if I may give an opinion, I feel that the imperfections are what give the piece a feel. A skilled musician takes the imperfections in their performance and weaves them right back into the music so seamlessly that you have to ponder if they were indeed imperfections in the first place! Many styles actually focus around specific imperfections so greatly that they start to become the character of the music.

So go ahead and let the instrument have a little say in the sound. If a guitar string is slightly out of tune, instead of stopping and tuning it back up, maybe play around with the sound. Maybe the instrument will suggest a pitch bend that you never thought to try your hand at. Or maybe, due to sheer luck, that particular out of tune string lets you do a just intonation chord like the Barbershop Quartets use, and you can hear the angel's voice ring out above them (you'll never get that sound with a traditionally tuned fretted insturment). Let the environment have some say. If its rainy, see how your picking interplays with the tap-tap-tap on the window panes. If there's thunder, you've got a free bass track to play against. If one of your notes falls off the beat, don't stop... see if you can take that note and tell a story with it as you whirl it away on a musical adventure to rejoin the tempo. When performing for others, don't play for them, play with them. Watch their eyes. Soon your fingers will start to realize that they can do things which impress the audience that you never thought they could do (and certainly things that were never written into the score!)

Your very mathematical training provides a solid scaffolding from which to weave feeling into the music. Don't be afraid to stray very far from your comfort zone, and simply trust that when push comes to shove, your scaffolding will be there to catch you.

  • As Tim said above, the answer is very inspirational and insightful. I mentioned my perfectionism since this is one of the reasons why I progress really slow. As I said in my question, I pick a song, and practice until I can sing it. This is most of what I've done and, maybe inappropriate choices for my level combined with a very mathematical way of doing things slow the progress. About playing, sometimes I do try to play on a backing track, but ends up me mumbling some notes in the same key (and the only reason I do that is because I know the key of the bt, not because I feel it). – Paul92 Nov 27 '16 at 20:57
  • @Paul92 Your last example may be an excellent place to start. If you can "mumble some notes" with sufficient sincerity to make them sound like they were part of the piece in the first place, you will have developed a genuine skill! I got to watch one of my music teachers cope with a performance where her sheet music fell to the floor half way through. The only people who could tell she was making things up were those who had been in the dress rehearsal and had really really good memory. What she played was not the right notes, but it was the right feel, and that was actually more important! – Cort Ammon Nov 27 '16 at 21:35
  • @cort Ammon I found it! Jazz Suite No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. Here's a youtube link: youtube.com/watch?v=CDSeqqEN9Rg – margalo Dec 17 '16 at 17:00
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I agree with the other answers and hope mine complements and enhances their words...

I would suggest defining two distinct types of practicing:

  1. Drilling practice
  2. Playing practice

In drilling practice, you focus on small details of execution and this is where you will stop and start-over a lot. But, in this type of practice you also narrow the scope of what you're playing. Often it's just a measure or a part of a measure, even a single note or chord. But it is uneconomical to play through the whole song in this mode.

Conversely, in playing practice, you try to prepare for an actual performance. Eventually, you want to run through several songs like a little concert. But for each song, you don't stop at mistakes, you try to get back on track and keep going. You do make a mental note of where you stumbled and that measure or phrase will become part of your drilling practice later. But in this mode, you don't stop and start. Get to the end of the song.

Now these two modes of practicing are of course different in the way they should be approached, but also in the results you get. Drilling can be draining, but playing your (current) favorite song start-to-fin should be energizing, even without an audience. So if you organize your guitar practice around balancing these two modes, it will mitigate or even reverse the "boringness" of (drilling) practice (only).

Note, this is not an exhaustive list of the ways of practicing, neglecting reading (and visualizing) practice, improvisation, and others.

Edit: Reading over this later, I think Improvisation is almost equally important as these other two. Particularly with respect to what happens when you make a mistake.

In the drilling practice, a mistake is wrong, and you do it over again or analyze what's going wrong.

And in the performance practice, you try to minimize mistakes. Don't make a face. Don't swear. Quickly, pick it back up.

But Improvisation teaches you a third way to react to a "mistake": listen to it.

What does it sound like? Where does the melody want to go if that happens? In playing a solo in jazz, there's a "rule":

  • If you make a mistake, play it twice!

If it's too hard for you to let a mistake lie, and carry on with the song when you're trying to play through the song; then I recommend a strong dose of Improvisation to break up the automatic reaction to mistakes that your brain is doing.

  • No-one mentioned guitar, however, this is superb as a practice regime. Both sections are so important, and should be part of every routine. Yes, in the playing practice, keep on, warts an' all, just like a performance in front of an audience. It's an essential part of the practice regime! +1 at least! – Tim Nov 27 '16 at 19:09
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Perfectionists are sometimes their own worst enemy! Please don't start right back at the beginning again when learning a piece. My analogy is, you've just cleaned a large window, and you notice a speck still on it. Would you clean the whole window again?

To your question. Music is mathematical in many ways, but its execution is probably not. Wanting to get things perfect is laudable, but also unrealistic. In fact, often, after a gig, a band I've played in has said how perfect everything was, but the audience was tepid; another night, lots of silly little mistakes, and the audience loved the performance. Weird!

What I'm getting at is - we all make mistakes, and part of being a good muso is to live with the one you've just made, and do something with it - certainly carry on playing, and do not stop! I usually blame the bass player - unless I am the bass player that gig... If you find one or two others to play with, yes, learn some things verbatim, but also just jam, and see (and hear!) what comes out. Listen, feel, enjoy.

Certainly not advocating it, but so many players have used substances, and I think one of the products of that is losing of inhibitions, so they just played. Not being self-concious while playing is not an easy state to achieve for some, but it's pretty important.

  • The problem is that my playing is reduced to mumbling some notes. I cannot express myself using music, so I went into an area where music has become a chase after the right formula, after the right amount of pressure to get a bend, rather than a message. – Paul92 Nov 27 '16 at 21:03
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    Take a sentence, or a phrase, and try to express it in different ways.'Man without her woman is a beast' comes to mind. This can be said to mean completely different things. It will depends how you decide to put in the pauses. Music is rather similar. have fun re-phrasing! – Tim Nov 27 '16 at 21:09
  • I like that your comment brought it back to phrasing and words. Improv is not ballet, it's a conversation at a party. Really good vocabulary and grammar can be useful, but are rarely the requirement to being the life of the party. While playing bass, I remember looking over and seeing the lead guitar player scrambling in the dark looking for his pick. The funny thing is, you can't really tell on the tape I have of the performance. – Yorik Nov 29 '16 at 22:34
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If you have ever studied poetry, you learned about meter and rhyme. You may have also learned about cadence. These things create rhythm. Music is poetry. The lyrics can help create the mood and emotion. The beat (tempo and rhythm) also constitute part of the "feel" of music. The timbre (pronounced "tamber") of the instruments and voices likewise contribute.

Study these things and note the differences between songs.

Also, dancing (or imagining yourself dancing) to the music will help you get the "feel" of it.

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I think you have answered your own question. You mention that perfectionism is not the issue. I agree. You also mention that your ear needs some training. There is your answer. Apply your perfectionism practice habits to training your ear. Once you can hear a sound in your head and then play it, you will be able to rely less on the music and add more expression. In order to practice aural skills think in terms of the hardware. You have eyes, fingers, ears, voice and brain. Eyes and ears are input and fingers and voice are output and brain is processing and creation. You need to practice input through the eyes (seeing music and knowing what it sounds like) output through the fingers (writing or playing music heard in your brain.) Hearing music and knowing it (if not the actual notes, know the functions) and finally singing music.

This actually adds a step in between your current process of seeing sheet music and associating it directly to finger position, but this is good. You want to be able to speak music so think of music as language. Your current process is equivalent to seeing a sentence on a page and know how to type it on a computer and having the computer say the sentence for you. You need to read the sentence, know what it means, say the sentence out loud, then play the sentence on a device. Once this is better you can start rewording sentences and creating your own sentences.

As far as perfectionism is concerned don't worry about it. Be as perfectionist as you want. Do consult with people or teachers or methods as well though, to make sure you are on a good path. However, I would suggest not stopping if you make a mistake, when practicing playing through a piece. If you constantly do that then that is what you learn. You learn to stop at the drop of a hat. If you have a problem playing something isolate it and perfect it then incorporate it into the whole. But when you practice playing the whole piece practice playing it through to the end. People often will stop and start over in a performance situation if they make a mistake because that is what they practiced, rather than making the mistake and playing through it and finishing the piece, which is preferable.

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I'm also a mathematician that plays guitar. I started playing in earnest late in life. I've felt what you feel, and then some more. There's a little book that changed my whole attitude towards guitar, music and life in general: "Zen Guitar", by Philip Toshio Sudo. Perhaps you'll find in it the way to the answer your looking for.

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My recommendation is to put some music on and dance to it, but in a very particular way.

First, focus on the feet, try to have the feet respond and move to the sounds. After a couple of minutes of this, focus attention on the knees instead. Third, the hips. Fourth the chest and shoulders. Fifth the elbows, sixth the hands and fingers, lastly the head.

Maybe this sounds goofy, but here is the theory behind it.

1) Sounds and music have elements that suggest motion and moving objects. But moving objects differ in mass and momentum, so different sounds will suggest different objects in motion. By isolating body parts, you will naturally tend to match the different instruments whose "musical gestures" best fit the types of motions possible for the featured body part.

2) Motion and emotion are closely linked. By spending time raising awareness of the motions suggested by musical lines and parts, you will be one step closer to hearing the emotion that is suggested by those parts, and will be creating a physically felt repertoire to draw from.

For example, the cradling and rocking of a baby is both a particular motion and it has a certain connotation for emotion, of warmth and comfort. Contrast that with the angular, forcefulness in the melody of, say, Ride of the Valkyries.

I did this dance exercise weekly in a class for a couple months and it had a big, positive influence for me, especially since I was not one to show a lot of emotion generally, and not that well connected with my own body. I can't recall the teacher's name or if this method had a name. It was quite long ago. Certainly one could do it in the privacy of one's home and have it still be helpful.

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If you are not emotionally connected to the music, the way to proceed is not to put feeling into the music, but to put music into the music.

There are phrases begging for an intensivation because of culminating in some pitch or harmonic resolution. Such intensivation is a matter of subtle developments in speed, articulation, phrasing.

You have an analytical approach so record yourself and listen to the recording. Where do you think the music would profit from giving it some more of some property?

Of course there are different music styles lending themselves differently to that approach. Hard rock, trash metal, punk have quite more of an inherent want of expressiveness by the artist than Baroque music.

So if you cannot find music "that is you", it may make sense to focus on finding music "that is it".

Playing such music may not be emotional as much as it may be satisfying.

Improvising on a level where you are not playing random notes in a distribution suitable for matching the scale is not a low-level or rote-learning skill. Classic music education complete skips over that angle, and it is particularly hard to systematize in a manner where you can use the same teaching material for a large set of students.

If that's where you want to go, you will not easily manage without some one-on-one work with a teacher specializing on it.

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You're already a step ahead and you don't realize it. You know what sounds good and why it sounds good, now you just need to apply it. My recommendation is that you pick up some music that is just melody and chords and force yourself to figure out how to play it. It forces you to think about playing with feeling. You can get inspiration from other songs you know, but, ultimately, it is just you.

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I started playing guitar few years ago

So, you're basically still a beginner in music. You've learned a bit, and you've earned the right to take stock and ask yourself "what am I getting out of this?".

I'm sure you've got plenty of intellectual pleasure from learning what you have so far, but it sounds like you've noticed you're not getting "musical" pleasure from the exact activities you're doing.

Firstly, just to play devil's advocate, don't force yourself to continue in music unless you can find something that is fun. I prefer eating food to cooking it. Maybe you prefer listening to music to playing it. No problem in that at all.

If you have a vague feeling that you want to continue , but you're not sure with what, maybe that means you should do some different activities, rather than the ones you're doing now? Certainly I've rarely enjoyed playing music from a sheet - As soon as the thought occurred to me, I stopped doing that, started writing my own music, and pretty much never looked at a piece of sheet music again. That's not to say you should do the same, but you do have to be honest about what you like.

Just to pick up on a few random things...

I'm a perfectionist; a little mistake means usually starting over.

To steal a programming analogy, you should be able to play in both 'debug' and 'release' mode. in 'debug' mode, when you make a mistake, sure - back up, work out why you made the mistake, slow down, practice that bit a few times. But you also need to be able to 'ship it' (release mode) and perform - that means you need to handle those exceptions and keep going.

And the best example is that when I try to play on some backing track meant for improvisation, I end up randomly picking notes rather than having some feel to what I'm playing.

So, you've worked out that randomly picking notes from a scale doesn't really work as a way to make compelling music. Why not start looking at a few tunes you like and wok out what really does make them tick, musically? If the lessons you learn there are too hard to put into practice in real-time (improvisation), slow things down and do some composition.

This is also enhanced by the fact that I need some practice to feel the rhythm (e.g. while playing on a backing track), and huge issues with conveying it (for example, if I play fingerstyle, my accents are usually a finger convenience rather than something that convey a rhythm).

Hard for me to give advice on that one - my 'feeling it' skills have always been ahead of the ability of my fingers to actually lay it down! I think there's some good advice in other answers here (i like 'dance') and other questions on the site.

In many styles, the rhythm really is key. If you feel like you've neglected your rhythmic skills, why not put down the guitar and learn drums for a couple of years?

I basically managed to transform playing from an art to a mathematical routine, where each note is a number in an equation.

There's nothing wrong with that. A lot of musicians and other creatives strongly systematize their creativity. The thing is to always keep expanding your equations, so that you can keep creating new things. Also, be prepared to unlearn things if they don't give you the results you are looking for. For example, it looks like you somehow got the idea that the most important thing when playing is to stay in a certain scale. You've found that doesn't give good results? Good! You can now put that idea to one side.

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Paul I read all the answers and I think I might speak something differently. I do suggest the same as JOMKI, as for the singing advise. You really need to sing in order to undersand and incorporate relative pitch. You have to sing out loud and in your head all day. Firstly you want to focus on major scales, and minor scale. And you should sing the melodies of the songs you are playing on the instrument. But that's is really not enough. You need to study basic harmonic progressions and sing and incorporate the sounds in the scale. Then you need to play you own little songs. They don't have to be 3 min long. Just play with some progressions (maybe start with I-IV-VII-III7_VI_II-V or II-V-I) and sing different melodies with the same progressions. Just feel every note you are playing. Go slowly but aware. Then start doind more advanced harmonies like Secondary dominants and finally, what really will give you a whole lot of feelings library is modal interchange. And that's is also going to help you incorporate more other more basic things too. Just sing all these while playing the chords n your instrument. Incorporate each feeling's tone, each chord, each chord tone. Identify them when hearing, and hear it in your head before playing it.

  • I agree that being able to sing, both with the voice and in my head are crucial skills, that I unfortunately very much lack and do not practice (mostly because I don't know how to proceed). When I started playing/practicing, I was noticing mistakes by comparison with what I knew it should sound like. After some time, i had a click, when I started to feel disonances (i knew about them, i was hearing them, but I didn't knew what to look for). Also, I wasn't able to produce a note with my voice for a long time (haven't tried much though), until I managed to feel a consonance with a instrument. – Paul92 Dec 17 '16 at 22:10
  • (..continuing last comment) the point is...I know this is what I should aim for...to be able to play the melody in my head, understand how it mixes with everything else, but I don't really know how to approach this. Any tips are welcome :D – Paul92 Dec 17 '16 at 23:13
  • I think everything lies in the feelings. Every note in the major scale has a feeling. A feeling that is the same no matter what is the root note (Do, F#) You should try to incorporate that feeling. Maybe you are able to determine only the root note, and the general feeling of what scale you are in matching you instrument. But you should be able to feel every note of that scale separately. Also, every chord has a feeling too. If it's the second grade, the root chord, if it's the IV grade with a 9th. All this you can feel, and should try to incorporate the feelings in a kind of dictionary. – Agustín Caniglia Dec 19 '16 at 12:52
  • This great channel has amazing material, and he's uploading still more and more. There is no doubt you can learn lots of things from him. youtube.com/user/pegzch/videos But ou should start slow maybe, just incorporating every note of the major scale. Understand the concept, then move on. – Agustín Caniglia Dec 19 '16 at 13:00
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Don't use conventional instruments like guitar and piano unless you want to torture yourself with boring pedagogy of 12th century church music or enjoy memorizing ridiculous mnemonics like ' all cows eat grass' .

Use a synth, much more mathematical, you can even get into math behind Digital signal processing. There are many free software synths like this one http://tytel.org/helm/ . You said you are a programmer, maybe you can write your own software devices that produce new and fun sounds.

Again, throw that guitar away.

  • I did study DSP, but that's more about the sound of music rather than the art of music (even if you might have given me a good idea :D). I have fun playing guitar, don't get me wrong. But I want to get to the next level, in which i'm not simply following the recipe but actually engaging more with the song. – Paul92 Dec 17 '16 at 21:54

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