I'm failing to understand why I'm not being able to play actual music, thus I thought it'll be interesting to hear opinions of other people:

I have a strong spatial intelligence - I think in pictures and have a relatively good memory for I can recall memories by "looking at them"

Ten years ago, inspired my Mark Knopfler, I picked the guitar. Had no plans becoming a professional musician, just in order to create music for myself.

I started learning Flamenco, by myself, with YouTube videos and some books I downloaded. During the first six months I was learned for about 5 hours every day and make a great progress. The problem: I figured quite easily the complicated finger techniques but none of the musical concepts - chords, scales, roots and modes - all were covered in mist for me.

A couple of years later I moved to blues-rock music, put more emphasis on theory and licks, but I still feel my progress in not proportional to my efforts. (again, my techniques are great but I barely can create something I can call music)

Eventually I thought that the guitar itself was too abstract and complicated for me, thus I tried the harmonica which has one scale only. However, while being able to play with tabs very quickly, I again failed to figure out my own melodies.

The best progress I felt was when I tried playing an online digital piano. I still barely know scales or where they sit, but the linearity of the piano scales somehow made more sense to me (although guitar should not be far from it)

Anyway, I'm back to playing rock guitar for now, I know some basic power chords but can't play any backing sequence. Major and Pentatonic scales are the only once I managed to memorize and only two boxes out of them. I do put more focus on quality over quantity, but even with those two boxes I hardly manage to do some music by myself with some backing track.

Now, i don't believe in the music talent myth, but I do feel that music is too abstract to me. I find it strange that I manage to grasp the technical parts way easier than the musical ones.

Any ideas on the matter?

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    What's your aim when creating music? Music theory generally provides a map, but won't tell you where you want to go... Mar 26, 2018 at 7:25
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    From the question I get the impression that you spend/spent a lot of time in practising your instruments and kind of expect the theoretical aspect to become clear by them self. Is that the case or are you actively learning the theory as well (for example taking theory lessons in a structured way?)
    – Arsak
    Mar 26, 2018 at 7:42
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    Can we clarify that the problem is not technical - ie: you can play covers perfectly fluently but are having difficulty writing new music of your own?
    – J...
    Mar 26, 2018 at 15:17
  • Comments are not for extended discussion or for trying to answer the question; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Mar 29, 2018 at 7:16

7 Answers 7


I'm going against the flow here, but that's no so unusual, and some of the comments have already alluded to this.

I hope what I'm going to say does not sound harsh or unsympathetic - I'm just trying to answer this question as it is posed. It also possible that I've missed the mark entirely. Questions like these are often difficult to grasp and answer correctly.

This whole question revolves around "I tried to learn this... I tried that... still not getting it... Have trouble with the scales, with the theory..."

But I see something missing here: Maybe it's so simple it needn't be stated, but it sounds like your technical and intellectual failures are your main concern, while a musician's concern is always "I can't hear/perform/write the music."

I think the problem is that you might be putting "the cart before the horse". Before you try anything, you have to first TRY YOURSELF:
If you have an urge to create music, then you must have music inside of you that wants to be expressed somehow - that's where that urge comes from. Something inside you is inspiring you and producing that urge. So before you do anything - decide on any style or genre or method - you need to discover the music that is inside of you.

This might sound very philosophical or abstract, but it really isn't. Listen to music that moves you and inspires you. Sing it over to yourself and digest it - emotionally and sensually - not technically. Hum and sing to yourself that music and expand on it - improvise on it - without any instrument - learn about your own musical mind and sensibilities without any instrument or genre or technique or method.

By doing that, you will discover your own music. Then you must go back and discover which genres and methods will help you to achieve the ultimate goal of every musician: To play and write your own music.

Maybe you need to know lots of scales and theory for your music, maybe you don't. Maybe Flamenco is your thing, maybe it's not - that's all up to you and your music. The problem is not that you're not grasping scales or chords because you don't have a teacher. The problem is that you haven't yet grasped your own music, and what you need to do to make it a reality. Certainly you need a teacher, but before that you need to identify your inner musical urge.

I grew up surrounded by music - jazz, classical, early rock n' roll, show tunes. I began hearing my own music at a young age. I think many of us who are serious musicians share such experiences. That doesn't mean that you can't start later - but you do have to start at some point if you want to make music and not just "operate the guitar".

This tipped me off to the possible problem/solution:

Ten years ago, inspired my Mark Knopfler, I picked the guitar. Had no plans becoming a professional musician, just in order to create music for myself. I started learning Flamenco...

Question: If you were inspired my Mark Knopfler, why did you start learning Flamenco? Why not start with the music that inspired you? (Mark Knopfler's music is also a lot easier than Flamenco). Along those same lines, this question continues.

As I read the question further, I became more and more convinced that was the problem: @Mark2Bra doesn't really know the music he wants to make, so it's possible he'll spend his whole life trying and failing. He's attacking it from "the outside in" - trying to learn flamenco and scales and theory and digital piano - but what good will that do when he hasn't yet listened to himself?

That being so, I can't agree with answers that are trying to fix certain manifestations of a more fundamental problem, although all the answers contain good advice.

Now, i don't believe in the music talent myth

Please explain what "music talent myth" you are referring to. I know of no such myth. I do know that some people have more musical talent than others, just as some people are better athletes than others, or better writers or better painters.

Perhaps your insistence that "you don't believe in the music talent myth" is part of your problem: If you don't believe in your our talent, you will never try to discover it. That's why you are taking what appears to be a mechanical approach to music: You don't know or understand your own talent and you don't believe in "musical talent": Therefore you think that if you go through the motions as prescribed. you should get the desired result: Just like when solving an equation. But making music is not like solving an equation: It's an expressive art form, not a mechanical or mathematical process.

Further - Quoting your question: Operating guitar for 10 years but can't make music. Nobody operates a guitar. We play the guitar, we don't operate it.

For a musician, a musical instrument is not a machine or some cold distant object that needs to be operated by following a set of instructions. It's their voice, and true vocalists are also musicians. One listen to Ella Fitzgerald proves that. Musicians don't operate their instruments - they play - any more than vocalists operate their voices - they sing. If you watch the great players, their instruments are extensions of their bodies, used for expressing their music. They are not devices to be operated.

No operations going on here:

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I have a strong spatial intelligence - I think in pictures and have a relatively good memory for I can recall memories by "looking at them"

What does any of that have to do with making music? I don't recall ever hearing or reading that a great musician or composer was blessed with "strong spatial intelligence".

As for "thinking in pictures", perhaps that's not the best way for a musician to think - many of our great musicians were blind, and music is about sound and feelings, not pictures.

Strong spatial intelligence and thinking in pictures would appear to be great strengths for an artist or sculptor, not a musician. I am not saying you don't have musical talent/aptitude - many people are blessed with multiple talents. I'm just not sure what those abilities have to do with making music.

This leads me back to the impression I'm getting that you have not yet heard your own music, and so you're not taking a musical approach to your musical endeavors. When you discover your music - tap into your own musical talent - your own inner musical ear - you will not be talking about "spatial intelligence and thinking in pictures". You will be talking about sounds and feelings and how to create them and capture them.

  • 4
    I think the OP used 'operate' as it's fairly obvious (to them) that they're not 'playing', but merely 'operating'...
    – Tim
    Mar 27, 2018 at 7:25
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    "Operating" was used intentionally to stress that I can technically create good sounds out of the guitar but not to actually "play music". As for the musical talent, many people say that a person can either play or not due to some genes he got at birth. While I do agree that some people are more musical than others, I think that playing skills can be developed. I mentioned that I am a spatial learner for I feel it can be a key reason to my failures for music may be a too abstract concept for me.
    – user44769
    Mar 27, 2018 at 8:38
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    @Mark2Bra I understood that "operate" was intentional and I applaud you for drawing the distinction. Musical talent can be learned but only to a certain degree; George Harrison was never as good a musician as Paul McCartney was naturally good . Stinkfoot is right, Flamenco was a hard road to tread. Spatial learning is fine, and better if you know you learn that way; many people don't; and the known fact you learn best that way is something a teacher can work with. Mar 27, 2018 at 13:24
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    @Mark2Bra This answer nails it. I've always said that music is to emotion what language is to thought. If I have a thought that I want you to think about, I use words. If I have a feeling and I want you to feel it too, then I could try to use words to describe the feeling, or help you understand it, but music - good music, played well - will make you feel it. You've been learning the musical equivalent of vocabulary and grammar. If you want to make your own music, work out what you want to say. Mar 27, 2018 at 16:04
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    @Mark2Bra - too abstract for me : Music is not too abstract for anybody, unless they're deaf. Everyone enjoys and understands music on the gut level-that's the great thing about it. You mean theory? Don't sell yourself short: Theory is not abstract. Theory isn't really the best term: Musical Language & Analysis might be better. It's not a theoretical study- it's a language and a system that was developed to represent and communicate the music we play. There are "theoreticians", but to play music you needn't bother with their stuff at all. Many of them are not even good musicians.
    – Vector
    Mar 27, 2018 at 17:20

First find a teacher. Often said, but so important. A good teacher will analyse what you already know, and will point you in the right direction (for what you want to do), and provide guidance and challenges, as well as explain what's happening.

I don't necessarily believe that everyone needs to know theory to be able to play well, or produce good solos. I've played with plenty of great players who haven't a clue what theory is behind what they play, and I honestly believe in some of those cases, getting them bogged down in the theory would be counter-productive.

That said, some people appear to need to know everything about that theory, in the belief that they will be better players. That's open to debate (not here though !), but a lot of folk think that music comes more from the heart /soul than from the brain.

If you're the sort who needs the theory, and it sounds like you already have some understanding, then let it work for you. Use those notes from a pentatonic, mix them up, just play!

But - having that guiding teacher will shave ages off the process, and give you far better understanding than you have gleaned from on line videos, great as some are, you can never get a direct answer for your burning question, but, with someone else sitting opposite with another instrument - be it guitar, piano, whatever - that teacher will sort it all out for you.

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    "getting them bogged down in the theory would be counter-productive" - this is, at least in my experience, most often only a short term thing. Once they apply theory intuitively, their solos often become better. Some prodigies always exist, ofcourse.
    – Mafii
    Mar 26, 2018 at 13:01
  • @Mafii - possibly so. I never find out. There's always the offer to explain what's going on, but these guys just aren't interested. And I'm a teacher...
    – Tim
    Mar 26, 2018 at 14:46
  • I was kinda guilty of this for a long time: If it works, you're not really interested in changing it. And still, for some songs, I don't think about theory, and just play.
    – Mafii
    Mar 26, 2018 at 14:50
  • There’s a great TED talk about this: ted.com/talks/…
    – idmean
    Mar 27, 2018 at 9:29
  • @Mafii - I think a good, serious player will know when they need to learn theory. If you keep learning and extending yourself, at some point you realize that knowing theory will help you go further than you can without it. That's what forced me to learn some theory. I wanted to play certain things and I had a choice to either waste days and weeks figuring out things by ear, one piece at a time, or taking some time to learn the theory what would allow me to play 1000 pieces quickly if I put in the work.
    – Vector
    Mar 28, 2018 at 16:39

I was in exactly the same position as you - I played guitar on and off for a number of years, playing from Tab reasonably successfully, but never being able to make anything up. I learned scales (pentatonic, major, minor all over the neck) which I could play over a chord, but it never sounded musical when I played "random" notes from the scale.

The break though came on a youtube video by Justin Guitar. He said that Putting a lead line together is like speaking - you don't speak in sentences using random letters, instead you speak using words, which are patterns of letters that can be put together. So starting in the key of A I put down a 12 bar blues. Then learned (copied) a few blues licks in the same key - thats about as much music theory I know. Then basically tried to fit the licks into the 12 bar blues.

At first this seemed very repetitive, but I was making sentences! However the more I played, the more I added my own little phrases between licks, and the more it felt natural. Also learning a new lick from a magazine (old school) or from the web allows me to add to my "toolbox" of licks.

I still practice this way - and to be honest I still only play in a small number of keys, but I am creating something musical. When I think I am cheating by playing phrases - I play a song from tab and I can see the same phrases and licks played in their songs. Very little in this world is truly original!

I have bought a load of books in the past and I never really "got it". But here are a few online resources that helped me. These may not relate to the type of music you want to play, but they are a great foundation.

Now I am going back to my books and this time I have enough context to understand what to do with the information they are giving me.

My answer was a bit long winded but I hope it helps.

[edit] Paul Gilbert talks about something similar in this interview.

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    As far as I understand it is like cooking. Instead of selecting totally random ingredients and methods, you need a recipe or at least a plan based on the knowledge you collected from the recipes you have already tried. I disagree that there are no original things, the way you use the patterns you have learned is more or less unique.
    – inf3rno
    Mar 26, 2018 at 12:48

Finger Memory V. Playing Music

I'm guessing that you're talking about playing riffs from "finger memory" instead of slowing down and really hearing the music you are playing.

I attended two Summer Sessions at Berklee College of Music a long time ago as a guitarist.

Shred Guitar

They were really interesting because at the time shred guitar was the rage (Yngwie Malmsteen, Tony McAlpine, etc). It was the gymnastics on the fretboard type of stuff and those guys were amazing. We had a lot of guys who could play some serious shred, but then you look at that stuff and you find out it is basically raking a chord (playing a fast arpeggio). T

The problem is that it is often nothing more than finger speed and seems to move away from musicality. Not always, but often.

Along Comes Joe Satriani

At the same time Joe Satriani put out his Surfing With The Alien album and it was amazing (can't believe you can get it for only $4.99, wow). It was shred but with enhanced musicality. There were listenable songs on there that regular people (non-guitarists) could listen to and like. This was not just fret-board gymnastics but was actual music.

I remember we had a guy at the summer session who was supposed to be amazing and he was just a chord-raking arpeggio-playing finger gymnastics guy and after 2 minutes of that stuff you were bored.

Improvising A Song

But there was another guy who would sit in and play and you could listen to that guy all night long. There'd be a bassists playing a line and a rhythm guitar guy and this guy would start playing and he'd be actually playing a song he was making up right there.

Play The Song That You Would Hum

Later I asked him about how he did it. First of all he said he listened to people like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Secondly, he would think about how he might hum a tune over the backing that was going on, then he would just play what he might hum.

I think that is one of the best ways into improvisation / making up your own music.

The Challenge of Guitar / Finger Memory

Sometimes with guitarists we have memorized finger movements and we get into a rut just moving the fingers the same way. We have to break out of that by hearing the music first, then playing it with the fingers. This is where experience comes in as you get faster at doing this with more practice.

Practicing This Is Easy

There are a couple of things you can do to practice this.

  1. Get some backing tracks and play a melody over them, but only allow yourself to play on one string. This will force you to think about the notes more and not just the finger movements.
  2. Again, play some backing tracks and just allow yourself to hum 2 bars over it. Then go back, restart the backing track and this time play what you hummed. After you try this a few times you will find that you can start putting these together and making them longer.

These items will help you so you can begin to build your own backing tracks (with easy chord progressions (I, IV, V) and then play your own music over them. Once you do that, you just continue into it creating more progressive backing tracks with more advanced chord progressions and you will be able to create more / better music.

Also, one more piece of homework, listen to Steven Ray Vaughan's Little Wing. Great song, melodic and amazing guitar work.

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    Technically that's Stevie Ray Vaughan's cover of "Little Wing". Mar 26, 2018 at 14:02

Improvisation skills are something that comes with years of experience. I've been playing guitar for 15 years and still am not very comfortable with it. (In performance; alone I can go for hours, because who cares if it sounds bad.)

How much music theory do you know as far as scales and chords? The best advice I can suggest is to analyze some of the music you like and chart out the chord progressions as well as understand the rhythm.

If you play in 4/4 and a: I V vi IV progression then I can't see how you wouldn't call that "music." hundreds of rock songs are written with that progression.

  • Improvisation doesn't have to take long. It is all in focusing on what you want. I was improvising within 3 years of picking up a guitar. But I focused on that, not a bit on traditional method books. Youtube videos will confirm this, there are very simple lessons to help you start playing over a backing track with minimal effort.
    – Paul
    Mar 27, 2018 at 13:33
  • @Paul I guess I would have to hear an example of your playing to see but when I say improvisation I don't just mean the ability to run scales over a backing track. I'm talking about making it sound like music and hearing a melody in your head and then knowing which notes exactly match that and I'm talking love situation with a live band. It takes only mere weeks to be able to play a pentetonic scales over a backing track. Mar 27, 2018 at 18:46
  • Ear training. Hear a note and play it back. Learn to find intervals rather than scales. Assigning feelings to chord progressions (sad, quirky, excited) and do the same for individual intervals over the chords. If you spend your time focused on that, rather than sight reading, you will develop something. I've also been told I have a gift in the way I think. I can naturally convert anything I see into the nashville system, so everything I learn, I can transpose immediately - taking it from one song to the next. But it wasn't exactly a gift - it was something I focused on and trained.
    – Paul
    Mar 28, 2018 at 13:06

In fact one doesn't need to care anything about theory such as chords or so mostly when he's composing...

If you want to play your instruments better, what you really need is a teacher. Try learning some basic music theory and this will make you a better comprehension of music. But when you're trying composing your own music, music flows from the depth of your head and it can goes on by itself. That's not what's called talent or 'Super power', that's just a kind of sense.

So don't always care about chords and scales and instruments when you're composing. I suggest trying to let music naturally out of your head and see whether you could be touched by yourself. The piece of music composed in your head could have only a single melody, or several chords transforming between one and another. If so, go practise and listen and think as much as you can to inspire the sense of music deep in your head. When you reach the point that one's music sense is inspired, all will go fine.

In addition, pay attention to how other musicians organises instruments, use chords and scales when you're listening to others. My quote is that every piece of music is worth learning no matter how I dislike it. :D

Hope this may help you a little.


I agree with @Tim that you need a teacher to guide you. However I encourage you to read as many books as possible at the same time to reinforce what you learn from the teacher and to help you support the tuition with your own findings; you can always ask him/her about things that puzzle you. I had exactly the same kind of mist as you; and the key was finding a book that explained it the right way for me.

Example : it was in Bass Guitar for Dummies that the author carefully describes how to choose notes for a bassline and states exactly what each note in the scale will give if you choose it next.

Without finding the right book and the right teacher, and unless you have huge natural talent ( I do not), you are just spinning your wheels.