22

I own a guitar. I've owned it since I was about 13, but never really got into it because I was a spiteful teen who wanted to play the drums, and went out of my way to play the drums instead (to the dismay of my parents who acquired the guitar for me).

Now, as a 22 year old, I occasionally find myself entertaining the thought of picking it up and learning it. I really would someday like to learn music theory; I have created digital compositions for awhile, but struggle with keyboard and string derived instruments due to not knowing even basic music theory.

It takes me a very long time to derive melodies as a result, and I am hoping that learning a string instrument would help me develop the skills to be a better composer.

I mentioned this to one of my colleagues in the music industry, and while he was supportive, he warned me that I may have trouble seeing as I have never really picked up the guitar and that this is an older age to begin learning it.

This really discouraged me. If this is true, what limitations can I expect in the way of learning? I already have a lot of trouble playing due to the size of my hands, and hearing this is making me wonder if I should consider a different instrument entirely.

To be clear, I am asking about both the fundamental theory and the physical technique, as I have no formal education in other.

14 Answers 14

24

Certainly children learn more quickly than adults, particularly when it comes to languages, and to skills. (That is, "proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training or experience.")

As a former US Figure Skating Basic Skills instructor, I observed this effect time and again when teaching school-age children as compared with teaching adults. (It's a skill that requires both physical learning and mental understanding, and practice, similar to musicianship.)

And it is well-documented that as we progress through our 30's, 40's, 50's, and upward, our learning rate decreases. (why-learning-is-harder-as-we-get-older)

However, there is absolutely no reason to avoid learning a new instrument in your 20's. In my own personal experience, I started learning "pop" organ at age 11, and studied viola from ages 15 through 18. Then -- having taken no musical lessons of any kind for 30 years -- I started studying piano at age 48, and found it enjoyable and not terribly difficult.

(Although piano and organ are both keyboard instruments, the left hand accompaniment 
is entirely different, as is the expression.  The organ has bass pedals, which the
piano doesn't.  The organ has one or more expression pedals or "swell shoes" which
the piano doesn't.  The piano's loudness and timbre are sensitive to touch, which
doesn't happen on the organ.  They are different instruments.)

In both my experience teaching skills to others (figure skating and a couple of other skills), and in my experience as a music student, learning as an adult is different than learning as a child, but not necessarily worse:

  • As a child, you may have more time available to practice, though this is not a hard-and-fast rule.

  • As an adult, you are likely to be more focused and more motivated in your practice and your study. You are better able to understand the need for boring things such as drills, and better able to master your own feelings and attitudes. Adults "buckle down" better than children do.

  • As a child, you do learn more quickly.

  • As an adult, you may tend to value what you're learning more, and may retain it better.

  • As a child, you approach things with fewer preconceived notions, and are likelier to accept things at face value. (I saw this all the time teaching children to skate, particularly when teaching the beginnings of jumping skills.)

  • As an adult, you are more capable of analysis: both of what the teacher is saying and of what you yourself are doing. Some examples:

    • Teaching adults proper skating posture was far easier than teaching children. I could draw word pictures involving imaginary lines through parts of the body, and the adults could translate that into actions and posture. I had to physically bend the children into the shapes I wanted -- repeatedly -- before they could successfully reproduce the instructions. Then they would revert and have to be taught again, whereas adults only required a simple verbal reminder.
    • Learning aspects of musical theory was far easier for me as an adult than as a child. As a child, I understood that an E-flat was the same as a D-sharp, so "who cares what you call it." As an adult, I could see why the key of the composition affected the names (or identities) of the notes.
    • As an adult musical student, I'm able to analyze my own playing and state "___ is the right way to finger this, but my pinky finger on my right hand will always be weak due to a childhood injury, so I'm deliberately [incorrectly] doubling it up with my right ring finger so I'm able to strike a high note with particular force when needed."
  • As an adult, you are better capable of evaluating whether a particular teacher/instructor is the "right" one for you.

  • As an adult, you have much better proprioception than you did as child or even as a teen. For example, you should be able to learn the distances between frets (and strings) without looking, and learn it more quickly. As an adult, you've also done most of your growing, and your fingers are capable of being stronger than they were as a teen. If you are like me, you are also better able to ignore pain while developing calluses for playing.

The size of your hands may be another matter entirely. You may need to consider getting a 3/4 or 2/4 guitar, or switching to something smaller, such as the mandolin. Not everyone is suited for every instrument. For example, I tried playing saxophone in 6th and 7th grades. I had trouble controlling my breathing, and I never could really learn the fingering well enough: there's no real pattern to it (it's dictated by physics). So, while I love listening to the sax, it's not the instrument for me.

I hope these observations serve to encourage you to continue your musical education. Learn any instrument you want, at any age you want!

30

Even if one can ever be too old to learn an instrument (I don't think so), then this is definitely not the case already at 22.

You may not be able to make as fast progress as if you had learned it at 13, but ultimately it's up to how much effort you put in. Practive five minutes every week, and it'll probably not go anywhere. But practice half an hour every day, and you'll be able to make decent progress. Will you ever become a virtuoso? Probably not. But that's not the point, I guess. A nice thing about guitar and piano is that one can achieve quite musically useful results without needing to be technically terribly skilled. Definitely enough to be helpful for composition.

  • 1
    Thank you. It does seem like there's a prevailing culture of "start young or never try" with music, so it's always seemed very daunting to me to try to get into. The drums were easier for me to learn, that's why they appealed to me. – nostalgk Nov 2 '18 at 18:56
  • 12
    Just as one anecdotal data point, I'm 56 and started learning the flute last fall. – Duston Nov 2 '18 at 19:08
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    I started playing Bass guitar at 31 and two years later can play a huge number of songs that come along after only about an hour or two of practice. Plenty of rifts and licks I can get right away. – Dedwards Nov 5 '18 at 19:33
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    @Dedwards I'll leave it to somebody else to spin that comment into a joke about bassists... – leftaroundabout Nov 5 '18 at 19:40
  • "Will you ever become a virtuoso? Probably not." is unnecessarily discouraging. A few years' practice with an emphasis on technique is sufficient for many shred tunes. You won't be playing any Shawn Lane, but you'll be way beyond "good enough to compose". – colonelsanders Nov 5 '18 at 21:37
11

First, 22 isn't old to start music, even 82 isn't. Because skill and your propensity for music is partly inherent. You could have musical abilities that other people don't. For example, people that are more sensitive/emotional tend to be more musically inclined than people that aren't. So it's not all about when you learn, or even the theory that you learn, part of being good at music is also very much inherent to your personality without even picking up an instrument.

Second, it's not like you ever stop learning music. You can learn music for decades over many hours a day. So learning music is not something that takes a year or two, or even a decade. It's something that you develop throughout life. And the more you develop and practice, the better you get. If you're looking to start at 22, that's great. It's not too late. The only question is, will you continue..

  • 2
    I really like this comment. So much of music is not a skill that is acquired, but is rather a state of wisdom achieved. What notes NOT to play. How to be economical. How to listen. How to practice! And what I think is the big one, how to have something to say. Any art needs to be done with intent, and it can take years of personal growth to get to the point where you have something to say and the comfort level to say it - with music. – RedFilter Nov 2 '18 at 21:16
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    "People that are more sensitive/emotional tend to be more musically inclined than people that aren't" Source? – user45266 Nov 3 '18 at 0:20
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    life experience – foreyez Nov 3 '18 at 4:52
  • 1
    @user45266 there are hundreds of scientific links on this too google.com/search?q=musicians+more+emotional+science – foreyez Nov 5 '18 at 16:25
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    @user45266 also check this out "It also appears that a high proportion of people with depressive illnesses are drawn to working in the arts" theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2010/dec/17/… – foreyez Nov 5 '18 at 16:34
10

Can one be too old to learn an instrument?

First of all, if you are 22 years old, you aren't old :-)

Categorically speaking you can never be a child prodigy. Of course I mean that as a little joke, but the serious point is you're never too old.

But now you have to ask yourself what your goals and and get serious about striving to meet them!

As far as the guitar given to you by your generous parents is concerned: why not learn how to play it? The beginning is always hard, but it isn't that hard to learn the basic open chords to play rhythm guitar accompaniment to a huge number of songs in many styles. You could develop that basic proficiency and be enriched as a musician. Or, it you have the urge, take it further. Learning a new instrument doesn't necessarily require mastery. In fact, I think many people would say they learn about their main instrument and all music generally by learning the basics of other instruments even though they don't master them.

About learning an instrument to help you learn music theory. Typically piano is the instrument for studying theory. Music students are often required to take some piano proficiency classes. The goal isn't to become a pianist, but to get enough skill to play chord and scales from a score to assess it, or play examples from harmony textbooks, etc. A cheap electronic keyboard is all you need to support that kind of theory study.

Another aid to learning theory is singing out loud, or singing along with your keyboard or guitar. It's not so commonly recommended, but I think it helps develop good hearing. I'm a terrible singer, but from time to time I add singing to my practice to develop my ear.

  • Thank you for your thoughts. I will add that I can play the guitar well enough to play tabs and remember the sequences, but nothing really beyond that. I think it would behoove me most to start from the "beginning" and learn chords, like you say. I will look into getting a cheap electronic keyboard; one that would serve as a MIDI controller would be a boon to my digital music creation. – nostalgk Nov 2 '18 at 21:35
9

Unless one only has a couple of years to live due to a terminal disease, one is never too old.

It's true that in the early years up to maybe early twenties, children are (hopefully) more sponge-like, however, there are decades left for most of us. The biggest problem is that while kids learn more quickly (due to having nowhere near as much on their plate at the time) we oldies still have the propensity, but must manage time far better. And money - kids get their lessons paid for, and often aren't even aware of it - whilst we have other avenues that our money disappears down.

Bottom line is - just get on with it. You may find theory helps - you may not. It depends how you're wired. Playing an instrument (at any age) needs some sort of commitment, and if understanding what goes on is part of that, so be it. But until you commit, nothing will happen, let's face it. Fundamental theory, and basic technique are still abundantly available to you, whatever your age. And early twenties? Don't even bother asking! Stop wasting your time. Get going!

  • 1
    Thank you for the motivation. I should look into lessons if I can fit it in my work and school schedule. – nostalgk Nov 2 '18 at 19:20
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    A teacher will shave off so much time and effort - and since it aspires that you're still a student, make this part of your studies. – Tim Nov 2 '18 at 19:36
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    Unfortunately, between working a full-time job and studying full time at a poly-technic university that does not offer musical education, my hands are tied on including it in my studies on a formal educative basis due to time constraints. However, I do have time on my own for practice and could possibly fit in a lesson every week or so with a private instructor. – nostalgk Nov 2 '18 at 19:38
  • 1
    @nostalgk - being an 'elder' isn't a given age; it's living under the constraints you just mentioned. – Mazura Nov 2 '18 at 23:48
  • @nostalgk You also can look for an instructor who gives you lessons on base of appointments. I found such an instructor and make my appointments as it fits in my other time constraints. So I have lessons only every three or four weeks. And it works...! – IQV Nov 5 '18 at 8:58
5

I find the two vital ingredients to learning to play an instrument of any sort are honest interest and whether or not you are really driven. I've known a few people who have lived most of their lives wishing they could play guitar, piano, percussion, etc. Finally as they reached retirement age, their responsibilities changed and they were able to pursue those interests. I know of a 79 year old man enrolled in a community college guitar class, and it's studying guitar that is addressing a pretty serious regret that he's had for a long time now. My point is that if your interest and drive are real, you'll most likely regret a decision to not pursue that interest. Fear of not being able to learn would certainly end in regret.

4

EVERYTHING gets harder to learn as you get older. This includes learning an instrument.

Whether you're to old to learn something depends on your definition of "learn". For exemple: Is it possible to learn a new language when you are 40 years old so good that you can fool a native speaker? I would say that this is impossible except for maybe a handful people in the world.

If you instead ask if it is possible to learn a new language when you are 40 so that you can communicate reasonably well with people, then the answer is yes. Most people would be able to do that.

So it all depends on your goals. It is most likely to late to become a world known star on your instrument of choice. You could probably become a professional, but it would require a lot of work. If your goal is to be good enough to get occasional gigs at your local pub, or just earn a place in a garage band, then it's definitely feasible.

I'm 37 now, and I started learning trumpet quite recently. Sure I wish I started earlier, but I am learning, and I can contribute with it. Most of the music theory I know I have learned the past five years.

So if you want to do it, then just do it. It's definitely not to late to have fun with an instrument.

4

I am starting to learn how to play guitar, and I am 58 years old. Will I ever become a skilled musician? No, but that is not my goal.

Do it! Do it now. Because if you don't you will later and you will regret not starting it at 22.

3

I only started to play any instrument at all around your age. (Actually, I had two months of French horn in a high school music class at 14 that I was forced to take but I didn't care for the instrument and dropped the course as soon as I could so I'm not counting that.) By the time I was your age (or maybe I was 21), I was increasingly intrigued by music and asked my friend's brother, James, who was a guitar teacher, if I was too old to learn. He assured me I was not. I wanted to learn guitar but having seen some great guitar players like Steve Howe, I was sure I'd NEVER be able to do a fraction of what he could do so I decided to do something "simpler" and got James to help me buy a bass and give me some lessons on it. He gave me lessons for a few months (free!). About the same time, I moved into a university housing co-op and found that there were some musicians in the place. They liked to jam on weekends and they didn't have a bass player so I was encouraged to join them, even though I knew almost nothing. But they were at least somewhat drunk most of the time and they really didn't mind me there, trying to add to the sound. :-) And that's how I discovered the great joy of playing with other people, even before I could do almost anything by myself! Before too long, I'd acquired a practice amp which was enough for the jamming and my individual practice (what little there was). Before long, I bought a cheap guitar to go with my cheap bass and started to play a little guitar. I won't bore you with the whole story of my musical misadventures; suffice it to say I had a great deal of fun, even if I never developed any great skill. I also learned the basics of theory through a self-study book that James gave me; it was the first two grades (out of five) of the conservatory material taught here in Canada. I also had a lot of fun trying to write music and record it on the four-track recorder I bought.

As for physical technique, I initially thought anyone who had two working hands could play guitar but I learned that there are exceptions. I girl I knew in residence said she wanted to play guitar and even had a guitar but said she couldn't play it because her hands were too small. I found this a little improbable but asked James and he said it was possible. As luck would have it, he came to visit me at the residence on one occasion and I asked if he could possibly evaluate the girl in question, Charlene. We went to see her and he quickly determined that she was right: her hands WERE too small to comfortably play the guitar. As I recall, he simply tried to get her to play a few of the standard chords, while showing her how to form them. I seem to recall that a standard G chord at the third fret was more than she could handle. And that was all for Charlene and the guitar as far as I know. (I regret now that no one thought of having her try a smaller instrument like mandolin; she might have done really well with that.) You should probably have an experienced player test you in a similar way to make sure you don't have a similar obstacle to playing.

I also went to mention a woman named Nancy that I worked with on my first full-time job. She was a married woman with two young teenagers. She really wanted to get her kids to start instruments but they were reluctant. She didn't want to be the kind of mom that twisted their arms to play; she wanted them to WANT to play. She asked if they'd be interested if she took up an instrument too? They decided that if their mom wanted to do it, it wasn't a chore being forced on them and that it might be fun so they agreed if all three of them took up an instrument. Her daughter decided to start on piano, I don't remember what her son started on, and Nancy herself started on organ. It was her first instrument and she must have been close to 40, if not older. The best part of the story is the ending: Nancy LOVED playing music and was absolutely delighted that she had finally done something she always wanted to do.

Bottom line: I would strongly encourage you to start on guitar or any other instrument that interests you. It IS possible to start that "late" on both an instrument and on music theory and to still have a great time. You may be too late to be the next Eddie Van Halen wowing audiences around the world but I wouldn't even rule that out. There may be some late starter somewhere that is a top ranked professional for all I know. But you have every chance of having a great time, even if you never set the world on fire with your playing. I see no reason you can't become a good composer too.

Sorry for the long-winded answer. ;-)

3

Wow, ripe old age of 22. That is very young so you are not too old by any standard. In my experience anyone can learn music at any age. Some keys are attitude and commitment. As adults sometimes our daily responsibilities get in the way of making steady progress. To make progress on any instrument requires a regular practice schedule. Every teacher will tell their students, 1/2 hour a day is better than 3.5 hours the day before your lesson. And almost every student does 3.5 hours once a week (at least for a while). My point is that if your current life situation does not afford you the ability to commit a small time every day you will not see progress and you may get discouraged and disappointed. In my opinion this is one of the root causes of people thinking (incorrectly) that they are too old to learn. It's just an example of life getting in the way.

Your friends comments may be coming from the point of view of a working musician. Like sports it is usually recommended that one start very young to ensure they are prepared for success in their teens. For example, to get into a good music program in college you need to audition and compete for seats, etc. You will not likely get into Julliard at 17 is you started at 16. But to say that you are too old to start is a gross misconception on your friends part (no offense). I have students who are retired (in their 60s) and they make great progress. But this speaks to my point about life getting in the way. Sometimes people excel at new things when they are older because they have the time and resources to devote to it.

To your comment about music theory you can learn that regardless of what instrument you play, vocalists learn it to and they don't need guitar or keyboard skills to learn. So keep those two separated.

Don't put yourself in a box before you try. If you really want to learn guitar I'd say get a good teacher and take some lessons, see how it progresses for a while.

3

Go for it! There are trade-offs when it comes to learning an instrument when you're older vs when you are younger. When you're older you have more persistence to keep trying to get that riff right. If you go to school or work you'll have to kinda schedule your practice, which might end up being more beneficial.

I think the best part though, is that your perspective has changed since you were a kid.

I started playing guitar when i was 11. i was forced to take piano lessons around the same time, but it they kinda sucked and all the music i listened to had guitar in it, not piano. but when i got into my early twenties, i had access to a piano where i lived, and i just loved slugging down some beer or whiskey and learning some Phillip Glass or whatever.

you're not too old. give it a try, you've got nothing to lose.

3

Another answer began with ...

Unless one only has a couple of years to live due to a terminal disease, one is never too old.

... but I'd like to correct that i.e. to say that one might learn in less than a year.

I'm in my late 50s and I started to learn guitar less than a year ago -- folk-style guitar, e.g. strumming the "open" chords and singing.

My guitar skills are now that I can play a song like (most recently) Mad World almost instantly, i.e. assuming that ...

  • I know the song (i.e. I've heard it previously and like it)
  • The chords are easy (e.g. no barre chords) and my fingers know that chord already
  • The rhythm or strumming pattern is easy (I might play but find it difficult to sing on top of playing, when the rhythm of the melody I'm meant to sing is unlike the rhythm of the guitar -- perhaps what's called "syncopation")

... I already know the chords for that song (i.e. Em, G, D, and A) well, and so I can just play them. I can learn to fit the chords to the song after only several minutes of practice.

There are a lot of songs like this -- easy three- or four- or five-chord songs -- see e.g. PartyMarty EasyGuitarTunes (though, when I want to see how to play a song, I've found/used many other sources too).

So, "mission accomplished" to some extent. I can sing and play well enough to accompany my own singing at amateur folk club evening (previously I could only sing, unfortunate since the commercial music I have liked e.g. starting with The Beatles tends to be accompanied).

I've still a way to go, of course ...

  • Learning to play barre chords -- I can play some now but the trick is to play them fast enough for them to be usable in a song -- e.g. a chord like Bm or F, which are needed for some songs (I can now nearly play Tomorrow Wendy well enough to perform it -- it has a Bm in it, i.e. the chord progression is D, A, Bm, G).
  • Learning to play finger-style -- e.g. I nearly know how to play Dust In the Wind now, i.e. I can actually play it but not yet perfectly -- apparently that song was written as a finger-style exercise.
  • Picking -- I'm strumming with my fingers. I can strum various patterns, strum fairly rhythmically, but I'm not good at using a pick and can't very accurately hit specific strings when strumming.
  • Playing by moving up and down the neck (I'm not sure what that's called, but I mean not using open chords at all).
  • Playing with other people (playing solo is easier, or with a teacher who will keep pace with you rather than your keeping pace with them).

... an infinitely long way, especially compared to any professional, but "mission accomplished" too.

I had a guitar teacher for several months -- not a professional teacher, a kind neighbour who has played an an amateur since he was young -- with once-a-week lessons.

He told me to practice every day, even if only for 5 minutes (also I have a steel string acoustic, which hurt my fingers until they acclimatised to it) -- that 5 minutes of practice every day is much better than half an hour once a week. The key is to develop the new habit, of practice, of playing.

  • You can learn quickly (e.g. the difference between knowing how to play a chord and not knowing, or knowing what chords to fit a song and not knowing).
  • Then improvement might come slowly, because to play (e.g. to make chord shapes with your left hand) fast enough, it's not sufficient for the brain to know how, the fingers themselves need to be able to do it. At that stage, I found I didn't seem improvement in my playing from one day to the next (i.e. I was often no better than the day before), but (with daily practice) I did see progress from week to week -- so don't get discouraged, it's quite an interesting learning practice.

Sometimes I practice longer than 5 minutes, but I think it's the daily habit that will make progress inevitable.

I'm not actually taking lessons any more, perhaps I've learned enough that I can learn more (e.g. from YouTube), and practice more, unaided.

He also told me to practice songs I like -- i.e. songs that I'd want to learn, to practice -- to find songs I like that I can practice. I think the first one he gave me was Hide Your Love Away (playing the C chord instead of F) -- but, yeah, what you like.

Anyway, it's not too late. Being intellectual and all too (i.e. some kind of technician, which I define as "someone who reads the manual") I've learned a bit of music theory (e.g. why the various chords are named as they are -- "major", "minor", "sus4", "add9", "C/E") but I think that's optional, there are people who just play by ear instead (and you can learn chords and finger-picking using tabs or charts and from watching other people play and explain). I think I read (I don't know if it's true) that The Beatles were unable to write music, so the songs they were able to practice were only whatever songs they were able to remember from one day to the next (maybe part of the reason why their songs were memorable and initially not too complicated)!

It takes me a very long time to derive melodies as a result, and I am hoping that learning a string instrument would help me develop the skills to be a better composer.

I'm no musician but, though I like to play and practice, I'm not sure that learning guitar is the most efficient (i.e. the least time+effort) way to learn theory and to compose a melody -- e.g. because a lot of the practice is physical -- habitual finger/chord shapes, fine-motor and gross-motor skills.

If your primary interest is composing melodies (N.B. that I don't know) you might be better with videos about theory (I like the 12tone videos), with something like a keyboard, and/or perhaps software such as MuseScore or similar.

1

As for music theory, learn the guitar first. There is a decent amount of music theory you naturally pick up as a guitarist (chords, chord progressions, major, minor, dimished, augmented etc.) because that's part of playing a guitar (alternate fingerings, soloing, alternate picking and strumming techniques, and so forth). If you later are interested in picking up the rest of the music theory, it is going to be much easier once you already understand the parts of music theory used in guitar playing. You won't be able to easily play some of it on a guitar, but you can always get a computer program to play it for you.

1

There is no such thing as “too old” only “didn’t try” or “didn’t keep trying.” The problem with most humans is they confuse trying with age and resign themselves with the easy way out.

You could be the next Jimmy Page, Kurt Cobain, Fred Frith or Chuck Berry but only one thing is absolutely guaranteed - if you don’t try, you will never ever know and neither will anyone else.

protected by Dom Nov 5 '18 at 15:55

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