Well, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and people are starting to go a bit nuts from isolation and monotony. Not surprisingly, a lot of folks are taking this opportunity to start learning about music for the first time. The musician/producer web-sphere is teeming with instructional videos like “How To Make Beats Like Skrillex!” or “How To Generate Undies-soiling Side-chain Compression LOL!” or “How To Win A Grammy From Your Bedroom With Free Plugins!” …And I keep starting to write response posts without getting very far. I feel compelled to offer some better advice about starting to actually learn how to make music, but as I think through the steps, the first looms so large that it merits its own dedicated post.
The first important step to actually learning about music is to be a fan of music – as specifically, emphatically, fearlessly, shamelessly, and joyfully as possible.
Learning how to play, write, and produce music is not a fast process. Web videos that promise to reveal how easy it is to create a phat beat with your brand-new copy of Ableton Live are doing you a disservice by implying that creating musically cohesive sounds is easy and straightforward (it’s not) and that software-oriented mixing and signal processing tricks are the key to making great songs (they aren’t). It’s human nature to hunt for shortcuts that end up wasting time, that take longer than going through the mundane-but-necessary steps involved in actually acquiring a useable skill. To really learn how to create music, you have to be able to aurally understand and, to a degree, play music, and that takes a while. Fearlessly loving the utter crap out of what you’re studying is the only thing that will propel you through the frustrating parts of the process.
Fandom seems to come easily to younger people, and many of my own interests solidified in early childhood. Certain things of which I’m still a huge fan today, like the Legend of Zelda and the Simpsons, I discovered at the age of seven or eight. I loved video game and soundtrack music as a child. I developed an intuitive relationship with major and minor intervals by figuring out melodies from Zelda games on my mom’s piano. In middle school I started loving the Police and U2 thanks to compact discs I stole from my older brother’s room, and when I got an electric bass for Christmas during my freshman year of high school, I started figuring out every bass line to every Police and U2 song I could. My fandom for those bands – and my new love for my new instrument – helped me develop an intuitive, visceral relationship with the musical building blocks of recordings that fascinated me.
My love for U2 waned over time (don’t get me wrong, “War” and “The Unforgettable Fire” are still great records), but my love of the Police and Sting never did. Through Sting, I discovered Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland. Through playing the electric bass, I discovered Jaco Pastorius, through whom I discovered Weather Report, through whom I discovered my all-time musical hero, Wayne Shorter. By the time I was a junior in high school, my obsessive fandom led me on a jagged, unorthodox, and undeniably strong pathway to a career in music. I was able to get into the music program at the University of North Texas, and my fandom propelled me through all the difficult and occasionally traumatizing challenges of learning to be an adult.
In college, I began encountering a type of person I’d never previously encountered: music majors who weren’t really fans of music. This baffled me. They were often very studious, well-prepared, and proficient players, but they only ever really listened to music for homework – solo pieces they were practicing, orchestral excerpts they were preparing, things like that. These non-music-fan musicians vanished after I entered the professional world and began making a living as a musician, but I never forgot about them and how strange they seemed to me, approaching music like an economics major might approach a statistics class. I never would have been able to get through North Texas if my fandom hadn’t been fueling me, to say nothing of the incredible difficulties that followed when I entered the musical workforce during the fall of the recording industry.
A career in music obviously isn’t necessary to enjoy making music. Many of the finest musicians I know have separate careers to make money, but, like me, their fandom led them to discover and internalize a huge amount of complex music. People who are starting their musical journeys for the first time now, during Covid-driven isolation, probably have a similar passionate love of specific sounds or recordings spurring them. That isn’t just a good thing, it’s an absolutely essential foundation of making music well. I would rather hear a less-experienced musician who passionately loves what he or she is doing than an experienced musician who sounds clearly burned-out and bored.
My own fandom continues to shape, inform, and inspire my daily life. My obsession with two particular Miles Davis Quintet records, “E.S.P.” and “The Sorcerer,” led to my years-long obsession with recording technology and methodology, and that knowledge has become existentially necessary for professional musicians in pandemic times. My continuing love of Japanese video games inspires me to compose instrumental music spurred by fantastic and colorful world-building imagery. Some of it turns into music for Progger, and some of it will turn into an ambient electronic record sometime in the not-too-distant future. (If you want to know when that happens, sign up here.) My deep love and respect for many of my musical contemporaries like Knower, The Funky Knuckles, and Forq give me hope for the future of creative people, even as we live through a dark era.
Whether you’re a seasoned professional or a musical neophyte, being a fan – a fearless, shameless fan – can and should be the fuel that propels you through creative frustration, financial famine, and artistic uncertainty. There’s a lot going on in the music you love and in the music you aspire to create, and there will be times when you find yourself banging your head against a desk trying to make sense of it. Passionate fandom is the key to filling a daunting journey with joyful wonder and discovery, and it substantially increases the odds that someday, someone else will be a fan of you.