If you truly think of music as a language, you can improve your songwriting abilities the same way you learned to speak.
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Yesterday I tweeted a video from TedEd that featured Grammy award-winning bassist Victor Wooten called “Music as a Language.” In it, he makes some tremendously important points, the most important of which is: If music really is a language, why are we not learning it like a language? How is it that we were able to speak with such proficiency at a very young age, such that we can communicate clearly and precisely with what he calls “professional speakers.”
That video is a must-see for anyone who is trying to make it in the music business, but also for anyone who needs a shot of inspiration.
What he has to say applies most clearly and succinctly to performers. Wooten reminds us that babies learn to speak without going to weekly lessons. That in fact, babies are allowed to “jam” with the adults – the professional speakers. Every time the child makes a mistake, the adults smile, and everything is done in a positive frame of mind.
Many of us didn’t learn to play our instruments that way, did we? So many of us were given an instrument, and then it was weekly lessons, staring at a piece of music, trying to get it right, going back to lessons to learn what we were doing wrong.
There’s a long-winded version of why that is — why we feel compelled to teach music by slicing it all up into lessons. But the short version of that story is this: children learn differently than adults. Children learn by experiencing. Adults learn by analyzing. If you are in your late teens, your method of learning is naturally changing from a “learning-by-experience” way to a “learning-by-analysis” method.
That learn-by-analysis method has its place. It’s a much more efficient way to learn in the sense that you can dig deeper and learn exactly why things are the way they are. But for pure learning, nothing beats learning-by-experience.
So it’s easy to apply that to the world of musical performance. If you’ve got a child who is learning an instrument right now, sit down with them and play. Fight the temptation to correct their mistakes, because they will fix their mistakes if you simply keep playing for them. The more they play, they better they get.
Can you apply this philosophy to songwriting? It’s harder (though very possible) for developing songwriters to “jam” in the same sort of way with other songwriters. But there are 3 things you can do that will get you better results, results that conform to the “learning-by-experience” method:
- Participate in songwriting circles. These are simple events that pull professionals and amateurs together, and allow you to play, discuss, and encourage yourself and others.
- Play songwriting “games” with another songwriter. This can be a lot of fun. Sit with another songwriter, play a simple 2-chord progression (something like F-C), then improvise a melodic line. Your songwriting partner then answers with their own line. Go back and forth, trying to create a line that acts as a good answer to the line just presented to you.
- Teach songwriting. Though the whole idea in the “Music as a Language” video was that the child should jam with a professional, I believe you can get similar results by teaching. Teaching has a great benefit: it requires you to organize your thoughts and clarify your process. Most teachers will tell you that they become better at what they do simply by teaching it to others.
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