Write Music While You Learn Music

“Take notes!”

This is pretty standard advice in the academic world. Whether it's in a school classroom or in a self-taught setting, taking notes helps us to internalize what we learn. I talk about taking notes in a music journal in this article.

But music is not made with the words we write about it. Music is the art we create with sound. So, in addition to taking notes on the inner workings and theories of music, it's also important to make use of the theory by writing our own music. In other words, write music while you learn music!

In this article, we'll discuss 3 big reasons to write music while you learn music:

  • Internalize what you've learned.
  • Stay out of the information trap.
  • Build your catalog.

Internalize What You've Learned

What was it I learned again?

I remember “cramming” for university exams. A full week of staying up every night trying to memorize formulas and concepts in order to pass a test each following day. All this pressure and intense focus. I passed the exams, but don't remember much of what I was taught.

If I would have taken my time learning the material as it was presented during the semester, I would have had a much easier time recalling it when it came to exams. But who wants to do homework, really?

The above scenario is familiar to many who end up “passing their courses.” But this isn't exactly what I'd call optimal grounds for creativity and music making.

Learn By Doing

It's one thing to read about theory or mindlessly practice patterns on your instrument, and another thing to really understand how to make music with theory and practice.

Once again, music is not the words we write about!

Learning by doing, or, in other words, applying what we learn in our creative endeavours, will help solidify the knowledge we obtain.

By “going through the motions,” we will better understand the concepts we learn and their practical application. This understanding makes our sonic palette greater and provides us with more creative tools for the craft of music making.

Some Examples

We can read all day long that the Lydian mode is the fourth mode of the Major Scale and that it has the scale degrees 1    2     3 ♯4    5    6    7. We can practice it on our instruments in various ways and conceptualize it. But how do we create music with it?

Try writing a piece in the Lydian mode. The exercise of creating with a piece of music theory will help greatly in our understanding of how it works and sounds.

Another example, this time in mixing, could be parallel compression. Sure, it's a bus channel we send our drums to and add extreme amounts of compression. In theory, it helps to make the drums more “punchy.” But this is only a concept.

Try using this technique and get familiar with it! Play with the compression settings and level of the bus to hear what works best for the mix at hand. Actualize what you study and hear how it works. Do you like it?  Then use it again in the future!

Experiential Learning

This is all tied to experiential learning. After experiencing something (in this case writing music with specific ideas), the mind will consciously and subconsciously reflect, make correlations, and store that information away.

The beautiful thing about music is the immediate feedback loop. If something doesn't sound right to you (a wrong note, too much compression, etc.) you'll hear it right away. By the same token, we can hear (and often see in DAWs and with notation) what we're learning nearly immediately. This feedback is great for learning!

Knowledge is only as good as its application. Write music while you learn music!

And with that, let's move on to reason number two:

Stay Out Of The Information Trap

“Write music while you learn music” is something I must keep telling myself.

I can only speak for myself, but often times when I get deep into my study of theory, music production, sound design, or anything that has to do with music, I don't actually write much music at all.

As musicians, it's important to keep learning more about music. But it's more important to actually play and write music. That's what we got into for, anyway!

Try to develop the habit of asking yourself how the new information you're receiving can be used in your music.

Information Overload

Information overload is almost inevitable with high-speed internet (yes, this article is contributing to it 😉 ). This can hinder our creativity by presenting too many options and lead to what many call analysis paralysis. 

“I can't act yet, I need to know more!”

I'm sure you've thought that before. I know I have…

“Do it anyway!”

That's better advice for creative endeavors.

I like to think of information in an input/output fashion (can you tell I'm an engineer?)

With social media, our jobs, our study, and most things in life. There's information that comes into our brains and information that we put back out into the world.

I think it's important in our study of anything to balance out our information input/output. Especially in our creative journey as musicians.

So rather than reading the next chapter of that theory book, or watching that next YouTube video on sound design, take some time to focus on what you've learned and apply it to your craft.

By outputting creatively, we can take a break from bringing in new information. And focus our efforts on understanding one new thing at a time!

There's a lot to know, and we're used to taking in tons of information in our waking hours. But to truly learn a subject, it's much more effective to learn slowly (and surely).

Increase In Catalog

The third huge benefit of writing music as you learn about it is that you'll grow your catalog!

Often times if I have writer's block, I'll study and experiment with some theory. And before I know it, I have a new song. In fact, much of Fine Dining With An Octopus was written that way while I read through Mark Levine's The Jazz Theory Book!

This study, or “etude,” of music theory can lead to great works of art!

Practice makes perfect is the motto here. The more we apply what we learn, the better our understanding becomes. At the same time, the more we apply what we learn, the better we get at applying what we learn. And the more we write, the better we get at writing.

It's all about improving our craft and ourselves as musicians.

Even if the song never gets released, the experience gained from writing and applying new material will help us greatly in the long run. And if the song never gets released, we can still keep the idea as it may fit with more ideas down the road! (I refer to this process as musical woodpiling).

In Closing

I hope I have presented some food for thought in the above paragraphs. Remember that it's one thing to understand something and another to apply it to our craft.

If this article has provided some inspiration, let me know in the comments section. I'd love to open a conversation about this and hear what you're learning about and applying to your music.

As always, thanks for reading and for your support.

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