Talent vs Imagination

I am a proud non-musician.

I cannot read or write musical notation. I rarely know what musical key I am playing in. I have stickers on my keyboard reminding my which note is which. I’ve never taken any lessons (although I have discussed some fundamentals with a couple music teachers). I can still learn from picking up a “for beginners” or “for dummies” book on just about any instrument.

My dad gave me a guitar chordbook when I was first learning. After attempting some of these finger positions and chords I was completely put off by it. I had to choose whether to not play guitar, or to just teach myself by ear. I threw away the chordbook and never looked back. I played my first live performance 3 months later (350 people) and within 2 years we were selling out Hollywood clubs like The Roxy.

Was it talent that got us there?

Hell no! I was a 4 chord wonder with the talent level of “suck ass”. What I had going for me was the ability to construct catchy songs that didn’t overextend my talent. I have of course improved over the years, but you still won’t find me ripping solos anytime soon.

So despite this so-called disadvantage I have been able to be fairly successful as a guitarist, a keyboardist, an electronic musician and a DJ. When I say I am a non-musician, I don’t want you to think that I’ve not picked up plenty of tricks and techniques along my musical journey. I just want to make it clear that I have never attempted to impress anyone with my complex scales and solos. For most of the music I enjoy, none of that stuff was ever much of a concern.

There is no doubt that I have put limits on myself by not subscribing to the need for more musical education. I simply gave myself permission to create anyway. In the same way, I am by no means a trained writer. I have a limited vocabulary and I wouldn’t win any spelling bee’s. I’m certain a professional could construct my ideas in a more organized way and perhaps even get my message across better and in a more focused way. Regardless, I allow myself to express ideas through writing and share it with whoever finds value in it. I keep a “learn as you go” or a “learn from doing” mentality to my creative work.

I personally think limitations are a good thing. With less choices, you have the ability to go from an idea to a completed piece of work more directly and efficiently. It also leaves less time for your left brain to start second guessing things. I suppose if I had come across an overwhelming amount of people telling me my music and/or my writing sucked and offered no value to anyone, I would have to consider either finding another creative outlet, or learn some skills that would help me convey my ideas in a more understandable or enjoyable way.

From my personal experience, I have found that musicians, for the most part:

* Tend to not work well with other musicians
* Tend to be more interested in themselves than with complimenting the people they are playing with and tend to prefer playing difficult things (often at loud volumes) even when simplicity complements a song better.
*Tend to be very good at playing impressive riffs that have been played into the ground by other “musicians”already.
* Tend to play music from a more critical, technical and sterile left brained perspective.
* Play to impress other musicians but don’t often connect with the majority of non-musician listeners.
* Often shrug off the beauty of happy accidents and incidentals that would make their music more unique, expressive and human.
* Tend to be happy just playing their instrument day in and day out without the desire to play with a collaboration of instruments in mind.
* Tend to learn all of their favorite leads and solos instead of investigating what makes their instrument work well throughout a whole song.
* Rarely have the perspective to know when NOT to play.

( If you are a talented musician and don’t fall into any of these categories, my utter respect goes out to you. YOU are the ones us non-musicians would love to have in our company. I don’t think any of us have an issue with musical ability but more with the approach to collaborating with others ideas whether they be simple or complex. )

Some would say you need talent to get anywhere in anything in life. I tend to come from the “work with a childlike curiosity and passion and don’t be afraid to suck for a while”.

“imagination is more important than knowledge” Albert Einstein

It is much better to have imagination and not be able to perform it than have talent but nothing worth playing. I can always hire someone to play something that i can’t, however if I have talent but no inspired ideas to start with, the best I could ask for is to become someone else’s hired hand.

In most cases, I can break a complex part down into several simplistic parts. I typically never try to learn something just because it is complex, but rather only push myself when I am not yet able to play what I am inspired to. Since much of what I like to create musically is fairly simple (well, ok, maybe I have somewhat complex electronic sequences at times), I don’t often feel the need to stop what I’m doing and build my talent. I quite enjoy being a hack with taste 😉

Here are some advantages I feel have come from my lack of musical talent:

*I have very few musical rules that stand in the way of expressing my ideas

*Everytime I discover a new chord or sound it’s a magical personal experience. Had I started learning every chord known to man, nothing I ever played would be a surprise to me. As it is, I can be amazed and surprised by what others might consider to be frighteningly simple.

*I have no fear of simplicity

*Instead of learning song structure and arrangement AFTER learning all those complex solos and chord progressions, I first learn the simple building blocks to song construction. The big surprise in this is to discover that rarely do the complexities actually draw you to a song.

*I’m not afraid to manipulate, edit, destroy or erase any part I create because without my talent based ego involved I have little attachment to what I create.

*I get to continue to have a childlike naivety and curiosity to every new project I start.

*I have less resistance to switching musical gears, instruments or styles.

*Its much easier to walk away from something that isn’t working, even if you have put a good amount of time into it

*You become much more interested in the sound of your full song than in the sound of the instrument you play best (often times not the most interesting part of your song).

*I am still able to enjoy listening to simple music without a judgemental ear. (I do however daydream about how a certain sound was achieved, but the “not knowing” keeps music magical and mysterious)

*I get to spend more of my time actually making my own music instead of learning someone elses (more creative output).

*It bugs the hell out of “real” musicians when you break rules and still come up with something listenable, likeable or even catchy.

Now don’t think of a non-musician as a person who lacks taste…

Some of my biggest musical contributors have never picked up an instrument, let alone made a song. However these people are able to give me an immediate non biased opinion on what works and what doesn’t in a song I am working on. They don’t know or care how much time I put into a particular sound or instrument. It either sounds good or it doesn’t in their mind. I prefer a non musicians opinion as much if not more than someone with a background in music. The balance of both creates the best results when in need of an opinion.

Between the notes:

I like to think that the true beauty in a musical piece lies between the notes. It’s the indefinable something that you can’t put your finger on.
I believe that intention comes across in a performance. Anger, frustration, fear, joy, exhilaration all can come through the notes. That is why some songs can never be topped by even the best of cover bands. Then again, sometimes a cover version explores a deeper emotion than the original had intended.
I think that what happens between the notes is that every moment has an unlimited variety of possible outcomes and subtleties and intention makes the choice to express that moment a particular way. Intention is the energy that drives what you play and how you play it but it lives outside of the notes… and talent. Music is an expression and, like laughing or crying, it can’t be wrong if it is pure, even if it isn’t technically correct. I find technical correctness to be a bit too sterile to conjure a real emotional reaction.

You then would say “but what about electronic music that is programmed on sequencers and samplers”?

I would say that all depends on whether the machine or the button pusher is in control. At the end of the day, it’s the songwriter that has to say “yes, THAT is what I was trying to express” or lose the battle for expression with the default sound or vibe the machine creates. I don’t really see how a piano is much different though. I think a band like Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream have a whole lot more going on between the notes than a live band like Good Charlotte or Lincoln Park(yes, that is an opinion.. deal with it!).

You may ask “If you are not interested in talent, then how can you possibly like classical music?

Good question…

Classical music takes some talent to play and in many cases, a whole lot of talent. Why would I have a more favorable opinion on this? Here is why:
Most classical music is dreamed up and written before it is ever played. When writing a classical piece there is much care put into making each part fit perfectly within the spectrum of many other instruments. Classical pieces are written with a lot of dynamics from full and loud to soft and sparse. Parts are written to have a star role but then slip happily into the background to let another instrument take over. The writer of a classical piece concerns himself/herself with the loud, the soft, the simple and the complex and everything inbetween. This type of talent and musicianship gives me enormous joy and gratitude. These musicians would fall under the category of “works well with others” (even if the “others” are simply different complementing ideas from the same brain). The reason I love Classical music is very similar to the reason I love electronic music. It seems that in both of these styles, the song is much more important than any particular instrument.

The Studio as an instrument:

I’m sure it is true that many of us non-musicians are able to create wonderful pieces of music because we have become very proficient at using our studios as an instrument. As with classical music, composing full songs does take some talent and know how, but the focus of our skills is in making many instruments work together in a perfect balance. This type of talent is the type that pushes music forward while the typical so-called “musician” continues to enforce musical rules the have been passed down from the ages. While some of these rules can be very helpful in building your musical vocabulary, they can be very restrictive when you want to find a new way to express sound.

The few of you that are incredibly gifted on a instrument as well as gifted in songwriting and collaborating with non conventional ideas, my highest respect goes out to you. For those of you who are new to all of this, I hope this has given you a bit of confidence to give it a shot. I hope you realize that you don’t need to be a virtuoso in order to make music people will enjoy.

Happy Music Making,


If you are benefiting from these posts, you will absolutely love my 2 bestselling books:

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The Process for Electronic Music Producers

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