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 myselfÂ 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?
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,
With that said, if you are benefiting from these posts, you will absolutely love my 2 bestselling books:
The Mental Game of Music Production
The Process for Electronic Music Producers
You can also Check out the: Ableton Courses & Instruments
If you are looking for personal guidance with your music production or Ableton, you can set up a free chat with me to go over exactly what your best next steps are to create the best music of your life. If it seems like a good fit, we can move forward from there. https://musicsoftwaretraining.com/private-coaching
Happy music making!
JASON, THIS IS A GOOD READ!! miss ya’, man!
Great Post, and I agree completely!
Imagination is much more important and useful
I enjoyed this post. I think we all look for “it” in music. I have always enjoyed listening to music that has a stink about it. You can hear it in the voice and playing when someone has lived a little. Waites, Dylan, Hendrix, etc would not win an award for flawless chops, but you cannot argue with the genius of their raw energy and emotive performance.
Your post has encouraged me to do more without the fear of sucking at it. Stephen King does this. He always creates. He creates a lot of crap, but he also creates a lot of really great work. Reserving judgment keeps him moving. Doing otherwise can keep an artist blocked for years.
I have to tell you that, as a 30 plus year musician and songwriter, this is one of the most enjoyable articles I have ever read on the subject.
Thank you SO much for sharing your thoughts.
Thanks for the comment. I really appreciate it. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
You are great with your shares. I learn a lot with you.
God bless you music soul!! lol
I’ve made many gigabites of music over the years and spent countless joyous hours in the process. Then I decided that I should “learn” the guitar.
This article affirms my own feelings. It is time to get back to the pure joy of creativity!
i feel like there needs to be a balance of talent and imagination to achieve really great work. musical talent allows for a structure for you to build upon, where as imagination allows you to create something wonderful, without all of the "color in the lines" blandness that comes with pure black and white following of common song structure, and the ability to break that structure to make something great. also, i think you should have said something about "restraint". simplicity and knowing when to play follow the lines of restraint, and without it you end up with 50 layers of one instrument. oh, and william wordsworth always talked about how nature lost it’s magic as he aged, but he gained something else, wisdom and understanding of it. i think it goes the same way, you lose some of the passion, but you gain a wise appreciating for music. the trick is to take both technical appreciating and emotional passion into account when you listen.
I don’t enjoy being negative, but i just didn’t enjoy the read, disagreeing with a lot of what you said.
I’m glad that you have an positive outlook on your music and i wouldn’t want to, and probaly couldn’t, dissuade you from that. The pleasure we get from playing and creating music, as you’ll agree, is why we all do it. Your appreciation for music is infact very uplifting.
But i feel that you can only be segregating yourself and others with such an attitude towards different ways of learning.
Everyone thinks that they’re right. And your bias towards the way that you have learned made for a lot of head-shaking.
I am a bit of both. Half a "real musician", as you rather daftly put it and half ear trained and self taught, for I have learned different disciplines as you have. But, I dont fit any of the stereotypes you’ve invented. And none of my "real" musician friends do either. I know both "real" and "non" musicians that are incerdibly inspiring, fitting all of the traits in your ‘good’ list, as well as those who lack emotion and group skills, and fit into your list deemed for the "reals".
Because, the way you learn your craft does not necessarily affect how you tun out as a musician. I personally believe this has much more to do with your personality.
There shouldn’t be some sort of battle between different ways of learning. This surely acts only as a barrier preventing you and the "reals" from discovering each other. Don’t let a preconception get in the way of what could be a beautiful relationship.
Keep on creating and enjoying, I wish not to offend or to come accross as too opinonated.
May many musical relationships come your way….
I think you might be insisting on ignorance.
Finally, I located the information I was looking for. I have been doing research on this subject, and for four days I keep entering websites that are supposed to have what I am looking for, only to be disappointed with the lack of what I had to have. I wish I would have found your website quicker! I had about 40% of what I was looking for and your website has that, and the rest of what I needed to complete my research. Thank you and keep up the good work!
I’ll second what Sam Ruin says – I too have the traits and training of both a “real” musician and a “non-musician” and have played with people anywhere from a 2 year-old banging a pan with a wooden spoon to jazz sensation Esperzana Spalding, to an 82 year old playing piano with a church choir.
This article has the distinct air of overcompensation. It’s as if you’re trying really hard to convince yourself that you’re totally fine with being a “non-musician” even though you’ve obviously played music professionally at some point.
Just because you’re not classically / jazz trained, that doesn’t mean you’re a “non-musician”. Non-musicians are people who literally don’t play music. period. The history of pop music is filled with people just like yourself – untrained but creative and imaginative musicians who didn’t, for whatever reason, take the formal route for their musical education. Technique does not equal sterility – Jimi Hendrix had loads of it and his music could hardly be described and neat and clean or lacking in soul. Technique and virtuosity can greatly aid creative expression – sometimes it is the best way of playing an instrument to it’s fullest sonic potential. It can also be a big wankfest – but why make sweeping generalizations ?
Lastly, right and wrong actually do exist – even in musi., Just ask any music director in any symphony worldwide. Just because that is not the musical world you live in it doesn’t mean that every musician who does is a judgemental or anti-social egotist.
You’ve made a completely valid point & I agree with you for the most part. Obviously exaggerating my opinion forces people to think about what side they might lean towards but trust me when I say that I give respect where it is due. I’ve met and played with some very talented people who were also incredibly creative. I’ve played with “non-musicians” who simply suck as well. Generally speaking though, from my experience, any band that sound checks with a shredfest almost never have the tunes to justify it. Humble sound checks tend to show a maturity and confidence in the band you’re about to hear. Hopefully I’m not the only one who has made this connection.
Also I addressed the talent required for a symphony and spoke of what great respect I have for them. 90% of my driving time is spent listening to classical and enjoy it immensely. That is a perfect balance of talent, creativity and brilliant songwriting. I will never be that good and I’m ok with that.
My main point though comes down to… Is your ego getting in the way of the great tunes you have locked up inside you? Are you so into your instrument that you feel the need for it to be center stage at all times? How is that working for you?
If those statements don’t apply to you, then I bet you’re a dream to play with. Thanks for contributing your opinion.
This article was made to invoke some headshaking. To challenge belief systems. The fact that you disagree with things I’ve written has only made you stronger in your convictions and THAT is how we get the best out of eachother. If you prove me wrong, we both win. You you get off the sidelines and into the game with more conviction and I get to experience impressive and creative music from yet another person. I may even consider pulling that chordbook out of the trash 😉
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”.
I love that one ,it’s totally me ,i’m gonna stick it in my profile
I do not agree with every points but definitely with the idea, i will never qualify myself as a musician even if i was good!! ;D
Thanks again Jason
Jason, everything I can say is: THANK YOU for all those posts, all those tips and all that sharing!
I read all of them!
Cheers from Brazil
Thanks for that suggestion it will put it into use the next time the situation arises. I’ve just added this article to delicious.com
Very encouraging and inspiring words. Everything you mentioned I have either said to myself or can identify with. I would love to hear what your music sounds like. Any links?
This is a truly inspirational article! I really enjoyed your take on a “musician” and totally agree with all your points!
Nice read – as always.
So personally I am in your definition a non-musician but that has not stopped me making music for the last couple of years. However at the moment I have the desire to try and learn the basics of music theory & at the same time the basics of piano/ keyboard playing. Is this because I feel that it will improve my music? Is it because I am ashamed if making music that is not technically correct? Honestly I do not know. Will it change how I make my music? For the better or for the worse. Is it because I like learning new things? Probably. Just like I love learning how to use that new App I just bought for the ipad or the new plugin I aquired for Ableton. I guess at the end of the day – its the music that counts and of course it is so diverse that everbody finds something that touches them.I love mysic played by people who are technically overthetop & music that sounds like a child of 3 made it – extremes – but that is what makes music so fascinating! Think Ive rambled enough – a bit like some of my music – so Ill stop. Bye
Thanks Jason: I’ve been playing keyboard and organ for about 10yrs. I have never felt comfortable calling myself a musician. Reading your article has helped me to uunderstand myself and why i feel and think the way i do. Thanks again for the article it was very inspiring and enlightening.
Jason: An interesting and thought provoking observation. I play woodwind, keys, and bass and have performed for pay and gratis since the early 60’s. Musicians ARE a rather snobby, temperamental, disconcerting, and self-aggrandizing lot, including myself. I decided long ago to labor alone.
I have taken umbrage at dj’s being called “musicians” at times, but many are quite adept at what they do; like you, imagining and arranging the myriad combinations of sounds and rhythm variations is actually a talent unto itself. the creations are actually
musical and several cuts above merely slamming tunes together. The former creative skills have my personal respect. I may not like a lot of what I hear, but I respect
and defend those who endeavor to excel in the genre.
I use your site and others to further my personal education of this medium of which I am still a novice.
Disagree! This guy doesn’t understand learning process. He won’t accept that people learn in different ways. He wanted to be a musician, give up, and instead focused on learning how market works.
I never gave up on or intended to give up on music at any point. I’ve had many successes in both live bands & with electronic music through the years.
In the last year I wrote or collaborated on just under 50 tunes, and have 13 releases, with 3 more already awaiting release. I expect to finish my full length album by the end of this year. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon 😉
I hate having to point this stuff out, but I can’t allow someone to just make an uneducated guess about my relationship with music. I have zero problem with you disagreeing though, just get your facts straight before you type.
As one of the smartest men to have lived once said “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”