Music Trial Recap

November 23rd, 2011 by Steve Pavlina

Yesterday was Day 30 of my 30-day music learning trial. My aim was to invest at least 30 hours in learning to compose music. In actuality I put in considerably more time. I found it pretty addictive.

I spent the first half of the trial mostly writing simple electronic songs using GarageBand loops. That allowed me to get some quick experience with arranging songs and noticing how different sounds and instruments can work together.

Here’s an example of a song I created mostly from using loops:

Wanderlust – Enhanced by Steve Pavlina

After that I felt it was time to learn how to create songs without using loops, meaning that I wanted to write my own songs note by note. But this territory seemed so wide open that I didn’t know where to begin. Should I try to write a drum loop first? Could I start with a melody? Just pick an instrument and try to play some notes? How was I going to make different tracks mesh well together?

I could have started messing around, but that approach felt too blind at the time… like trying to write an article by typing random words until something meaningful emerged. I wanted a bit more guidance before going that route.

So I spent much of the second half of the trial learning about music theory and composition techniques. This included some reading (online and offline) plus Skyping with musicians. I didn’t worry about composing new songs during this time. I wanted to gain more clarity about how I might attempt to write a song from scratch.

This was challenging but helpful. Sometimes I felt lost in a sea of unfamiliar terminology. It took me a while to decipher what people were saying, especially since words can have multiple meanings depending on the context. Is C Major a key or a chord? Were you speaking English or Italian? Yesterday I joked with someone that I could totally understand why many musicians turn to drugs.

I especially loved it when people would say, “Oh yeah, then there’s this whole other thing beyond that, but getting into that now would just be scary.” More than one person said something like that to me during our Skype calls.

Learning music reminds me of learning computer programming. There’s tons of theory to be studied, but much of the theory isn’t of any practical value unless you’re doing very specific things, like writing your own compiler or building an operating system.

Now I feel I’m settling into an approach that looks something like this:

  1. Get inspired by an idea for a new song.
  2. Dive in and try to create as much of it as I can, using whatever skills I currently possess.
  3. When I get stuck due to a lack of skill or a lack of understanding, discuss it with an experienced musician.
  4. Apply the advice along with some trial and error experimenting to get unstuck and keep making progress.
  5. Repeat from step 3 as needed.

That’s how I learned to write computer code, starting at age 10. I’d start with an idea to write a new program, like getting my Atari 800 to draw color fractals. If I could write the program with my existing skills, I’d do so. If I got stuck, I’d buy and read more programming books or ask someone for advice to get me past that hurdle.

This goal-based approach is proving very helpful. I learn faster when I can immediately apply what I learn to a current project. Without an immediate goal in mind, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of theoretical ideas that I may end up forgetting anyway.

Yesterday I started working on a new song, but since I’m trying to compose each track from scratch, it’s much slower going. So far I’ve created a drum loop, a melody, and one other track, and I feel they mesh well together. The composition is pretty thin though, so I’d like to add more layers to it.

One thing I want to learn next is how to incorporate vocals. I don’t quite know how to do that. I wrote some lyrics, recorded myself singing, and added them to what I have so far, but it doesn’t sound very good. I probably didn’t sing very well, but the bigger issue is that the vocals sound like they’re floating above the other tracks, if that makes any sense. I don’t yet know how to process vocals to mesh well with such music.

So presently I’m on Step 3 of learning the basics of how to add vocals. I already have some ideas to experiment with there.

I enjoy writing my own lyrics and singing them, but I’ve had no voice training whatsoever, so I can’t say how long it will take to become decent at this. I’d love to be able to sing my own songs and have the vocals mesh nicely with the music. Otherwise I’m sure I could find someone with more experience to let me record them singing the lyrics I wrote. In fact, I think doing something collaboratively now and then would be fun — especially for cross-pollinating skills and ideas.

In the long run, I’d like to build enough skill with music such that I can use it as another channel for expressing inspired ideas. I’m already starting to get song ideas, but I don’t know how to express them musically yet. It’s nice to know that the inspiration will be waiting for me when I get my skills up to speed.

I’m really glad I took on this trial. It got the ball rolling in a new direction, which is what I wanted. My 30-day commitment to put in the time helped me get past the “I don’t even know where to begin” excuse. I was never at a loss for something to do for the next hour or two. I could always play around in GarageBand or do another Skype call. Worst case I could simply listen to music and really pay attention to what was going on in each layer; I learned a good bit just from doing that.

Perhaps the coolest aspect of doing this trial is that 30 days ago, I’d never written a single song. Now I’m written a few of them.

I end this trial with a feeling of gratitude. It was a very rewarding experience.


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