It’s not all about the notes

If you ask someone to describe music  – quite hard to do actually when you think on it for a second…anyhow… If you ask someone to do this guaranteed one of the first things they’ll say is “notes” or some variation thereof.

Very often as guitarists the notes can also be an over-riding preoccupation.What are the notes in this piece? Gotta get the notes right! Ooh, wrong note! Look at all the notes – eek!

Well, let me let you into a little secret. OK, it’s not a secret. These  little black and white tadpoles on the page in front of us, or in our heads or laid out on the fretboard to be awoken from their slumber are not the be all and end all of the music we’re playing. Oooohh….

Now, I’m not saying they’re not important because they are (or everything would end up sound like John Cage’s 4’33″…), but there are also plenty of other elements for us to give our attention to.

And we should give these attention particularly when we’ re first learning a piece. Why consider notes only in the first moments of learning a piece? Why not consider some of these other elements too? It may just help you understand the music that bit better – then playing the notes ( see I told you they were still important) may just become a bit of a non-issue.

The feel and mood

What does the music convey? To quote The Castle, what is the vibe of it? How does it feel to you? Are you bringing that feeling out when you play? What can you do to bring that feeling out in the music?

The rhythm

Try and keep the rhythm and pulse of the music going even if you’re playing on the wrong fret and it all sounds a wee bit “wrong”. Confidence is key here – you can do it, just keep the rhythmic flow going and pretend you meant to play it like that (especially if you’re playing with others)! Hah hah!

Dynamics

This needs little introduction right? It’s the “loud” and the “soft, isn’t it? And everything in between. And either side of it of course. For some reason, guitarists in particular when sight-reading and oftentimes when playing too, ignore or don’t draw due attention to (a) dynamics written on the page and/or (b) dynamics as you feel they should be played (tip: you don’t always have to go with the printed dynamics, you can use some artistic licence provided you can back it up in a convincing way). Give your dynamics some thought next time you practice – seriously, they’re awesome.

Rests

The opposite (kind of ) of notes. We have matter, we have anti-matter. We have left, we have right. We have up, we have down. And so we have notes, and we have no notes – otherwise known as rests. For notes to really mean something they have to be set in space (ooh, gosh this sounds all high filuting now doesn’t it?!). What I mean is a note sounds even more awesome when we really observe all the space and rests around them. Be observant of where your rests are and how long your notes should really be.

The flow, phrasing and direction

I’m talking about the push and pull, the ebb and flow of the piece. Is it “fast” or ” slow” or somewhere in between? Where might it change in the piece? How do you sense that change? Where is it headed? What about the melody – how would you sing it? I.e. where would you draw breath? This makes your horizontal collection of notes and rests into phrases… Sounds lovely.

Harmony 

So your phrases are the kind of horizontal bit, notes tootling along in phrases. What about in the vertical direction? How are the notes grouped? How do they change? Knowing which chords are being played and where they’re headed where can help you to understand why the notes are where they are, and ultimately make it easier to play. Well, thats what I reckon anyway.

And last but not least…

Sound quality and tone

Whether you’re playing the wrong notes or the right notes, in rhythm, with rests or otherwise, make sure those notes always sound beautiful!

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