This is the first of a two-part series on how expanding your musical experience can pay huge dividends for your ability to appreciate and create music. In this article, I explore how taking time to learn another instrument will help you become stronger at your first instrument and improve your songwriting chops.
If you know how to play one instrument, you already know that having the ability to play and create music is one of the great joys in life. You’ve also developed a greater appreciation for the music played by the masters at your instrument of choice. Someone who has never played the drums may have a hard time understanding why a drummer like John Bonham is so amazing, but as a drummer, you can derive an extra level of enjoyment from the music of Led Zeppelin.
Likewise, hearing another musician play your instrument in a totally different style can open new avenues of playing and expression for you. These benefits are multiplied the moment you pick up a new instrument, for you’ll soon learn to appreciate the nuances and stylistic innovations of other masters in a way you hadn’t been able to before.
Today, it’s easier than ever to learn a new instrument. There are hundreds of videos and courses available online, and while that kind of instruction may not be enough to make you a master at your new instrument, it’s enough to get you started, which will, by extension, be enough to give you all the benefits of learning a new instrument.
So what are these benefits, exactly?
We all know about repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel, tendonitis, bursitis, and others; and musicians are especially prone to suffer from these injuries. Learning another instrument, especially one from a different family, can help alleviate the onset of these injuries because it will allow you to create music while using different movements and muscles. For example, if you normally play violin, playing piano or drums or trumpet can give the muscles and tendons you use for violin a break. Also, should you suffer from a repetitive stress injury and have to give up your main instrument, your second instrument may give you the ability to continue to make music while you heal.
Broader understanding of musical fundamentals
The type of instrument we play affects the way in which we think about music at a fundamental level. It seems obvious, but bassists and drummers will have a better understanding of rhythm than, say, a saxophonist will — not that they are better at keeping rhythm, but they will think of music from the rhythm up.
Monophonic instrument players (flutists, trumpeters, saxophonists) may have an excellent understanding of melody, but less so of harmony. Guitarists may know melody and harmony but may have a less comprehensive understanding of voicings and inversions the way pianists do. Learning a new instrument will help you fill in these gaps — indeed they may make you realize you have gaps in the first place. Once you shore up your fundamentals, you can apply this knowledge to your main instrument. Which brings us to…
You’ll get better at your main instrument
OK, so you’re a saxophonist who has decided to pick up the drums and you’ve discovered you have a latent weakness when it comes to rhythm. As you improve your rhythmic skills, you can now apply that to your sax playing. So far, so good. But there’s more you’ll gain from playing the drums. You may incorporate a more rhythmic style to your sax playing. Also, now that you have a sense of what life is like as a drummer, you can have a better idea of how the two instruments work best together and perhaps modify your playing accordingly. Also, learning a second instrument that requires your fingers to work in a different manner than you’re used to will pay dividends towards mastering your first instrument.
Better understanding of different songwriters
If you are a guitarist, you can easily intuit how songs composed on a guitar were written, but songs composed on a piano may seem counterintuitive, and not just because they can be hard to play on guitar. For example, as a guitarist myself, the composition of many of the Beatles songs make perfect sense to me. I can see how John might have come up with the riff for “Day Tripper” and how George wrote “Here Comes the Sun.” (To put it another way, it’s unlikely that John and George would have written those songs in the first place if the piano had been their main instrument.)
On the other hand, the chord progressions of the Beach Boys, whose songs were mostly written on piano, have often perplexed me. As I have mentioned in other articles, Brian Wilson often used slash chords and minor sixth chords (e.g. the first two chords of the verse of “God Only Knows” are D/A and Bm6.), which can be hard to play on guitar, and, as a guitarist, didn’t seem like necessary choices, just chords he “merely” used for color. But once I began learning the piano, I could see, for the first time, how those chords work together. (The first chord is voiced A-D-F#-A, the second is B-D-F#-G#—the outer two notes contract inwards—and you get this contracting and expanding motion, which reoccurs throughout the song.) And this leads to…
Better songwriting chops
Of course, being able to approach music from different instruments will help you expand the ways in which you create music. Messing around on the ukulele will lead to different compositions than playing the guitar, sax, or piano, and it will get your brain to work in new ways, which is often a key to inspiring creativity.
Rediscover the joy of playing music
Remember the thrill you got when you first learned how to play your favorite songs on your first instrument? You’ll get to experience that all over again on your new instrument.
So which instrument should you choose?
My advice is to choose an instrument from a different family (woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, etc.) than the one you currently play, so you’ll get the most benefit from learning different fundamentals. If you know you have a weakness, choose an instrument that focuses on that. Having said that, I recently taught myself the ukulele, which is an absolute blast to play. (I highly recommend the ukulele to all musicians or even soon-to-be musicians. They’re affordable, portable, and super easy to learn.) Because it’s so similar to the guitar, it was easy to learn, and it allowed me to play guitar-based songs that I found challenging to play on guitar. Learning the uke has improved my guitar playing, and allowed me to hear chords in a new way.
At the end of the day, any instrument will deliver joy and benefits; just pick one and start playing.
Musicians and Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) — How to Practice Hard and Stay Healthy
Brian Wilson’s songwriting tricks and techniques
The ingenious musical arrangements of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys
You need to work at being creative (creativity is NOT a talent)
Are you too old to learn to play an instrument?