I have a rather lovely piece of turquoise on the head of my guitar. It was a gift from a friend in Bisbee and it came with a bit of cautionary advice.
When I first met Bear there was the general, “and what do you do?” line of conversation. I told him I was a musician. He asked, “what do you play?” and I responded: I mostly play guitar and mandolin, though I can also play (to varying degrees) clarinet, harmonica, melodica, and somewhat on the piano.
The music is folk, country, classical, spanish, light jazz and blues. Bear’s response was classic: “No one is that talented.”
Twenty minutes of licks later he learned otherwise. Hence the stone and the following admonishment – in the world in which we live there will be a lot of pressure on you to “specialize,” to do only one kind of music on only one instrument, because people would prefer to believe one can only do one thing well and that the key to success is to put all your eggs in one basket. Yeah – nuts to that.
See, here’s the thing: playing multiple instruments and multiple music genres is not all about talent per se, and certainly requires no more talent than playing one instrument and one musical style.
Music is simply 12 tones, which repeat at higher and lower pitches that we call the octave. The complexity comes in how we indicate/name them – the 12 tones are represented by 7 alphabetic letters which, when modified with sharps and flats, become 17 notes thus: (# = “sharp”) A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#. Okay, well it is a bit more complex than that because every X# has a corresponding Xb (b = “flat”.)
So you also have A Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab. Put these together and you get A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab. You can also throw in double sharps and double flats, which makes the thing a bit more complex. But the complexity is in the naming, not in the tones themselves of which there are still only 12 to work with. Gets a bit more complex since the 12 tones repeat at higher and lower pitches within the range of the human ear and you have to have a way of indicating which octave you are in.
These 12 tones, and their repeats, are further modified by duration – how long you keep the note sounding before you sound a different note. We count duration in terms of beats, which are evenly spaced. We can then group the beats into either duple time, counting in multiples of 2 as in 1, 2, 1, 2 etc, or, more often, in groups of 4 as in 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, groups of 8 or 16; or we can group in triple time counting in multiples of 3 as in 1, 2, 3 or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Obviously there is some overlap here since 6 is either 2 x 3 or 3 x 2 and there are wonderful possibilities to that. However, though our beats are evenly spaced our durations are not.
Counting in 4 we can start with a whole note which has a duration of 4 beats – you start the sound on beat one and you then hold the sound through the full count of 4. The whole note is the apple – and there are any number of ways to divide an apple. You can divide it in half which gives you two half notes each of which gets 2 beats. Or you can divide it into quarters which gives you 4 quarter notes each of which gets 1 beat. Or you can divide the apple into one half note and 2 quarter notes, or into one quarter note and one 3/4 note (which gets 3 beats.)
Music is simply 12 tones repeating at higher and lower pitch (basically eight functionally useable octaves), which are modified by duration. These then are organized into scales. A scale is simply nothing more than a pattern of tones within the one octave range of the basic 12 arranged in sequence. You don’t have to use all the tones. A pentatonic scale uses five tones, a diatonic scale uses seven tones, a chromatic scale uses all 12.
How many scales? Well, Nicolas Slonimsky wrote a book, “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns” in which he came up with 1,330 scales.
Duration creates rhythmic patterns which are simply ways of dividing the apple. Whole note, 2 half notes, 4 quarter notes, 1 half note and 2 quarter notes, and 1 quarter note plus one 3/4 note. For each there is a corresponding rest – a space of beats during which there is no sound. Mixing and matching sound and rest gives you the full range of rhythm. Of course, this is based on the division of the whole note into 3 or 4. Using 8th, 16th, 32nd, and 64th notes we can similarly divide units smaller than the whole note, but this simply repeats the basic divisions of the whole into shorter segments. We can then mix and match all.
Finally, since tones repeat at their respective octave(s), we can organize horizontally, vertically and diagonally.
So music is simply 12 tones repeating by octave in scales organized horizontally, vertically, and diagonally and modified by rhythmic applications. Musical style or genre is simply a set means of accomplishing the above. Easy peasy.
To which people will say, “that is too complex for me.” But consider: the language of English is 26 letters organized into words, which are then organized into phrases, sentences and paragraphs to combine into essays, stories and other genres of verbal thought. The Slonimsky thesaurus is 244 pages. My “American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language” ( pocket edition) is 820 pages. The Oxford Dictionary is a bit larger.
It gets down to this: music is 12 tones. Granted there are literally a billion ways to use those 12 tones, but it is still 12 tones. Which is a heck of a lot less than 26 letters. Expressing oneself in verbal language (written and spoken) requires twice the “talent” of doing so in musical language. The talent, if any there be, is in being able to do it all – the rest is simply proficiency of usage.
As to instruments and multiple instruments, again this is simpler than it seems. An instrument is a mechanical device by means of which music is sounded. Learning to play one is simply a matter of learning the technique of the mechanism, what notes may be sounded by the mechanism, and the manner by which each is sounded on the mechanism. Regardless of instrument, the notes are the notes and that is about music, which we already discussed.
So it really gets down to manipulating the mechanism. One may do this with the fingers or the lips or both. In either event this is a matter of small muscle/motor control. The talent then lies in the degree of small muscle/motor control one was blessed with – the rest of it is proficiency of usage. If one has a certain dexterity of fingers one has access to all the instruments that require finger dexterity – keyboards, winds, strings. Dexterity of the lips lends well to the brass instruments.
Playing an instrument then is no different than using a mechanical device to write language. We are all somewhat multi-faceted in this as we can do this with a keyboard (with varying degrees of success) and an implement such as a pen or pencil. Happily, we don’t have to carve it in stone anymore.
Hopefully by now you begin to see that music and the playing of it with an instrument is more about skill sets than talent. Talent is the inherent aptitudes/abilities you have, which allows you to learn a given skill set, but the ability in multi-faceted music or multi-instrumentalism is a matter of skill set which is developed over time through usage proficiency.
It really is just doing one thing reasonably well. Easy peasy.