A Year Of... interesting things

2015 In Review

2015 was A Year of Learning with a strong focus on learning music. Learning to play an instrument was only half the battle.

In the Beginning…

My knowledge of music theory was close to null. I knew how to play quite a few chords on the guitar (having played guitar and bass some 20 years ago), but I had no idea what a chord even was. I could barely read the notes of the treble clef and to top it off the system I learned those 20 years ago was the fixed-solfège system, Do-Re-Mi, whereas most of the music and resources I had access to use the English A-B-C system.

All in all, I wanted to have a better understanding of music and thus learning music theory was a must.

And learning I did. After having purchased off Craigslist an electric guitar, an Epiphone Les Paul, towards the end of 2014 I have acquired a Casio Privia PX-350 digital piano, and proceeded early in the year to take piano lessons with Roby Deaton at Tempo School of Music.
He’s been a wonderful and patient teacher and if you’re in the market for lessons, I highly recommend him.

What Went Well?

  • I can read music almost fluently - I can sight-read one staff, but not the grand staff together;
  • I have a good understanding of theory fundamentals: scales, progressions, extended chords, cadences, roman numeral system;
  • I have a decent understanding of modes (what they are but not quite how to use them proficiently);
  • I composed a short classical piece for the Write Like Mozart Coursera class;
  • I learned a few songs on the piano and could play piano with both hands;
  • I re-learned guitar basics: open string chords, barre cords, and then learned a host of techniques such as bending, double-stops, arpeggios, hammer-on/pull-ofs, palm and fret-muting (thank you Rocksmith 2014);
  • I have acquired a basic feel for rhythm, and I feel I could jam with other beginners, provided I’m given somewhat of a formula to play (e.g. 12-bar blues in E).

What Didn’t Go So Well?

  • Lack of time for practice;
  • Lack of structure in practice;
  • Still not a great understanding of classic forms: sonata, counterpoint;
  • Not doing very well with music analysis;
  • Hand coordination of piano is difficult when hands are playing at different speeds;
  • Initial fluency created higher expectations which ended up disappointing.

What Went Really Not Well/Bad?

  • Due to lack of practice, I lost momentum and thus lost interest. Stopped playing piano in favor of guitar;
  • Know of extended chords (e.g. E6, C13, Gmaj9), but don’t know their actual composition;
  • Not fluent beyond the major, melodic minor, and pentatonic scales;
  • None of my other personal projects progressed in 2015.

Looking Forward

I intend to continue with this pursuit in 2016, but at a smaller scale: perhaps practice constantly, but less frequently, or alternate between instruments and theory. Furthermore, since this has been and exercise in learning, the next year will have to build on top of it and use some of the lessons learned during 2015.

  • I will try to continue to practice both piano and guitar (might be able to practice alongside one of the kids);
  • I will blog about the experience - other people might find it useful;
  • I will create more structure in whatever I do next;
  • I will set explicit goals; perhaps incorporate the SMART Goal System;
  • I should find a way to make it social (small group - e.g. jam together or bring a partner along);
  • I will lower my expectations of the final results;
  • I will space out activities more so that I don’t become bored or distracted in the second half of the year.

Resources I Used

Below is a list of resources I used, somewhat in order of usefulness.

The Internet and Apps

This is not a surprise. We’re living in at an excellent time to learn. The resources are plentiful and more are created every day.

On the downside, finding good resources is a trial in itself. For almost any piece of music you want to learn, there are multiple variants - finding the best one, or at least the correct one, is on occasion a challenge.

For both piano and guitar YouTube is a great resource, provided you tailor your search accordingly, e.g. append “guitar lesson” if you’re interested in learning how to play a song.

Resources for piano:

  • The ultimate resource for classical piano music sheet is the International Music Score Library project aka IMSLP aka the Petrucci Music Library (no, not that Petrucci);
  • The good folks at /r/piano sub-Reddit - always willing to help and always with good advice; if you’re looking to buy a digital piano, their guide on choosing a keyboard is truly great;
  • For away-from-piano training, Tenuto, by the folks at MusicTheory.net (see below), is a must-have: not only has it keyboard-related exercises (keyboard note, reverse, interval, and chord identification), but it also has sight-reading and ear-training exercises.

Resources for guitar:

  • If you’re starting to learn guitar, I highly recommend Justin Guitar’s Beginner’s Course; his videos tutorials are great, the progression is patient, and best of all he teaches more than just how to form (aka finger) a certain chord: he teaches rhythm, variations, and even some music theory;
  • For learning songs, the main goto site is Ultimate Guitar, or UG for short; to be honest, I don’t recommend it, except as a sort of back-up resource or to double-check on things - the quality of their tabs vary, although they tend to be on the better side, but the site is slow and ad-laden;
  • Instead, Songsterr is a cleaner and nicer version of UG; they take tabs and package them with a nice player that you can play alongside with, and includes multiple guitar tracks, bass, and drums; it has only one version of a song but the Songsterr folks work hard to make sure it’s an accurate version; on the downside, it requires Flash player be installed, and even Adobe is abandoning that;
  • Instead of both, you might find Riffr, née Tabster, a better interface - it has a clean UI and has support for multiple versions of songs (not necessarily a good thing); it’s iOS only, but I’m sure there’s a similar app for Android;
  • Instead of any of the above, give Rocksmith a chance; it is a video game, available for multiple platforms (XBox, PS, PC, Mac), but unlike the simulated guitar playing from Guitar Hero or Rock Band, you’re using your actual guitar - their engine does an incredible job of detecting what you play from individual notes to complex chords; it has lessons from beginner to advanced, mini-games to help you with the techniques (string bends, slides, tremolo picking, chords, etc), it can teach you songs and it adapts their complexity to your playing level (from one-note at a time to eventually full chords and complex slides and bends), and finally, and this I truly treasured later on, a session mode aka jam session mode, in which a “robotic” band plays alongside you in various genres and at various complexities (from pop to blues to somewhat complex prog) - you serious have to watch the video to see how cool it is; on top of that, there is a large community of custom-made songs at CustomsForge.com; anyway, Rocksmith has done wonders, more than any other entry on this list, to keep me engaged and on track with both my practice (those mini-games are fun!) and my learning - cannot recommend it highly enough;
  • The above-mentioned Tenuto is a wonderful app for those away-from-the-guitar times, for it has exercises for fretboard note memorization and chord identification; it also has sight-reading and ear-training exercises, which is something any musician should work on;
  • Both ChordBank and Guitar Master have proven extremely useful to me - they are reference apps that give you a library of chords, including suggested fingering, but also all scales for a given root note; I’ll give a slight nod to the latter for it also has a built-in metronome as well as different styles of drum loops, but as you move on, you should probably get a more advanced metronome anyway;
  • One of the exercises Justin’s Guitar recommends is the one-minute chord changes exercise, that is changing between two chords as many times as you can while still making sure they sound through and clear; they have even developed an app to help with tracking your progress; of course a simple spreadsheet would do just fine;
  • Finally, a shout to the nice folks at /r/Guitar, /r/LearnGuitar, and /r/GuitarLessons for kind and useful advice;
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the YouTube channel of Marty Schwartz aka MartyzSongs - especially for learning songs, but also for progressing beyond begginer level on guitar techniques.

Resources for music theory:

  • MusicTheory.net is truly the best resource for beginners; their lessons start with the basics: staff, note duration, meters, and go up through scales, key signatures, chords, roman numeral analysis, inversions, progressions, and even analysis of three music pieces; you can do it all online for free, but do yourself a favor and buy their Theory Lessons app - it’s a great offline version of the main site course, with progress tracking, and also supports the wonderful work they’ve done with the site;
  • /r/MusicTheory is a sub-Reddit filled with incredibly knowledgeable people, but I think it pays to know a little bit of the basics first so that you maximize your return by formulating intelligent questions; by the way, they recommend MusicTheory.net too

There are few apps I have used on an almost daily basis:

  • As mentioned above, I have found MusicTheory.net’s Tenuto and Theory Lessons to be invaluable, in both learning and in practice;
  • A metronome is essential to practice as it helps develop a sense of rhythm - this helped me a lot as I am somewhat rhythmically challenged; any metronome will do, and the App Store is full of free ones - including the metronome build into the Guitar Master app mentioned above, but I found Pro Metronome to be a step above, as it allows some configurations that are useful in practice: multiple subdivisions (so you can do 8th notes, or swing rhythms), polyrhythms, practice mode with warm-up to target BPM, playlists; in addition to typical clinical metronome clicks and dings, it also has support for drum-like tones, which I can recommend, particularly when playing guitar: I found it more difficult initially to move from a metronome track to a drum loop, so practicing as early as possible with a drum-like tone helps a lot.

To round up the app section, there are a few more helpful apps that I use occasionally:

  • Capo 3 - slows down songs while maintaining pitch constant to help learn songs or sections of the songs;
  • JamUp as an app and pedal simulator; used in combination with an iRig Pro served the beginner in me well; I still use it, for its ratio of effects to size (iRig + iPhone), beats the heck out of having to carry pedals and amps around the house when I want to practice elsewhere from my main area;
  • GarageBand for recording and mixing; furthermore, both the Mac and the iOS versions, have a pretty decent selection of drum styles, but in case you want to create your own drum tracks, you will be looking for a drum machine; again, the app store does not fail to disappoint; you might research your own and play with many, but ultimately I found Patterning to be the best in its class.

Online classes

This could’ve been just as well under the internet section above, but I thought it merits its own for it requires a deeper commitment, usually 4 to 6 weeks, and the quality of the material is considerably higher (not to cast any aspersion on any of the resources mentioned earlier).
The classes, part of a trend/approach called MOOC - Massive Open Online Courses, are from some of the most prestigious universities in the field. For example, the Berklee College of Music, the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world, and one of the most well-known and respected schools, has quite a number of classes targetted specifically towards online learning; all MOOC feature high-quality video productions, the teachers are engaging, and the discussion forums are supportive and filled with knowledgeable people.

Of the courses I’ve taken, I can highly recommend taking the following:

  • Berklee’s Introduction to Guitar - is a good starter too; I’d go first with Justin Guitar’s Beginner’s Course, but it’s nice to have an alternative that is a bit more strict rather than self-paced, and that offers some benefit in that you need to record your playing of specific chords and are later evaluated by your classmates;
  • The University of Edinburgh’s Fundamentals of Music Theory is a good class to sediment what was learned on MusicTheory.net; it is still a bit challenging, but I do think that the repetition gives you a more solid understanding;
  • For a more advanced, honestly challenging class, take National University of Singapore’s Write Like Mozart: An Introduction to Classical Music Composition; it pushes both your creativity and understanding to the limit;
  • From Berklee still, you might find interesting the courses on Songwriting, addressing the lyrical part of writing a song, but also giving an interesting framework on how to tell a story through music, and the Introduction to Music Production to have a better understanding of the process of recording and mastering a song;
  • For the fun of it, take the two History of Rock classes Part 1 and Rock 2 - I thought I knew a lot about rock and roll, but John Covach, who pretty much made the serious study of pop music in academia an actual thing, takes it up a notch: from early 1900s and all the way into the 1990s, Mr Covach is a fountain of knowledge, and he does present the subject with an enthusiasm that clearly shows his love for it; trust me, you’ll do yourself a disservice not taking this class - it’s an open format so you really have no dead-lines, don’t really have to take quizzes, or do any homework - just sit back and enjoy;
  • Once you’ve done that, follow it up with two more of his classes: The Music of the Beatles and The Music of the Rolling Stones, 1962-1974 - same enthusiasm, but in both classes with a more in-depth look at lyrical content and song structure and format;
  • Least but not last, taking Yale’s Introduction to Classical Music gave me a deeper and much-needed context for the piano pieces I wanted to learn and practice; to be honest, I didn’t even like classical music before taking this class, but now that I understand it, I find myself listening to it and appreciating it more and more; beyond that, it made me a better player, and dare-I-say composer, nay song-maker, because it taught me the value of dynamics, motifs, structure, and theme development; on a very personal level, it increased my enjoyment of the music I typically listen to (metal, if curious), because I have learned to recognize and appreciate the musicians’ use of those motifs, and dynamics, and theme developments.


Although the online resources are truly great, I found on occasion, that the carefully considered nature of a book, backed with a typically more consistent quality throughout, tends to help the learning process a lot.

Below are books I have used, sometimes only partially, or only for a little while, to help with the learning process.

All the links are to Amazon (and if you like this post I would appreciate buying them by clicking on these links - I get a very small referral amount), but I encourage you to check with your local library. Even if they don’t have specific books in their inventory, they can always order them through the Interlibrary Load Service, or ILS, from any other library in the country. On my end, I want to give a shout out to the Houston Public Library in whose 782 and 787 sections (where music books are) I was on occasion lost for up to an hour.

For music theory:

  • Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People, easy to pick up and mostly easy to understand; a more verbose alternative to MusicTheory.net;
  • Kostka & Payne’s Tonal Harmony, a more college-like book, it’s dense, deep, and it does help if you have a piano while you study it (even if it’s just a piano app on your mobile device); probably not a beginner book, but I keep coming back to it one bit a time for more and more knowledge;
  • Burkhart’s Anthology for Musical Analysis, an accidental purchase, for I thought it will teach me how to do music analysis, it turned out to be instead a collection of pieces with not analysis directions whatsoever; I think it is targeted towards classroom use, to be used under the direction of a teacher; nevertheless, I plan on using it myself and have my analysis verified and enriched by the fine folks at /r/MusicTheory.

For guitar, mostly blues (but if you took John Covach’s classes you know it’s really the fundament of rock):

For piano, Alfred’s Adult All-In-One Courses in three parts, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, seems to be one of the best resources, aside from a proper piano teacher, in learning to play piano as an adult.
As a practice companion, the complete book of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios and Cadences has been really useful, too. I used to go through the famed Hannon exercises for warmup, and while I think they were very helpful in the beginning, I later prefered to just warm-up using one of the keys from the scale book and playing through the two-page exercise of that scale instead; it seemed to better combine practicing dexterity with learning new keys, scales, and cadences.

I feel that the Alfred books provide a good selection of songs to learn, yet I was looking for a book that gave me a bit more single-minded purpose. I found it in Allan Small’s 42 Famous Classics for Easy Piano.

A book of Disney songs would probably have scored my some massive cool points from my daughters, but I found the songs to be too difficult at my level.

So there you go, this was my year, and I sincerely hope reading this far has provided you with at least one useful piece of information.

So what did you think about this post? Liked it? Hated it? Thought it was stupid? Thought I was stupid? Deemed it to be informative? Found mistakes or misinformation? Want to lavish excessive praise or cast fiery insults? Contact me and have at it.