Why I Like Making Music

John Scalzi

Mostly, it’s because I’m not good at it.

This is not me fishing for compliments. I am aware I can fiddle about and get something out of my equipment that is musical, and that it isn’t completely awful. What I mean is that my level of technical competence with the programs and instruments I own is relatively low, and that I am in the process of learning how to use it all, and every time I do, I’m learning something, and my baseline level of competency and proficiency goes up a bit. The learning part of this process is fun for me, as much, and at this point, possibly more than, the music that comes out of it.

And yet you have an entire album of music! Yes, well, and a) that album is crafted from loops made by others, not music I created myself, b) on software from nearly 20 years ago. While I have nothing against creating music from loops (I mean, obviously), it’s a different skill than creating music from instruments, which is what I’m mostly working on now, and the skill I learned using that software in the early 2000s does not entirely transfer to today’s music-producing software. When I picked things up again a couple of years ago, in many ways it was starting again from square one.

My learning curve on music has been relatively slow — we’re talking over years — for a number of reasons, mostly involving time, and how relatively little of it I have for it, but also because of personal inertia (I would have more time if I stopped faffing about on Twitter), and because the joy I have in learning new skills is also counterbalanced by the aggravation of having to learn new skills when all I wanna do is just make music, man. Sometimes the latter wins out over the former and I just stay upstairs rather than descending to my subterranean lair to compose (the music room is in my basement). But I have been making an effort to actually use all the expensive musical stuff I bought rather than just let it sit around. When I do I remember why I bought it in the first place.

The real trap of increasing competence in any hobby, mind you, is that the further you go along, the more you realize just how much more you have to go. I have all these really nifty musical toys that promise that you can use them without having to know music theory, for example, and while they are correct — up to a point — when I use them, at least, what I end up realizing is, yeah, actually, sooner or later if I want to get where I’d like to be with music, I’m probably gonna have to learn fucking music theory. I’m not 15 and have scads of time just to do nothing but play guitar or keyboards until I figure it all out on my own. At my age, learning music theory is the short cut! I hate that. Also, I am seriously considering keyboard and guitar lessons, with an actual person.

Aside from the pleasure of learning things, and it is a pleasure, the other thing I like about music is that it’s almost certainly never going to be anything more than a hobby. I’m 53 and the number of musicians who have debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at that late age is pretty low. I think it’s Christopher Lee (who had a heavy metal Christmas song enter the charts when he was 91), and then… yeah. Let’s just say my expectations for my music are realistic. No stadium tours, no Grammys, no platinum albums. Just me in the basement, occasionally putting something together for myself.

Which is fine! I mean, I do have goals for my music. I’d like to eventually put together a whole album’s worth of music I’d consider good outside the “faffing about” rubric, one that I could play for my actual musician friends and have them be, like, “yeah, that’s not bad at all.” That seems achievable, eventually. Anything else will be a bonus, and unlikely to be something I’ll be giving up the day job for. Which, again, fine. I have a day job. Letting hobbies be hobbies is a thing we occasionally forget is allowed. We don’t have to, in fact, monetize every enthusiasm we have.

Anyway: Music! Fun! Good for my brain! Unlikely to lead to a new career at this late stage! I’ll occasionally pop new music up here when I feel like it. Listen to it or don’t, it’s all groovy either way. I’m mostly doing it for me. I’m not good at it. But I’m enjoying getting incrementally better as I go along.

— JS

25 Comments on “Why I Like Making Music”

  1. I’ll never be the best player in the room… but my most satisfying musical accomplishments have basically revolved around getting good enough that I can play with players way, way above my level and have them be happy with how I contribute. And part of that journey was years ago attending a music camp for adults where part of the message was that here, you all have the freedom to suck, so go learn something in the process.

    (Blatant plug: my wife does piano lessons over Zoom. Lots of kids, but her adult piano students are an eclectic bunch with a range of skills and interests. Whoever and however you go with- do it! Future you will thank current you!)

  2. I so admire what you’re doing & the way you’re doing it. I share your goals. While I can kinda sorta play a number of instruments (used to be good now I’m incompetent through lack of practice) I’ve always had the desire to make original music. I have only once ever put anything out there in the world – one simple line of Kalimba (thumb piano) melody. It’s not even a baby step in the process. More like a newborn learning how to roll over.

  3. Music theory, at least as much as you need to learn, is pretty simple. Learn the notes, intervals, and how to make chords. I’d say once you learn the circle of fifths you’re good to go.

    I picked up guitar in my 50s, my cat was my constant companion while I practiced. He died a few years ago and I lost all desire to play the guitar. I don’t hate it, it doesn’t make me sad. I just have no desire to play anymore.

  4. Love this. I had, I think, three guitar lessons, and taught myself the rest; enough–using about ten chords–to play in two or three bands in my youth. Playing in bands, making music with people you gel with, doesn’t require any degree of virtuosity, just love, respect, friendship and energy, things we all should be good at (even if we have to practise).

  5. After playing bass for 25 years, including being in bands an making three albums, I took music theory classes at the local community college in 2001. I was lucky and got a teacher who made the class a lot of fun. It’s made a big difference in how I play. If your schedule permits, you should see if your local community college offers theory. It’s a lot more fun to learn it with other people than to sit in your room trying to do it by yourself.

  6. I love music theory. I know a lot of musicians hate being forced to learn it, but my childhood piano teacher slipped it into my lessons and then in college, where I did almost a full music major on the side, my music theory classes were my absolute favorites. It helped that I was at a STEM school taking them with other kids who were taking it for the fun of it, not because they were pre-professionals being forced to. For me it was like a game, where you learn the rules and their evolution, then start to play with them and break them.

  7. I’m 62 and am having an initial meeting with a guitar teacher tomorrow to see whether it would be a good fit. It’s been roughly 50 years since I last took a few lessons with a teacher, and I would love to finally go at least a little bit beyond basic noodling.

  8. Buy Rocksmith. It’s a ‘game’ where you plug your guitar into your (in my case) PS3, and it detects how well you’re playing. There were 2 of them, the first was buggy, the second (2014?) was pretty solid. Not sure how it will work with your 6 headed monster but you have a $100 pawn shop cheapie like I do it will work fine.

  9. Check out Joe Beato’s YouTube channel if you haven’t already. One of his recurring videos is What Makes This Sing Great where he spends 20-30 minutes deconstructing well-known tunes. You can pick up a lot of music theory in a relatively entertaining way.

  10. As someone a few years younger than you (but only a few) this is great to hear, especially this line: “Letting hobbies be hobbies is a thing we occasionally forget is allowed. We don’t have to, in fact, monetize every enthusiasm we have.” — an important thing to remember in this age of side hustles and social media monetisations.

    That said, you still have quite the audience to put your experiments out to :) Just playing for fun and maybe playing for a few friends is an admirable goal, and as someone who was able to get a grounding in musical theory when I was younger, it’s not too hard to get into. Enjoy it!

  11. “Good for my brain!”

    So incredibly important at your (our) age. Anything to keep that goop plastic. The arts generally are so good for that.

  12. This is pretty much the same point that I’m at with miniature painting. I’d love to be producing absolute gorgeous pieces that win awards but I don’t have the time or the drive to make it my whole life, not with having to work and complete life maintenance.

  13. Just a joke.

    Roger Waters, in his childhood, convinced his father to pay for bass lessons. After the first lesson the father asks the kid: what you learned today? Kid Roger answers: the E string.

    The second day: what you learned today?
    Kid Roger: nothing. I wrote “The Wall”.

    Music is math. You’ll be ok.

  14. I’m still playing the same cello my teacher picked out for me when my hands were first big enough for a full-size one (in 1960), and I’m still learning from it. When I started, I hated it—carrying an instrument bigger than you to grade school makes you the wounded gazelle on the Serengeti—but from the first time I was allowed to play chamber music (6th grade), I loved it, and still do. Reasonably competent by now—I play in the local symphony as well as annual “band camp” chamber music workshops, etc.—but I often get the most enjoyment “punching above my weight” when I can play with others better than me.

    Theory: never studied formally—for me, “circle of fifths” represents a supply of single-malt Scotch whiskeys—but play long enough, with enough different musicians in different types of music, and a lot of it will just trickle in by osmosis. At least for me, at some point some chords and harmonies just start to “sound right.” Others most emphatically don’t.

    Keep playing, keep having fun at it, and please do keep sharing your music with us!

  15. My music theory textbook in high school in the early ’70s was so outdated that it forbade going from a V chord directly to a IV chord. We all considered this laughable and knew plenty of examples where such harmonic motion was perfectly fine. The history of (European) music theory is similar; there are rules about what to avoid, and eventually, times change. (Of course the “breaking of rules” can be done for comic effect, such as the voice-leading in the Rutles’ “A Girl Like You.”)

    I have plenty of theory in my past; the most valuable facet of it was counterpoint, starting with species counterpoint and ending up in a graduate class where essentially we were emulating Bach’s compositional techniques. I’m still very proud of several of my assignments.

    Fun fact: The word “gamut” is a thousand-year-old musical theory term, created by merging “gamma”, an instrument’s lowest note, with “ut”, the term for “do” (as in do-re-mi) in those days; a gamut was the whole set of notes that could be played on that instrument.

  16. I usually lurk and enjoy the comments, but this post prompted me to speak out.
    I am a retired professional brass player. Music should be FUN and enjoyable. As long as you are enjoying what you are doing, then you should keep doing it.

    The monetizing hobbies comment REALLY struck home for me. I knit. A lot. It is a very enjoyable hobby for me to while away time while I wait or when I am relaxing.

    I have completed projects that I am very proud of and show off to friends, family, and “the public.” I will ALWAYS get (usually MANY) someone(s) who will tell me “You should sell that!!”

    While I understand that the commenter believes that is the HIGHEST COMPLIMENT EVER, it becomes rather annoying when that seems to be the only comment I seem to get. ::sigh::

    I usually just smile and change the subject and roll my eyes in private, and share my “you should sell that!” story with my knitting friends.

    Enjoy making your music! (and sharing with us!)

  17. I’m 54 and have been playing bass since I was 15. I’m completely self taught, and I e manage to become a very competent player, and have done some stuff I’m proud of. Never a release, but just playing in good bands, and making some recording along the way. When I do it on my own, I’m a lot less motivated, and it can take me forever to finish anything. I’d always rather be in the practice room with the whole band than trying to put something together myself. Bass player mentality, I guess. I do get a lot of joy helping to steer the songwriting process, and writing sub hooks, that become a focal point of the song.

  18. I’m 67 and have been in the real estate industry for well over 20 years. When I was much younger, I played a couple musical instruments not well and sang in choirs as well as solo but gave it all up in my mid 20’s. Last year, on a whim, I decided to take bass guitar lessons to see if I liked it and immediate loved it. Now I’m still taking lessons and also taking 6 string guitar lessons. I hope to get good enough to play in a band someday. It’s very inspiring to hear about other people learning music later in life. It’s been so much fun so far.

  19. Older, here, and recently got my 12 string guitar fixed and am building back my calluses. Contrasting to the music theory side of things (proud moment, when a guy said, gee, you play all the chords!), music has been the main way I could express emotion. I’ve been trying to do music every day for a half hour, just to keep in shape and be able to do those songs I always found so satisfying. It’s been a long time since I was in a band, but it seems essential for me to have that outlet. Thanks for the reminder and the opportunity to share.

  20. First, pick one… Piano or Guitar… Then, a few Youtube videos to grab the basics, then a dozen (stick to that number as a respectful commitment to your Musical Spirit) in-person lessons. If you do think you’ll follow up with theory, piano lends itself better to visual representations. If you like to sing, guitar to accompany yourself with… Myself, I cared nothing for theory, and love to sing. 12 cords, two plucking styles, and a dozen songbooks, were enough for a lifetime of joy… just sayin’

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