A common problem when learning a new song is whether to learn an exact rendition of a recording or to play your own version. And if there are many versions of the song available, which one should you learn?
An experienced player has a better chance of copying it exactly how it is recorded and choosing which version to play, whereas a beginner should play a song in the easiest playing-style possible.
Here are some guidelines to clarify this area:
Any song you hear or see on a sheet of music is made up of five elements: melody, chords, lyrics, form and arrangement. The arrangement consists of the instrumentation and all of the specific musical parts including any audio effects like ocean waves or children laughing. (And without getting too technical: song form, the order of verses plus the other sections, are often considered part of the arrangement. Which instruments play what music is called orchestration. And putting it all together with any sound effects and final touches is called the production.)
My point in all of this, is that the arrangement is not the song—it’s the arrangement of the song. It’s how the artist performed it or the producer envisioned it.
Learning a specific arrangement is great—I do it all of the time. Learning a guitar solo, piano piece or finger picking pattern is a good way to learn your instrument, as well as different styles of music. Plus, it directly accomplishes a musical goal so it’s fun and rewarding! Right? People have often asked me how come I know so many different styles of music. Well, I’ve transcribed a lot of music! When you copy the music note-for-note you gain stylistic knowledge and a new bag of tricks. And if the music is new or challenging, you gain musical knowledge and increased technical skill as well. Nice!
However, you don’t need to learn an exact arrangement in order to play a song well. You can, but you don’t have to. And at a beginning level it is sometimes impossible, therefore extremely frustrating when attempted.
For example, one of my intermediate students is learning “Angeles” by Elliot Smith. He printed out the TAB and started learning the piece going bar by bar. However, Elliot’s playing was a little advanced so this process was frustrating and would have taken about two or three months to learn. My student was not having fun, so I wrote an arrangement that was close to the recording but much easier to play. In a few weeks he had learned most of of the song, then fine tuned it on his own as we went on to other things. These other things are the musical skills that will enable him to quickly learn more complex arrangements on his own with minimal to no difficulty.
My beginning students often want to learn songs that are too hard, so I create an arrangement for them that they can play NOW, then we get into further specifics as we proceed throughout the upcoming lessons. My more advanced students learn material note-for-note, whether piano piece, bass part or guitar riff.
So if you want to have some satisfaction playing music right now—find something that you can play in a short period of time, and work on the more difficult pieces as time goes on while studying the fundamentals that enable you to play any song well.
It’s a winning procedure.Marty B.
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