Learning Guitar For Beginners


Learning to play music, whether it be on a guitar, piano, violin or the sitar; requires the development of a new understanding of sound akin to that of learning a second language.  While this common comparison is often repeated by educators and appreciators of music; far from being a metaphorical analogy it is quite literally true.  The same regions of your brain responsible for determining words and meaning from everyday conversation are also responsible for interpreting music.  This complex neural network that organises and interprets sound is incredibly powerful and is richly interwoven with other regions of the brain such as our motor cortex (which is why we feel compelled to move to music) and the parts of our brain responsible for memory preservation and emotional responses (which explains our emotional response to music).

To understand the important function of these neural links, imagine a time in the past when you have heard someone speaking in a foreign language.  Since the language is foreign to you, understanding exactly what is being communicated is impossible; however, through the variation of their tone of voice and their dynamics, we can pick up clues as to how they are feeling or what kind of a mental state are they in.  Do they sound worried, happy, uncertain, excited?  We use our ears to pick up on these non-verbal cues, through subtle variations in their vocal pitch, the rhythm with which they speak along with their dynamics.  It is through this same mechanism in our brains that we determine emotion and meaning through music.

So even in a language that is foreign to us, there are still certain messages that can be conveyed even if we do not understand a word that has been said.  The same can be said for the way most of us appreciate music.  The vast majority of the population would have no idea what a I – V – vi – IV progression is, and yet it is used in a tremendous amount of pop music and is a familiar progression to anyone that hears it.  It can spark memories of your favourite song, and then take you back to the first time you heard it.  A great example of the use of this progression is by comedy group The Axis of Awesome in a song they called “4 Chords.” (click link to view)

It is perfectly possible to understand the emotion conveyed through music without being fluent in its “language,” in fact this is how most of us appreciate music.  However, with an understanding of its dialect an artist is able to manipulate it for their own creative endeavours as this comedy act demonstrates.

So how does one become fluent in the language of music?  The answer to that is “the same way we learn any other kind of language.” We start with speaking simple words – mimicking the sounds of others – which then form sentences that we understand and can recite. We begin to assign meaning to these sounds and start to understand the context in which they are spoken.  After a certain degree of proficiency is reached in the fundamentals of our new dialect through basic conversation, one can more intuitively begin to understand how to read and write.  Eventually with time conversing with other speakers of your new language you can begin to think in that language; you intuitively understand it to such a degree that it begins to represent your inner thoughts.

So what does this mean in regards to musical education?

Music has its own language; it has its own set of formulas to construct sentences, phrases and paragraphs, as well as rules for grammar, punctuation and of course courtesy.  However, unlike learning a new language where we already have an instinctive mastery over our vocal chords – in learning the language of music, we need to learn to communicate through our instrument.  This carries alongside it some practical difficulties many of which we all have to face.  Our brains are optimised and hardwired from birth to acquire language through our vocal chords and this is how we intuitively communicate.  Playing guitar though is a less natural task for our brains to perform.  While musical instruments are designed for our bodies to be as easy as possible to play and express ourselves on, our brain is not specifically designed for it.  We need to rewire them – our new instrument needs to become our vocal chords.

This is where practice comes into the equation, but perhaps not in the way you might expect it.  In order to change the way our brain behaves we need to start making it behave differently.  It seems obvious, but this crucial understanding is often under appreciated amongst students and parents.  Learning music isn’t about learning notes on a page and then attributing them to positions on a guitar and the reciting them, this would be no different to playing Guitar Hero on the Xbox.  It is about moulding your understanding of musical sounds in order to manipulate them and converse with others.  In order to begin manipulating these sounds we need to first learn how to create them using our new vocal chords, this is the crucial first step.  This is where playing becomes involved.

Playing the guitar and practicing the guitar are two different things.  We are less interested in how much a beginner has practiced and much more interested in how much they played.  What is the difference though? We can teach a student how to play a chord and show them the correct fingering and how to strum the chord.  Armed with this knowledge, they can go home and practice exactly as they have been shown, returning the following week with some degree of mastery of that specific strumming pattern and chord. But unless the student goes home and owns that chord, and starts playing around with it, exploring it, playing it loudly or softly, taking some notes away or adding some more, experimenting with the boundaries of the instrument, practice begins to feel a bit like Guitar Hero – endlessly striving for some vague goal of perfection without really learning anything fulfilling along the way.

Unlike Guitar Hero where you lose points for hitting the wrong note, in the real world, every single note you play earns you points, even the wrong ones.  Every time you make a mistake on the guitar you earn valuable experience, even recognising you made a mistake is a tremendous learning curve.  Just experimenting with simple things like bending the strings to change the pitch of a note, or playing chords in different positions, or playing with different notes on the guitar to make your own melodies is much more valuable than endlessly trying to perfect one specific technique. That is not to say it isn’t important to learn correct technique; this is what will enable you to progress – but unless you experiment with those new techniques and explore them using your own curiosity, you might as well play just Guitar Hero instead.

By using your own creative instincts to guide your exploration of the guitar, you begin actively rewiring your brain to use it instinctively as your voice. Rather than learning a set of patterns and techniques to be copied and performed perfectly, you learn how to interact with your instrument so that the sounds you wish to create begin to represent your inner thoughts to which you outwardly communicate through your instrument.  It is the freedom to experiment and play with different sounds on the instrument that differentiates a “natural” musician from someone that considers themselves untalented. The truth is, we can all be natural musicians if we free ourselves from the expectation of playing the right notes, and just simply play notes. This is where the joy of music comes from; the ability to manipulate sound to your desires, to outwardly express yourself in a new medium of sounds and understanding. This joy does not come from learning repetitive patterns and chord shapes but from personal experience and understanding of the sounds you can create, and how to create them. We encourage all of our students to take this approach to learning. We can show the student the tools and the techniques, but the student must explore them using their own creativity.

© The Guitar Gym Pty Ltd, 2012.  Except as provided by the Copyright Act 1968, no part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.  Links to this article are permitted.

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