One weekend when I was 8 years old I woke up to a piano being carried into my living room by two burly men. Within weeks of the piano being delivered a man by the name of Mr. Nicholwitz arrived. He was introduced to me as my piano teacher. Mr. Nicholwitz would arrive at my home every Saturday morning donning a suit and a fedora hat. He looked like he had stepped off a train in the 1940s. He would slowly walk up our front driveway carrying a large folder under his arm with unruly loose leaf pages sticking out. When he sat down he wouldn’t say a word he would just open his folder and almost look surprised at the seemingly random song that he pulled out.
“Oh YES,” he would say.
“This is a good one. Play this one.”
Sometimes I would play through the entire piece, if I had played it before and sometimes I would play it and get stumped half way through. He would then say,
“Oh that was really good for now – we will come back to that song next time…here try this one, ” as he seemed to again randomly select a song from his folder.
He would never make me replay the part I was struggling with. He encouraged me that I would do it better next time. After three years of piano lessons he had me sight-reading the songs that he loved – from “The Entertainer” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to Beethoven and Bach. When I played “a particularly good one,” he would lean back in his chair, close his eyes and smile slightly. His enjoyment of the music made me want to keep playing.
Although not a very orthodox way of learning the piano (and perhaps why I am not an excellent piano player today….although I am a pretty good sight reader) Mr Nicholwitz did teach me three things that have I carried with me throughout my life.
a) There is a lot of great music out there and it is meant to be explored, enjoyed and shared
When searching for the right tune, Tyler Gray, co-author of the book The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buy, suggests looking beyond the artist and title. “Instead of trying to think about what song you’d like to listen to, start by thinking about what kind of music best suits your situation,” he tells mental_floss. “We live in a pretty magical time when you can pretty much instantly access—through Spotify or Songza or iTunes—whatever music you want to hear. What’s the perfect music for your commute, your road trip, your work day, your date? Start there, and you’ll set yourself up for a better experience.”
b) Music is meant to have fun with
In contrast, listening to music you’ve never heard before also does good things for your brain. Last year, Canadian researchers demonstrated that listening to new tunes activates the brain’s reward center, which prompts the release of dopamine, a chemical also associated with feel-good activities. So, when it comes to music, do some exploring and reward your brain.
c) You don’t have to “do music” the way you think you are supposed to “do music” to have great outcomes (you don’t even have to DO music at all)
If you can’t or don’t want to learn an instrument, another good way to understand the layers of a song is to listen to each track individually. Musicians can do this naturally, according to Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. “A musician will be listening to the sound of his own instrument even though many other instruments are playing,” Kraus says. You can do this too with a little help from the Internet. Here’s a good YouTube playlist of isolated tracks found in popular songs. Another resource is MultitrackMaster.com, which has a good selection.