Chaos Vs. Order: Why We Find Music Meaningful

by: Konner Scott

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One of the great mysteries of life is WHY exactly we find music so powerful, meaningful, and emotional. How can an arbitrary mash-up of different sonic frequencies cause thousands to gather for live shows, help save people from the brink of mental collapse, and be a unifying force amongst almost ALL of humanity? (Seriously- how many people do you know who just “don’t like music” at all?)

My personal theory is that music mimics the meaningful elements in life: chaos & order; yin & yang; structure & deviation. Meaningful situations in a person’s life usually sit at the intersection of these two opposing forces. People tend to be the most invested in pursuits that are structured enough to make sense and provide some level of familiarity and comfort, but novel enough to keep things interesting and provide a new challenge.

As far as I can tell, the best music universally incorporates this philosophy as well. We need some sort of patterned beat (for the most part- there are always exceptions, of course!) and consistent key & chord progression, but the parts of a song or composition that truly move us are the moments that deviate from the specified order in a creative, deliberate, and masterful way.

Of course, there’s only so much of this philosophy that can be put into words. My intuition suggests the depth and richness of the structure of music runs much deeper than can be articulated. Once again, if patterned sounds can be universally meaningful and emotional across time and throughout all of humanity… that must mean something!

Wide to Narrow: Musical Exploration and Skill Development

by: Konner Scott

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When I was about 11 or 12, I discovered classic rock music. That discovery blew the door off its musical hinges for me. After a (relatively short) lifetime spent learning and listening to strictly classical piano, I felt an overwhelming desire to do EVERYTHING. I wanted to write songs and lyrics. I wanted to learn guitar. I wanted to play “Right Now” by Van Halen on piano. I wanted to sing. I wanted to record myself and arrange my own compositions.

Thankfully, I had two very nurturing parents who understood my passion (and borderline obsession), and helped stoke the flames. They looked on with a smile as I attempted to figure out chord progressions by ear on our upright piano. My dad let me pilfer his acoustic guitar and showed me a few basic chords to help get me started.

Going into high school, I became the proud owner of a MacBook laptop, which allowed me to experiment with GarageBand and practice recording my own playing. At first, I reproduced covers of songs by artists I loved, but then I found I could design my own chord progressions and arrangements, write my own lyrics, and sing my own melodies.

About a year later, I started a band with my two best friends. We started writing and arranging rock songs, and had some mild success playing local shows around the area. We continued on as a band for the next ten years, up until we went our separate ways after college.

Now, as an adult, my passion for music has never waned. However, I’ve found it difficult to narrow down my focus to one or two specific lanes.

Over the past couple months, I feel as though my path has been revealed to me. More and more, I’m realizing that my true passion lies at the intersection of songwriting and music production. The other thing I’ve found is that musical skills have a wonderful trait: they all influence and enhance each other! All the time I’ve spent muddling around with different instruments, playing in bands, recording different styles of music, etc., has paid off in an interesting way: I’m a much more well-rounded and unique songwriter and producer as the result of my specific cross-section of musical experiences.

On top of that, I wonder if I would ever have realized that music production & songwriting is where my passion lies if I hadn’t had the freedom and drive to explore so many different musical lanes.

I encourage my students to explore, explore, explore! I want them to try as many different musical pursuits as they can, so I take care to never stunt their passion or dissuade them from branching out. The more musical paths you walk, the more likely you’ll find the one that’s right for you!

How My Life Experiences Have Improved My Musicianship

By: Konner Scott

There was a time during the midst of the COVID pandemic, not too long ago, where I spent most of my days shut up in a practice room. I was both teaching for and managing Highland Music Studio, and the remainder of my free time was spent logging the hours on piano, in an effort to develop my craft and push my playing to the next level.

That was a period of huge growth in my music. With the single-minded focus I was able to employ, my skill set rapidly grew, and I found myself able to conquer more challenging pieces with greater ease.

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There was just one problem… my playing felt very stale and robotic. Despite the fact that I could employ raw skill in order to play these complex pieces, I was finding it difficult to give them life. There was just nothing inspiring about my playing, despite the positive results of endless hours of work.

Slowly, I began to give myself permission to enjoy life’s experiences a little more. I started going for runs, meeting up with friends more, and listening to music because I enjoyed it- not because I felt like I had to study it to improve my playing. I kept the gas pedal down on my work life and my practice life, but I created some space for the experiential joys that life has to offer.

Almost immediately, life came back into my playing. By allowing myself to feel, to live, and to experience, I found I could more readily access those emotions while I was playing, and it became easier to channel them into my music.

In particular, my creativity came back. While I was in my “practice hole”, I was almost solely focused on replicating the works of other musicians and composers. Once I started to step out of my shell and live in the real world, I found myself imbued with ideas and brimming with creative energy. I began to write again, and to challenge myself to play existing songs & compositions in new and innovative ways.

There’s a lot to be said for spending time in the practice room. After all, it’s the only way to truly develop your skill set. But LIVING- for the sake of living- is what gives your music life.

Creation Without Expectation

By: Konner Scott

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Recently, I came across a piece of advice from a musician I really respect. The core message was that as musicians, it’s okay to mess around for the sake of messing around, without a focus on creating towards the “next big release”. His point was that human beings have been messing around and experimenting with music for thousands of years, and have only been creating recordings for a couple of generations.

As a songwriter and producer, I’m often insecure about my creative output. Even though I’ve only seriously been producing music for a couple of years, I feel like the number of songs I’ve released does not reflect the work I’ve been putting in. A hefty percentage of why I feel that way is the fact that I’m hyper-perfectionistic with what I allow myself to release, and so far, very few songs I’ve written and produced have measured up to that standard.

Reminders like the one above reassure me that it’s okay to create music for the sake of creating music, and to not fall into the trap of believing that I need to write and produce the world’s most perfect song every time I sit down to create. This is something I’ve actively been working on in my own life.

Ultimately, I think the result will be more beneficial. If I give myself permission to record and release more “imperfect” material, my output will be higher, and I will gain more experience. Ironically enough, the only way to do this is to stop focusing on the releases themselves, and immerse myself in the process of music creation- which, inherently, is pure and non-judgmental.

I’m hoping I can buy into this way of thinking, and that I see the results in my own work. My artist friends who release music regularly seem to create and record their material so freely, without the constraints of pressure and expectation. Until I get there, I’ll be over here taking notes… and trying not to think too hard about it.

Are There Shortcuts To Musical Greatness?

By: Konner Scott

One of the most fascinating things I encounter as a music teacher is students who are looking for the “shortcuts” or “secrets” that will get them to the top. For students that come in with this mindset, communicating the necessity and effectiveness of consistent practice and hard work can be difficult. Often times, these students will quickly become frustrated at their lack of progress and leave lessons after a few months.

With these students, I will often encourage them to examine their own field of specialty (whether it be their career, sport, hobby, etc- as long as they’re quite proficient). Most people who come through the door at our studio have a field at which they excel. I implore them to compare the time, work, and consistency necessary to rise to the top in their domain to what they’re demanding out of their musical experience. Occasionally, this message will resonate, but the pervasiveness of this specific type of cognitive dissonance is shocking.

With that being said, I am a huge proponent of secrets and shortcuts. Surprisingly, I take issue with the “hard work gurus” that claim there are NO secrets, NO shortcuts, and the only pathway to success is one of painfully grinding it out until one day you wake up on the top of the mountain.

I believe the answer lies somewhere in between. I tell my students that I’m a fan of anything that helps them get from point A to point B more quickly, or helps them “look better than they really are”.

The example I use is this: say a student buys into the concept that nothing but a mindless grind is required to reach their goals. This student learns the 12 major scales, then practices those scales three hours a day for a few years. Finally, they decide they must now be a qualified performer, and they grab a Chopin etude off the shelf and open it up. Does this student have the skills & experience necessary to successfully learn the etude?

I try to frame it this way: begin with the perspective of hard work, consistency, and diligence, and then keep two eyes wide open for tips, tricks, and techniques, that will alleviate the pressure along the way. Eventually, all of these “shortcuts” and “secrets” will compound into the makings of an effective performer. There is no single “fix-all” shortcut that will get you there, but there is certainly a smarter way of getting to the top… and there’s definitely a harder way.

Competitive Spirit and Music Practice

By: Konner Scott

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I’ve always been a tremendously competitive person by nature. In particular, from a young age, I’ve been drawn to time-based sports, games, and activities. I have a strong competitive swimming background, and also spent large swaths of my youth trying to whittle down my mile run time, rollerblade as fast as I could around the parking lot at the end of our street, and set new unbreakable Mario Kart records on my Nintendo DS.

You might ask, “what does this have to do with practicing music?” …and that’s a great question. Not everybody is competitively-minded, but for those who are, harnessing the power of that impulse can greatly improve the efficacy of their practice time. Here, I’ll use piano as an example, as that’s my primary outlet for applying these concepts.

Learning new piano chords can be tricky! Sometimes it’s difficult to visualize and replicate them in realtime, and that difficulty level is only compounded by the fact that to be truly internalized and ingrained, each chord must be learned in all twelve keys. I used to dread the process of playing a chord again and again, tirelessly and robotically, until I was comfortable enough with it to apply it in the appropriate contexts.

When I started teaching music, I began to reflect back on my swimming days, and how a coach pulling out a stopwatch had been one of my primary motivators. As an experiment, I pulled out the stopwatch app on my phone and timed myself playing a chord I was working on around the circle of fourths. I jotted the time down in a notebook, and then gave it another shot. I wrote down every single trial run, and drew stars next to any run that beat my former fastest time.

Now, if I’m working on something new and having some difficulty getting it under my fingers, my first impulse is to run to the stopwatch. I’ve found, with practice, that using a stopwatch to drive my progress typically gets me to my goal in about half the time I would spend without one.

If I’m working on something that requires rhythmic accuracy (i.e. playing a four-bar passage of a complex classical piece, or learning a new rhythm that my fingers won’t adjust to), I turn to the old trusty metronome instead. I’ve learned, in my adult life, that the metronome isn’t something to be feared; rather, it can be looked at as a musical video game. How fast can I play this passage with full accuracy? Do I have to slow down the tempo if I add dynamics? Can I string these two sections together without needing to lower my speed?

For all my students that respond well to competitive stimuli, I encourage them to make the most of these techniques. I’ve found that with many of them, it becomes much easier to practice, because practice is now a game where they can beat their previous high score… and the side effect of that just happens to be learning the instrument!

Creativity, Originality, and Inspiration

By: Konner Scott

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I recently purchased a book entitled “Steal Like an Artist”. Perhaps the title is intended to be provocative, but the contents of the book have given me much food for thought over these past couple days. The basic premise is that creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that the creative within us is the sum total of all our influences. The author suggests we should embrace this instead of trying to fight it or run from it in the effort to create something truly “unique”.

That premise has made me reflect on my own creative journey. At my core, as a songwriter, I’m a theatrical ballad guy. I like big, lush, Disney-esque chords and soaring & dramatic melodies. This is probably the result of my childhood obsession with artists like Queen, Elton John, and Billy Joel. I bring a little intensity to my music, too- probably the vestiges of my high school fixation on pop-punk and post-grunge music. My piano compositions tend to be a little more complex and intricate than they may need to be- likely the outcome of my formative years spent voraciously practicing classical piano.

In the past, I’ve felt boxed in by these characteristics. I’ve desired to do more, to continue to be different, and to transcend all boundaries & labels. Although I never consciously thought it at the time, the ultimate conclusion of this goal was for my art to become a formless & vapid cloud of ambiguity, subtly encompassing everything but never connected to anything.

However my songs turned out, I would consider the defining characteristics of each song to be the reasons why that song was a failure. If I wrote a gentle ballad, I’m failing to bring the requisite level of intensity. If my lyrics are conversational and informal, I’m failing to be poetic and grandiose. If my song is a nine-minute meandering odyssey, I’m failing to embrace brevity and simplicity. If my song is a tightly-packaged three minute pop tune, I’m failing to bring enough complexity and showmanship.

Clearly, there’s no winning.

I’ve improved at this over the past couple years, but “Steal Like an Artist” put into words a feeling that’s been gnawing at me that I was never quite able to articulate. Moving forward, I plan to make an effort to lean into the influences that inspire me, instead of desperately trying to transcend them. Maybe writing something transcendent is just the result of tapping into my influences deeply enough to make them uniquely mine.

Your 2nd Instrument

By: Konner Scott

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So, you’ve been taking piano lessons for a couple years. You’ve developed the basic techniques, you can sightread effectively, you have a rudimentary understanding of music theory, and maybe you can even push through a few tricky classical pieces. However, despite your increase in proficiency, you’re starting to feel stuck with your musical journey, and you’re craving some variety to shake things up. What should you do?

In a situation like this, one thing that budding musicians often do is pick up a new instrument. Frequently, piano students will add guitar to their roster, so I’ll use that specific example here.

Learning a second instrument has a lot of advantages – especially if you’ve already put enough time into your primary instrument to climb up to a mid-to-late-intermediate level. Since music is a pattern-seeking medium, learning a new instrument can help you see patterns and concepts from a novel perspective, and can help reinforce knowledge attained from learning a primary instrument. For example, learning the pentatonic scale on guitar can help you internalize different riffs & licks, which you can then take and apply to piano.

On a broader level, adding a second instrument can help you understand music more broadly. A pianist (particularly a solo pianist) generally needs to be able to play a rhythm/harmony part and a melody part at the same time. This is a worthwhile skill, and helps make piano the incredibly versatile instrument that it is. At the same time, however, students often don’t spend enough time understanding each component (rhythm/harmony vs. lead/melody) because they’re so focused on pairing their hands together and playing both at once.

Since guitar has a more natural division between the two concepts (many rock bands actually have TWO guitarists- a rhythm guitarist and a lead guitarist), focusing on one at a time can help strengthen a musician’s intuition for what each component is bringing to the table, and how to effectively employ rhythm & harmony vs. melody upon their return to piano.

What are the disadvantages to learning a new instrument? Well, naturally, limited time seems to be the biggest factor. Learning a secondary instrument can take your focus and attention away from your first. For the investment to truly pay off, it’s important to have a foundation that you’re content with on your primary instrument, and a little extra time and energy to ensure you’re giving both instruments the care and attention they need.

Sometimes, musicians are burnt out on their primary instrument and need to step away for a while, and a secondary instrument can feel the musical void. That’s okay too! As long as a musician understands the benefits and drawbacks of taking on a new instrument, it can be an incredibly worthwhile endeavor.

Neural Pathways and Loose Associations: How to Discover New Music

By: Konner Scott

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I noticed I was starting to develop a deepening passion for music. My parents were trying desperately to indoctrinate me with Queen’s catalog, but it just wasn’t taking. In particular, they were pushing the song “You Take My Breath Away”on me- an eerie, haunting, slow piano ballad with goosebump-inducing vocals from Freddie Mercury. I hated it. Every time my mom put it on, I would leave the room. At that time, I enjoyed classical music, and I occasionally could stomach certain film music (Disney in particular), but that was about it.

Not long after that, I heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the radio. It absolutely blew me away. I became obsessed. My parents had a copy of Queen’s “A Night at the Opera” album, which I quickly pilfered so I could listen to the song on repeat on the boombox in my room. And I’m talking on REPEAT. I had it playing for hours at a time. For some reason, my familiarity with theatrical classical music and Disney scores made that particular song, in my mind, a musical masterpiece. 

That opened the floodgates. Naturally, I decided to explore other songs on that album, and found that I enjoyed many of them. I began to raid my parents’ CD collection, and discovered many other albums that spoke to me- the Beatles’ greatest hits collection, in particular, was just familiar enough after my Queen obsession that I quickly fell in love. I latched onto “In My Life” the same way I had latched onto “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and I would fall asleep listening to it on repeat.

Once again, the course of my musical trajectory was shaped dramatically when the band Kansas came into my life. My best friend’s dad bought me “The Best of Kansas” as a birthday gift, and “Carry on Wayward Son” pulled me in like nothing ever had before. To this day, I still consider it my favorite song. My two best friends also fell in love with that CD, and we still share a bond over our deep appreciation for Kansas’s music.

From that point until I was nearly in high school, I almost only listened to classic rock music. I couldn’t stomach anything else. It just didn’t resonate with me the same way the hits of Kansas, Queen, Styx, Foreigner, and Def Leppard did. Some of the classic rock I listened to pushed me in the direction of hard rock, which I developed a love for my freshman year of high school. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough of Breaking Benjamin, Three Days Grace, Rise Against, and Shinedown. Until I left for college, classic and hard rock remained about 95% of the music populating my playlists.

In retrospect, I wish I had pushed myself to branch out more in junior high and high school. I had a certain unwarranted pride in how closed-minded I was; rock music, to me, reigned supreme and anyone who disputed that was clearly wrong. I wonder how my musical journey would have been shaped by an earlier exposure to different styles and eras.

These days, I listen to just about everything. In college and in my adult life, I’ve made an effort to listen to, play, and understand, as much new music as I can. It didn’t happen all at once, though! Just like in my early years, I can only latch on to new music if it’s close enough to music I already love that the similarities captivate me and draw me in. As I got older, the novelties and differences in new artists and styles soon became familiar, and I continued to expand my palate upward and outward.

I’ve found it impossible to make too large a jump in my listening repertoire- if something is just a shade too unfamiliar, it doesn’t resonate and I lose interest quickly. The fascinating thing is how, through a slow expansion of my musical tastes, I’ve learned to love what I used to despise. So many songs and artists that friends and family had shown me years ago I had quickly discarded, yet I’ve rediscovered many of those songs and artists over time on my own terms, and they now make up a core part of my music library. It’s not until a song perfectly treads the line between familiarity and novelty that I can digest its beauty and bring it into my “musical zone”. Over the years, I’ve been able to engage this process enough to have an appreciation for nearly everything that’s become prevalent in our culture (with some exceptions, of course, but I won’t get into that).

Additionally, from my current vantage point, I see “You Take My Breath Away” as one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

The Power of Confidence and Connection

By: Konner Scott

Recently, I started a new role as an acoustic guitarist at a church. The worship setlist consists primarily of gospel music and Christian contemporary, two lanes with which I am not super familiar. In particular, gospel music requires a unique knowledge of theory and stylistic nuance that I’ve never been exposed to in much detail.

My very first day on the job was Easter Sunday. I scrambled to learn the set list, and then got up on stage and hoped for the best. The band kicked off right away with a song that wasn’t even on the list I had received (I found out later that worship groups will often “riff”, or go by feel, in these situations). Not only that, but from the first bar, it was clear that these guys were on another level. I was surrounded by brilliant musicians, and suddenly I felt inadequate.

In a panic, I desperately grabbed the correct key, then played simple chord shapes that I thought would line up nicely with nearly any chord in the key. Even so, I felt like I was just trying to stay afloat for the first few minutes, which rattled my confidence greatly.

Later in the set, we turned over to a couple more simple songs that I had actually rehearsed. I took a deep breath and focused on the keyboardist. The version of the songs I had learn mostly lined up with what the keys player was doing (an advantage to playing piano as well- I could eyeball his chords and know what to do on guitar), and where they didn’t, I was able to follow much more easily than earlier in the set.

Towards the end, the band went into “riff mode” once again, but this time, I was more prepared. As the energy increased, I just pulled out some acoustic blues/soul licks and chord shapes I had in my library, and made an effort to connect with the energy of the other musicians. The finish – on my end – was lukewarm, but I got off stage feeling like a musical failure, and wondering when I would receive the call that I had been fired.

After our worship set, I had an opportunity to meet and chat with the other musicians. They benevolently praised my playing, and my first instinct was that they were lying- or at best, embellishing the truth. After enough people had positive things to say, though, I started to believe that maybe I HADN’T floundered as much as I had originally thought, and that my years of experience with other types of music (and experience being adaptable; see previous blog posts) had come to my aid.

The next week, I got on stage with a renewed confidence and vigor. I made two plans: one, to follow the keyboard player like my life depended on it, and two, to connect with the rest of the band and tailor my playing to theirs. This time, I got off stage much more confident, having had a lot of fun, and the band seemed genuinely excited about what I had brought to the table.

The first day with the group, I felt disconnected, and even though to the outside observer I may not have failed, I genuinely felt like I had not connected and blended with the rest of the band while I played. The next week, with a bit more confidence and a game plan, I was able to get outside of my own head and focus on the bigger picture. The reduction in my insecurity allowed me to appreciate the fact that I was on stage with incredible musicians, and I believed that I had something to contribute.

I’ve done a couple more services with this group since them, and every week I get a little more comfortable. It’s just become a blast. I can’t wait for the next one!