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Why Study Music History?

Many times, when young musicians hear about music history, they perceive it as irrelevant.  After all, why is it important for us to learn of the past when we are living in the present?  How can this enhance our skills as musicians?  On the surface, these are good questions.  However, as we unpack these questions, we will see that there is a strong correlation between styles of music of today and of the past.  For instance, did you know that the triplet pulse often used in pop hip-hop style was derivative of the jazz swing?  In other words, a style you may be fond of now has its roots from the foundations of music!  Further, what about the differences of phrasing, harmony, and melody between bebop and big band?  Learning about the past will give you direction, insights, and knowledge on how to best approach any musical setting you come across.  Finally, do you feel that you have plateaued as a musician?  Listening to musicians of the past who played your instrument will provide you with many new methods and ideas you can apply to your style today!  Here are five reasons why learning music history is absolutely essential.  Following this are three practical applications you can do today to delve into this subject!

Reason 1: It deepens our love and appreciation of music. 

The more we learn about our craft, the more we will love what we do.  It will remove us from our comfort zones of merely playing what we already know or being stagnant in the knowledge we have.  Studying the past will deepen our love of music and help us be appreciative of where we were to how we got to the present day.  Apart from studying, you would never pick up these important nuances. 

Reason 2: It will fuel our motivation to learn more. 

Anyone ever feel overwhelmed with too much to learn?  This is actually a good problem to have!  The last thing we want to do is to only play what we excel at.  We want to get out of our comfort zones.  By exploring styles of the past, you will learn the phrases of those styles, harmony, how musicians interacted with their instruments, and so much more.  Learning about the past will actually propel your level of motivation to want to push forward.  It will allow you to open yourself up to many new ideas on your instrument that you can apply in a contemporary way.  

Reason 3: We become a lot more knowledgeable with our instrument. 

We have to understand that the music played today all derived from something.  For instance, the swing pulse is the common denominator to all of western music.  When you hear a pop song that is played in a shuffle feel, that wasn’t invented by that particular drummer.  Rather, the roots of that originated from Louis Jordan who was one of the inventors of rhythm-and-blues of the late 1940s.  How about listening to a track from a big band musician Tommy Dorsey of the 1930s or bebop musician Charlie Parker of the 1940s? Although both of these artists fall under the genre of jazz, there are significant differences in how they articulated each note played.  Learning about the past gives us this knowledge and equips us to become a sound musician.

Reason 4: We learn about the significant cultural changes in the past. 

The intention of writing music was often connected with the social-cultural or political movement of that time.  For instance, the intent of playing big band swing music of the 1930s was to provide happiness for people who were living in very hard times of the post-depression and recession.  The 1960s brought about new movements, including: environmentalism, the civil rights movement, and the rise of feminism, to name a few.  Regardless of where our political stance is, learning about music history will give you tremendous insight on why certain songs were written as well as what drove those musicians to do what they did.  For instance, what prompted Marvin Gaye to write the song “City Blues”?  Studying the past will give you insight on some of the major movements in our history.

Reason 5: You become a versatile musician. 

We all have our biases and favorites when it comes to songs, artists, and styles of music.  However, when we open ourselves up to the past, this diversifies our playing.  Thus, we become a well-rounded and more marketable musician.  Whether you are called to perform folk music or psychedelic funk music, you will have the skills to play these styles!

Reason 6: You learn about the evolution of your instrument. 

Did you know that a rock band from the grunge scene of the 1990s was quite different from surf rock of the late 1960?  Also, did you know that the main time keeper in the 1940s for drummers was the ride, but the main time keeper in the 1930s was the hi-hat?  In other words, as music continually evolved, so did the instruments.  You will learn how your instrument was played compared to how it is played today.  In my case of being a drummer, you

learn how the drum set was a very modest simple set up in the 1920s, but it ended up growing as the music became more sophisticated. 

Reason 7: You become a credible musician. 

It is always rewarding when a non-musician asks you a question about your instrument, and you are able to give them the correct answer.  Studying music history will not only transcend in your playing skills, but it will also make you a more credible musician.  You will be able to answer questions and educate people on the past and different styles of music.  People will know that you are a serious musician who puts time and effort into developing your craft.

Application Points: What are some practical things you can do today as you embark on this new series?

1. Put your subjective feelings aside. 

As we discussed, we all have our favorite styles we love to listen to.  Put these subjective feelings aside.  Learn objectively by listening to styles of music you may not be familiar with.  What about opera or classical music?  What about country music from the 2nd generation of the 1930s?  The first step is to put our own self-interests aside and open ourselves up to everything out there.

2. Do something every day. 

This can be anything from listening to a new style of music 20 minutes a day, to understanding the dialect of that style, to studying one artist a week on a particular style of music.  For instance, if it is hard for me to sit behind my drum set, I have made it a habit to "listen like a musician" to styles of the past when I am working.  I have also invested in a jazz history book and learn two-three biographies a week about the most influential drummers in jazz history.  This keeps my mind fresh with learning about these artists as well as their significant contributions to the instrument.

3. Listen, listen, and listen! 

The first way we can best understand a new style is by listening to that style of music.  Purchasing books or DVDs is fine, but it is supplementary to listening.  Further, do not only listen to the instrument you play, but listen to all the instruments played.  What is the mood of the music?  What kinds of melodic phrasing are there?  Is there a call and response musical interaction going on between the rhythm section?  Listening to music is truly the best way to learn all about that style of music.

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