Do artists today develop fundamental skills?

Posted on Posted in General Music, Musical Development

With the current trends of the music industry, I can’t help but notice a lack of interest for developing and refining skills among younger musicians or producers. Perhaps this is a result of our ever-expanding technological culture. We live in a society in which people want everything instant, rather it be a faster Internet connection or a quicker way to get Chinese food delivery at your door.

Currently, it doesn’t take much skill to play what’s heard in the air today (in the mainstream, anyway). As a result, musicians seem to reach a comfort stage quickly in regards to technique and knowledge of the instrument. The same seems true for writing music. With that, it also seems that many composers and songwriters play it safe today in fear that their song won’t do well if it’s too “outside-the-box”. Additionally, technological advances have made it much easier to create songs using synthesized drumbeats and rhythm tracks. While I’m not opposed to this new technology, it creates a problem: people are not spending the time needed to understand the fundamentals needed to expand their craft. 

In the long run, this hurts creativity and originality. In particular, two aspects come to mind:

1.)   Developing a voice and vocabulary.

2.)   Developing critical thinking skills.

While a lot of great talent exists today, mediocrity overshadows many musicians. The focus needs to shift from the short-term to the long-term. Don’t worry about making it to the top of the charts on Billboard or placing first in a reader’s guitar shredding poll. I’d much rather see organic growth over time than an artist riding on the popularity, review, or listing of one song.

Naturally, this growth comes in stages:


In order to improve and gain insight, individuals need to collect information relevant to the skills they want to develop. Also, they need to study the past to see how music evolved. Historical lineage is key. An artist just doesn’t wake up one day and say, “I think I’m going to create a new sub style for jazz music.” Contrarily, it’s a process. Committed artists go through processes and stages during their natural lifetime.

Besides industry pressure, preprogrammed loops in software (drum loops, etc.) can limit originality. While I’m not totally opposed to using them in context, solely relying on them can limit vocabulary development. Consequently, people can now take a two or four-bar loop and turn it into a five-minute song without writing for each individual part. So in essence, people keep hearing the common recycled drum loop or harmonic progression. I should add that artists run the risk of subsiding the human element in terms of groove, time, articulation and phrasing by solely relying on generated loops.

The other recurring thought I have deals with critical thinking skills among musicians. Yes, the tools available now make writing, producing, and playing easy. However with all these advances, musicians don’t absorb the fundamental information needed to go beyond what is presented at face value. Yes, iPhone apps with chord directory listings won’t cut it. Musicians need to know the theory behind chords. They also need to know how to expand from it to develop style. Further, they need to take time to study and expand harmony, key centers, scales, dynamics, orchestration, hearing (relative and perfect pitch; color hearing), and the like. This needs more presence in mainstream media today. I’m not saying songs necessarily need to sound complex.  In fact, great tunes often sound much simpler than how they look on paper.

How do you feel about the mainstream sounds of music today?

Suggested Reading :

Pop music too loud and all sounds the same: official | Reuters

About Nick Grinlinton

Nick Grinlinton has written 104 entries on this blog.

Nick Grinlinton is a guitarist, composer and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a two-time ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award finalist and has composed and played music for Jerry Seinfeld's web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee". A speedy runner, Nick currently focuses on racing distances from the mile all the way to the marathon. As he continues to train daily, he is currently examining what effect music has towards running. To learn more and to contact Nick, visit his website.

4 thoughts on “Do artists today develop fundamental skills?

  1. I tend to agree with the general outline of your argument which I take to be that Industry (which is a social technological development thus fitting within the context of “technology” if the term is understood on a philosophical basis) has created a wealth of music that is lacking in creativity and originality because it lacks critical thinking skills and a developed voice/vocabulary. With this I agree completely. It seems no secret that radio/industry music has not been the music for music lovers or musicians for about a half century with the rise of huge labels and media corporations such as Warner Bros., Virgin and Cumulus. In ways I think new media has started to break this down (the internet and other technologies not only allowing for the rise of DJ & remix culture, but a resurgence of DIY ethics in general), but the airwaves are still prevalent with a mostly homogenized sound forced upon us. Look at satellite radio; now you can listen to the same thing from coast to coast. Whereas internet radio such as Pandora MAY offer avenues to other forms of music, it is still limited by the parameters set by the listener whose personal tastes have often been greatly influenced by the aforementioned homogenized industry.

    Now do I agree that expanding your knowledge of chord theory makes better music? Well “Better” is a subjective term. I personally don’t see why anyone would ever wake up and WANT to make a sub style for Jazz. Using Jazz as a starting point to create something seems a little limiting and a really good way to make more music that sounds like Jazz, which is fine if that’s what you want. A review of 20th century composition with such composers as Terry Reilly, John Cage, Luigi Russolo, etc. seems to indicate that the realm of music and sound is more often expanded when you approach it as a creative problem first and a theoretical problem second. Theory has it’s place but I feel the theory I am talking about and the theory you are talking about are very different.

    1. Wow, thanks for the detailed comment, Andy! I’m saying that expanding your knowledge of chord theory by hearing different possibilities and building upon what you know will make artists more informed. Musicians SHOULD approach writing from the creative aspect first without limiting themselves. This will help develop their own voice. Knowing the theory will help aid and expand their artistic choices over time. Generally, I don’t think people would want to wake up and want to make a sub style for jazz. In fact, it’s the critics who defined the sub styles. The musicians could care less about how the critics defined it. I know for me, I never want to think about genre necessarily. I want my so-called “genre” to be Nick Grinlinton.

  2. Great article! I totally agree with you.

    However, I feel like some of the better pop music of today is actually composed by people who have incredible music skills. Attending to small details on tunes that have 100 plus tracks is pretty amazing to me.

    At the same time, people hear pop music and think you can use software to create your own music, then wonder why their music career isn’t taking off.

    As a musician, basics is all I practice. I am on a never-ending quest to polish my fundamentals.

    Great job Nick!

    1. Thanks Mike! I agree. Fortunately, there are a lot of amazing musicians in the world today who can do what they do and do it well, no matter what the situation dictates. Good music is good music. If it’s sincere, then that’ll come across.

      I just hope there’s less nonsense in the future. Simply, the priority needs to shift from writing songs poorly to writing honest songs with effort.

      It’s amazing that I always go back to practice what I learned when I started taking guitar lessons as a kid.

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