Learning to be a musician

group of musicians with various musical instruments practising in a small room with flyposters on the wall

© Andrew Ellis

How do people become musicians and songwriters? In recent years many courses have been offered at colleges and schools or community schemes in order to teach budding popular musicians essential skills. However in earlier eras many young people necessarily learned informally from many different sources. Even in the 21st century informal methods are part of almost every musician's development. Indeed most musicians learn through both formal and informal channels. Formal education includes teaching in schools, colleges and universities. Informal learning can take place with a musician's peers, an older, more established musician or as a solitary pursuit aided by books, magazines, videos and the internet.

In many circumstances how musicians learn is dependent on the type of music they are first exposed to. In the UK, classical and jazz music tend to be tied to formal institutions, private tutors and an attendant set of graded examinations. In the world of folk and country music, musical skills, song and tunes have often been handed down within the family, from one generation to the next. In folk music scholarship this is called 'oral transmission'.

Very few forms of music survive nowadays solely through oral transmission. In a mass mediated culture there are many other ways in which informal music learning can take place and which combine with the oral method or even supplant it. Some people start with records, playing them again and again while noting down the lyrics of a song or trying to play along on guitar or piano. Another way to learn is from tutor books, which take the newcomer from the first chords through to playing a recent hit song. Then there are other musicians who privately teach novices the rudiments of rock guitar, jazz trumpet or classical piano. Finally there are informal methods of what educationalists call 'peer-directed learning' or 'roup learning', notably jam sessions involving experimental efforts and improvisation.

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