“The Study of Reality”

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The paint by numbers way of life
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Reading this post about a guitar solo got me thinking about how people interact with the world. Seems like a stretch doesn’t it? The guitarist in the video is technically very good. There’s no doubt about it. However to me he’s also quite soulless—kind of like an animitron. His playing reminded me of a couple of things that I’ve seen lately.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a mini-seminar put on by Tech Breakfast where Tony Shepperd was talking/demonstrating about mixing music with ProTools. (It’s a digital mixing software if you don’t know.) Tony was talking about using this effect and that, showing how to get certain sounds, etc. There was this guy in the front row who kept asking for very specific settings and specific numbers, to which Tony often replied "I don’t know man, just do it until it sounds right." This guy was totally a tech-nerd asking things like "do you roll that off 10db at 40 hertz". Then he got into a mini-argument with another tech-music-nerd about how if you do blah blah to a sine wave that it will clip but then be modulated to blah blah blah 200khz blah blah.

To me that’s all boring tech stuff that’s probably fine for engineers, but if you’re doing something like mixing music then to me it has to be about the sound and not necessarily the exact nth degree of details of a setting. But this guy obviously could not hear or feel things, he needed to know the exact step-by-step details or he could not reproduce it. I’ve known a fair amount of musicians like this—they may have the technique down to mathematical precision but there’s no life or feeling to it. And to me music is all about feeling, not about technical prowess.

Years ago I was playing  cover tunes with some guys. One of the songs they wanted to do was John Mellencamp’s "Lonely ol’ Night." The guitar part in the middle (about 2:25 on that video) is one chord played with an off-beat, parallel-rhythm. Not difficult in my book, you just play it. But the guitar player just couldn’t get no matter how hard he tried. Finally after trying to figure it out for about 30 minutes, and sensing the frustration of the rest of the musicians, he blurted out in desperation: "I’m playing it as off-beat as I can." To which I immediately replied "don’t play it ‘as off-beat as you can’, just play it right." But he couldn’t feel the rhythm so he never got it.

At the time, I wondered what this guy was even doing trying to play music, but now  years later I can see that trying to play music and actually playing music are two different things. People who are obsessed with the technique and the minute details seem like people who can’t really paint so they buy a paint-by-numbers kit—technically they’re painting but they’re really not painting. It’s like that guitar player in the referenced post, or like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and countless other musicians out there…they’re playing by the numbers, and not by the soul. To me that’s not music.

I knew another musician who was semi-famous in the area. He worked at a music store and was "teaching" these younger kids how to write songs. He was telling them how writing music was something you could learn from a book. He was going on about how if you wanted to learn about cooking you’d read a cookbook. If you wanted to learn about science you’d read a science book. To him it was a totally mechanical process (and his songs bore this out) that anyone could learn.

I’d finally had enough of his theory and broke into the conversation telling him that was he was saying was BS. I told him that of course you could learn about the theory and about how to read notes from a book, but as far as songwriting goes, you either have it or your don’t. Great songs and melodies just seem to come out of nowhere. They’re not the product of a slide rule. Eventually I realized that we were coming from two totally different frames of reference. My thinking is of writing great songs and melodies and from an artistic perspective, while to him it was totally a mechanical exercise in engineering, like building a bridge or something.

To me, music is art not science. Yes you could call studying the way the frequencies vibrate science I guess, but the study of the mechanics of it is not the same as playing music. Maybe it’s just a right-brain, left-brain type of thing. Sometimes I think so and other times I don’t.

I see that same thing in a lot of different areas of life. People can’t really do something they want to do, or they’re not what they want to be so they rely on shortcuts and deception and a "paint-by-numbers" strategy and may not even realize it. Don’t know how to get a date? Read an advice column. Don’t know why you’re fat? Read 45 different books with 45 different (and wrong) answers. It’s like people are not living in reality and are deceiving themselves. They’re looking for the shortcut, the "answer", the one thing, the one key that will unlock the mystery instead of looking at reality. Maybe there’s just no self-awareness. I don’t know.

I can’ t say for sure that this is the same thing as the person trying to play music by the numbers instead of feeling it and being it. It seems to me like it is. I think it’s all going through life as an unaware spectator instead of being in and experiencing life as it is. On the other hand I’ve also come to realize that many people strive for something they want even though they are not and will never be good at it. There’s nothing wrong with that. The world is full of painters and musicians who dream of greatness and probably think they are great. But they’re really not. In the same way I guess people want to be great lovers, or great friends, or great business people, but they aren’t and they never will be.

There’s nothing wrong with striving for greatness of course. I guess the lesson is that for every 100,000 artists trying and desiring to be great, only one of them will be Picasso. For all the people struggling to be what they want to be, only a very few will ever reach the highest levels. Maybe that’s part of being human. Or maybe I’m reading too much into all of this.

5 Responses to “The paint by numbers way of life”

  1. fairlane, on August 2nd, 2007 at 1:00 pm, said:

    Great post. I thought the same about that “guitar wizard.” It was utterly lifeless, and personally I’m sick to death of guitar solos anyway. Playing scales etc, yawn. Very few people play a decent solo.

    We gravitate toward simplicity. I find myself doing it at times. Repetitive behaviors, mindless behaviors, etc are comfortable.

    I would love to know who the Louisville guy, as I’m sure I know him.

  2. Realitology, on August 2nd, 2007 at 1:30 pm, said:

    I know I think too much sometimes so I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into all of this.

    RE: the louisville guy
    He had brown curly hair, his family owns a music store on frankfort avenue, and he played in a cheesy popular cover band. Know who I mean?

  3. fairlane, on August 2nd, 2007 at 2:16 pm, said:

    I was thinking of someone entirely different, but yes I know now who you mean. There are several of them.

    That dude from Java Men comes to mind. Was dissing Pojo one night, right in front of him and didn’t know.

    He “studied” at Barclay (Is that right?) in Boston,and was the most pompous of pricks. Great technically, but after the ten thousandth note, you start getting annoyed.

    Like the noodle band we saw that one night when you were home visiting.

  4. Chad, on August 4th, 2007 at 9:07 pm, said:

    Well dun. grate post. IP696969696 Visit Buy dingos kidneys here. I like toast. Eu sed it. Thanks!

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I’m still fuming about all the flipping mindless comment spam I’m getting over at my site. However, now that I’ve got Akismet, things are looking up.

    Anyway, I liked the post, Brad. Sorry it took me so long to get over here to read it.

    I agree…but only to a point. It’s true that writing a good song isn’t just some mechanistic process. And speed machines like Malmsteen and others don’t do anything for me either. Like Fairlane said, “Yawn.”

    However, there’s something to be said for utilizing a formula for success. I believe that combining the best of your heart, soul, and mind, then applying the recipes of songwriting or business (you name it) optimizes that success. Sure Vai, Satch and Johnson are fast, but they also ooze with feel. I think they combine the best of all worlds to create a diversity of tasty riffs, sounds, and music which engage me on multiple levels. Let’s face it; all heart and no technique sucks and all technique and no heart sucks. But a balance of heart/soul applying good technique/execution is moving and inspiring.

    Fairlane’s comment about the JavaMen dude reminds me of some schooled players Brad and I had the pleasure of jamming with in the distant past. Remember those guys Brad? We’re sitting there fleshing out parts for ’em and this guy’s face is all contorted, furled brow, beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead. We’d say, “Just groove like this, man.” And the guy would be like, “You can’t play in that meter and combine those chords. It’s not “musically” correct.” Then we’d say, “Who gives a rat’s ass if it’s “musically” correct or not? My only concern is that it sounds and feels right and I couldn’t care less if we’re coloring inside the lines.” The guy looked at us like we stepped off Mars. All this was followed by more furled brows and some comments about being “unconventional” and “You can’t do that.” Our response??? (albeit rhetorically) “Well, we just did and the mob gets it; why can’t you?”

    Kind of makes you feel proud doesn’t it? Have a good one:)

  5. Chad, on August 4th, 2007 at 9:16 pm, said:

    Oh…and thanks for the link, homey.

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