Don’t Tell Me How to Music

Why you should give yourself permission to not care … or to care deeply about what nobody else cares about.

I’ve made a discovery about myself, and how I experience live music: I don’t pay attention.

At first it felt wrong and I fought it. It seemed wasteful and unappreciative. But ever since I’ve given myself permission to drift away, I’ve noticed something interesting happening. I like live music more, and I hear it more often. It’s fallen into a different category for me. It’s meditation.

I watch the first few songs, looking at this musician or that musician, and then I’m gone. By the time the set is done, I’ve worked through a couple of things and had a few ideas. I’ve decided to start here for my first column, because it’s a perfect introduction to a running theme that will probably define them all: permission. Even with something as wayward as music, it’s easy to fall into a track—to follow (or imagine) the rules of a certain culture. I’d thought it was my job to pay attention as an audience member, and appreciate. Like it was a stupid wine tasting.

I think it’s safe to say that the culture of music—at least certain kinds of music—often overshadows the music itself: the acquisition of knowledge, the lifestyle, the look. These things are not music, and with them come rules and gatekeeping and suppression. Suppression of creative instincts, suppression of people that are just doing their thing.

Try to remember that initial spark. Those early musical experiences that moved you, when you didn’t know a single thing about it. When it was all nonsense. I remember hearing the Ghostbusters theme song for the first time at a kindergarten Halloween party. I was shaken. And you know what, the teacher refused to play it again. She just wouldn’t do it. I was inconsolable. The Ghostbusters theme song.

Music is beyond sense. That’s why we all keep coming back for more.

Because you know what? It still is nonsense. Over time you just sliced it up into chunks and put it into a file cabinet. That’s what we do. But no matter how much you study, structure or create, music remains nonsense on the level that matters most. The part that hits you in the feels. The part that makes a 5-year-old care about something more than candy. Music is beyond sense. That’s why we all keep coming back for more.

So give yourself that permission, and give it to others, too. Do it for yourself, and let a little more honesty into your musical practice. It doesn’t matter if you “get it.” Not one bit. If music is doing something for somebody, that’s enough. Being shy about your musical preferences and tastes just deprives yourself and others of community. Take that permission with you the next time you play your instrument, or write a song, or just listen. Ask yourself, are you doing what you want, or what you think you should? I’ll be out at a show, thinking about something else.

There’s way more than blues-rock fodder buried in the crevices of the most overused scale in music.



  • Explain how chords are generated from scales.
  • Create unusual harmonies, chord progressions, bass lines, and melodies using the blues scale.
  • Demonstrate how music theory and musical intuition can coalesce to create unique sounds from traditional materials.
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Last updated on May 21, 2022

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