What does it feel like to be fluent in music? What does a skilled musician experience when they play their instrument, or when they use musical symbols? And how close can we come to that feeling, right from the beginning?
What if the “basics” of music aren’t the notes, scales, chords, keys, intervals, or the correct techniques for playing an instrument—but instead, are the intuitions that generated all those ideas and techniques in the first place?
If that’s the case, then you already have the basics. And you’re not by any means at the beginning. You’ve more likely arrived to a place where you feel the need to connect your experience to some musical tools and techniques—to bounce your intuitions off of something outside yourself, so that you can develop and refine those intuitions.
The difficulty is that so many of the tools that work so remarkably well for musicians are designed to do exactly that—to work remarkably well—but not to show you how they work. Music notation, for example, takes layers upon layers of different ways of experiencing music: its contexts, its departures from those contexts, its events in pitch and in time, the relationships between those events… and compiles them into a single, readable surface layer that lets musicians navigate any or all of these aspects at once, as they wish.
But when we encounter music notation for the first time, all we can see is its surface layer, not all the layers beneath it. And so we’re presented with our very same question about the basics: do we start by learning the individual notes, one by one, in the hope that eventually they will begin to transform into something greater than themselves? Or can we start from some of those deeper layers, that are closer to what we already understand intuitively, and that are ultimately the source of that surface layer?
We absolutely can. But this means that the symbols, tools, and techniques we work with at first will have to look a little different than you might expect, because each will be focused more closely on representing its own particular aspect of musical experience. And they’ll also need to change their form along the way, and to be replaced by different symbols, tools, and techniques that gradually begin to connect together and resemble our more familiar ideas about music. In short, we have to be playful and creative, not only with our music, but with our ways of understanding music.
Shapes is an example of how to approach musical basics in this way. And there are no doubt as many other possibilities as there are ways to be playful and creative. But since we’ve landed here, I’d like to show you around, and invite you to try out this experience for yourself.
I’ll begin our tour by showing you the first lesson, which is my favorite way to introduce Shapes:
Before we go on, let’s pause here so you have a chance to try it out. Because it’s through the experience of playing that you’ll really start to understand what Shapes is about.
Many of the most foundational principles in Shapes are already present in this first lesson. For example:
The focus isn’t on what to play, but on what’s possible to play.
Rather than learning a song’s melody, chords, and so on, you begin by playing with the materials that give rise to those kinds of ideas. The shape represents a field of possibilities, and the song animates those possibilities, inviting you into a conversation with them.
It draws on your intuitions.
Hearing when a note doesn’t fit is a very powerful phenomenon. It means that you also know which notes do fit, even if you haven’t yet organized that knowledge into a concept that you can name. You also have a sense for what to play next, and that points to a kind of intuition that extends far beyond the domain of notes, and that may resist names altogether.
It presents a concept as an environment you can explore within.
At first, the shape is represented in terms of a playable instrument—the keyboard. But this sets up an orientation to musical concepts more generally: that you can approach any concept—a chord symbol, a musical form, even a single note—as a little world that you can step inside of, that’s designed to show you some particular aspect of music, by offering you a way to experience it.
And with that bit of context, we can zoom out from a first experience of Shapes, and look at an overview map of the whole method:
You’ll find the first lesson where the land of Symbols overlaps with the land of Imagination. The shape, after all, is a musical symbol which, when paired with a song, gives your musical imagination permission to take over.
The shape is also a diagram on an instrument, and so the path continues through the land of Symbols, into the land of Instruments, and then into a land where instruments begin to disappear altogether, to become internalized as the rational side of your musical imagination.
And like so, this path winds around again and again through the lands of Symbols, Instruments, and Imagination until eventually it falls clear off the edge of the map, and you’ll have to go find a different world to explore.
But before then, you will have weaved your way through five distinct sequences of lessons, and I’d like to tell you a little about what you’ll find in each. These sequences are:
There are a few things worth mentioning about these sequences while we’re still looking at them from above:
First, that the path spirals through them all, rather than progressing through each in order. This means the focus is on neither a particular concept or a particular skill, but on how the concept develops through different ways of using it, and how different experiences can develop from the same concept.
Second, the spiraling path means that the boundaries between these sequences are porous, and the skills are integrated. The Chord & Key Levels sequence, for example, is also very much about Playing With Songs.
And Third, there are short commentaries scattered along the path, in between lessons. This is because the lessons focus as closely and concisely as possible on setting up musical experiences, and so any thoughts about those experiences are left to the commentaries.
The overviews that follow are a very different experience than going through the lessons yourself, and warrant a spoiler alert. If you’d like to be surprised and delighted by what shows up in each new lesson, you are welcome to skip over this part.
But then, an overview is delightful in its own way, so we’ll continue our tour.
You’ve already watched and tried Lesson 1, so you know how a shape fits with a song. This sequence develops the experience of playing, and focuses on internalizing the shapes. It gradually draws you into more nuanced listening, and begins to incorporate ways to make your playing feel less random.
In this sequence:
Lesson 1 introduces a shape. Lesson 2 and 3 expand to a full group of shapes and give them names. Lesson 6 introduces the anchor note as a way to structure what you play. Lesson 8 shows you how to figure out the shape on your own. Lesson 9 introduces music notation. And Lesson 11 introduces three additional groups of shapes that will occasionally show up in songs.
This sequence introduces a guideline for how your hands meet the keys, and uses that guideline as a basis for instrumental technique, and for reading at the keyboard.
Working with a fingering guideline is similar to bringing structure to your playing. It supports and enhances the feeling of playing intuitively, and it makes you feel more connected to the instrument.
Reading music is mobilized here as a way to take the fingering pattern through all of the shapes, and so to get to know the instrument tactilely.
The notation gives you exact notes to play, but you can play these same notes with any song, at any point in the song. So it still has the feeling of more freely playing with the song. This also allows the notation to focus on reading and tactile concepts without having to represent any particular song. The approach is very efficient for developing reading and instrumental skill.
In this sequence:
Lesson 4 introduces a single fingering pattern that allows you to play hands together in any shape, starting on any note. Lesson 12 uses this pattern to begin reading a relative notation along with songs, in a way that feels like playing a rhythm game. Lesson 18 and 23 expand the range of shapes and add features to the notation. Lesson 27 replaces pulse dots with rhythmic note symbols. And Lesson 30 gives a way to notate outside the shape.
In one sense, this is part of the playing sequence. But it is really the theoretical heart of the method. It shows that the shape and anchor work at two different levels of perception, and so need to be two separate concepts, rather than a hybrid concept like “key.”
In this sequence:
Lesson 5 introduces the anchor note as a way of structuring the other notes of the shape. Lesson 7 shows that changing bass notes along with any other notes of a shape create the recognizable framework for a song. And Lesson 10 introduces changing shapes, anchors, and bass notes.
This sequence introduces a tonescape. A tonescape represents a shape abstracted from an instrument. As such, it is internalized, and generalized to apply to any potential instrument.
The tonescape is also an audible sound. It is the sound of a complete tonal context, a field of potential notes, experienced all at once. This raises questions about the temporality of a musical concept that is also an audible experience.
A tonescape serves the role of an instrument. You can use it as a tool to work with the individual notes it contains, and to do so without separating those individual notes from their context. It also helps develop recognition of tensions to the anchor, and of moods (the combination of shape and anchor).
The Tonescapes and Imagery sequences are designed to work together as a standalone ear training resource.
In this sequence:
Lesson 13 introduces a tonescape, and recognition of the anchor, one note higher, and one note lower within the tonescape. Lesson 15 expands to two notes higher and lower. Lesson 17 brings in octave equivalence and switches from higher/lower names to number names. Lesson 19 and 21 introduce different moods that result from the sum of tensions to the anchor. Lesson 24, 25, and 28 expand to recognition of all moods and all tensions. And Lesson 31 removes the tonescape.
This sequence shows you how to actively imagine sounds in a tonescape. The tonescape is a complex sound that you intuitively begin trying to parse. This is experienced as changes of various kinds in an unchanging sound.
Beginning to identify and then to actively control these changes develops the skill of imagining sounds clearly in your mind’s ear. So this sequence is about using the tonescape to build a playable internal instrument.
Reading is used here to represent which sounds to actively imagine in the tonescape. It develops the skill of silently reading to yourself, and reinforces the staff as representing a mood (a combination of shape and anchor).
In this sequence:
Lesson 14 introduces imagery, Lesson 16 uses notation to draw two additional notes out of the tonescape. Lesson 20 expands to three moods. Lesson 22, 26, and 29 expand to hearing all tensions in all moods. And Lesson 32 is free play imagery in all moods.
Shapes focuses on the most familiar musical concepts that we tend to take for granted, in terms of how we might most intuitively experience them. But our intuitions are also at work in innumerably many other domains of music—some that we’re aware of and some that we’re not—and all of those domains also play a part in the concepts and experiences that we’ve placed at the center of our attention.
For example, in order for a note to sound like it fits with a song, you have to take for granted that the sound of the instrument also blends with the sound of the song. If the choice of instrument doesn’t fit with the song’s style, or if the volume is too loud or soft, or if you’re playing in an extreme register of the instrument, what you play won’t feel like it fits with the song, even when the notes, if somehow abstracted from all of those considerations, do fit.
So, in an alternative approach to musical basics, the notes could have been what’s taken for granted, and our focus on intuitions could involve adjusting the volume of the instruments, and perhaps, if it’s an electronic instrument, learning to recognize and play with more nuanced parameters of the signal chain from which the sound itself is composed, until we have the feeling that the sound fits with the song.
But in either of these scenarios, a note that fits and the sound that fits are deeply implicated in one another. And both are also implicated in innumerably many other aspects of the song itself, which in turn is impossible to experience outside the context of the song’s style, broadly construed by its relationship to other songs, or outside of its relationship to all the musical experiences you’ve had throughout your life.
The reason I mention all of this is because, as someone who has decided to begin refining your musical intuitions, having to choose how and with what tools to begin can feel overwhelming. And sometimes the options available don’t feel entirely relevant to your specific musical interests. But if you can focus on learning to listen carefully to those intuitions, rather than on trying to learn any particular musical tool or technique for its own sake, then any place you start will quickly open into the other domains of music that matter most to you, and you will be playful and creative in your approach to learning.
I also mention this as a way of calling attention to some of the other avenues that Shapes in particular connects to, which may not be immediately apparent. When I said during our tour that the sequence on Chord and Key Levels was at the theoretical heart of this project, that’s because Shapes began with a question about what, exactly, a chord is meant to represent. And yet, pursuing that question has ended up including, among other surprising things, the project of building a web app.
This is because building the medium to express Shapes turns out to be deeply connected to developing the method itself. At the most practical level, playing along with songs means there needs to be a source of songs, information about those songs, an instrument, and a sound source, all in the same place. Putting all these ingredients in a web browser is not the only solution, but it is a solution that allows you to focus right away on the experience, rather than on what would otherwise be a complicated technical setup that could prevent you from trying Shapes at all.
But there are also practical concerns of the medium itself. Songs in the playlist go through a process of analysis that both allows them to work with the technology, and that aligns these technological considerations with the concepts and experiences the method is trying to convey. Shapes and anchors need to be identified in a particular way, as do moments of change in the song, a correspondence between the song’s pulse and timestamps in the audio file, settings for the instrument, and even information about whether the song is still available online, or is available in a particular region.
From this process, a data model arises, which, in its strange way, is also a theoretical expression of the ideas at the heart of Shapes, only in different and perhaps unexpected musical and extra-musical domains. It is a set of concepts, that also imply techniques, that are ultimately also generated by and remain connected to musical intuitions.
The point is that entering into these new domains are very much a part of exploring and learning about the original question. And they open new and unexpected questions in turn. You might assume, for example, that a song’s shape or anchor can be detected automatically, but this isn’t so straightforward. Say a song uses only some of the notes of its shape. In such a song, there isn’t enough information in the audio file for a pitchmark detection algorithm to narrow the options to the single shape that fits best with the song. It is you who intuitively fills in the missing notes, and when you begin to ask into how, exactly, you can do such a thing, you start to understand what kind of detection algorithm—a much more sophisticated one—might also be capable of matching a shape.
But far more interesting than that, the act of imagining the technology is also a way to reflect yourself off of something external, and in doing so, to understand something new about yourself. A shape, or a tonescape, or a scale, key, chord, or an instrument are all technologies. And a technology is meaningless without—and therefore inextricable from—a technique, a method, a thoughtful way of engaging it, of using it to create an experience that’s deeply and satisfyingly human.
The tool and the method of using it arise together from an otherwise inarticulable realm of intuitions. And the opportunity to turn our attention directly to the skill of playing with these intuitions, using the tools and techniques they lead us to articulate, in a way that feels like they fit together and add a layer to the world around us—is a profound gift that music offers us, right from the beginning.