|Painting by my Mom
I've been playing stringed instruments for about 8 years now, off and on. Since I didn't have any prior music experience when I started - no singing in a choir or piano lessons as a kid - I didn't really know how to go about learning it. I've tried private in-person lessons, Skype lessons, workshops, a music camp. I've looked at numerous instruction books, videos, blogs, and forums. I've memorized tunes and practiced scales and arpeggios, and I've regularly attended many oldtime jams and Irish sessions.
All of that helps, especially the one-on-one lessons, daily focused practice, and getting out to play with others. But over the last 3 weeks since I've been taking two free online music courses*, I feel like the advice I would now give to someone just learning to play music has changed. Now I would say that the single most important aspect to learning music is Ear Training.
*The two free online classes are "Fundamentals of Music Theory" by the University of Edinburgh Reid School of Music and "Developing Your Musicianship" by Berklee College of Music.
Ear Training is not the same as playing by ear. You sometimes hear people say stuff like I don't know anything about theory, I just play by ear. That's only one aspect of it. To me, a broad understanding of music theory also plays a big part in ear training. You should know what a minor 3rd interval is compared to a major 3rd.
You should know the names of all the intervals (all 12 within one octave). Not just the interval names but also the sound that goes with it. So if someone asked you to play a perfect 4th you could do it. And vice versa if someone played a perfect fourth on piano you should be able to recognize it. You should know that a perfect 4th is 5 semitones (or half-steps). For that matter, you should know what a semitone is! Developing a musical vocabulary (theory) allows you to define what it is you're hearing (ear training).
If I could have had the knowledge, patience and perseverance starting out to devote my first few years explicitly on ear training, then I feel like I'd be a lot more advanced than I am now. Here's a comment by a person named Chang that I saw on the I Was Doing All Right jazz Ear Training blog that helps illustrate this importance:
I think a good way to think of theory is like grammar. Grammar gives you a structure for understanding language-based communication.
How does a child learn a language? It is not by learning grammar!
A child learns by LISTENING carefully over and over to others who speak the language. Eventually the child learns to hear the words and each word begins to have a unique signature sound as well as a unique meaning. Then the child tries to mimic the words through his instrument (the vocal apparatus). It can take a while to get it right. (Ever hear a young child trying to say words with Rs?) Then the child learns to combine words in a way that more effectively allows him to communicate what he needs. (eg, "MY toy!")
All of this happens way before any grammar is learned!
If you think about it, if you imagine a CAT in your head and can't think of the word CAT, all the grammar in the world will not enable you to express the idea of a CAT! No knowledge of parts of speech, verb conjugations, or sentence construction will get you to the word CAT!
This is exactly the problem in musical education. The correct place to start is to hear lots and lots of INTERVALS and associate each one with a name. We must be able to tell each one of them apart because each one conveys a different musical idea. This is like learning elementary words like YES, NO, ME, DOG, HOUSE, MOMMY, FOOD, etc.
Then we must learn to hear the difference between unique interval combos (scales, licks, riffs, simple melodies, and simple harmonies). This is equivalent to learning idioms, phrases, and simple sentences (eg, "I AM HUNGRY!"). It is only at that point that theory becomes very useful in helping us arrange our musical 'vocabulary' in much the same way that grammar helps us organize the words we speak or write. If one doesn't have a basic vocabulary, then grammar is absolutely useless! Similarly if you can't hear the difference between the M6 and m7 intervals, or you can't pick out the notes which distinguish the minor from the major scale, then music theory will not be nearly as enriching as it could be.