You definitely do not need to play classical music to learn an instrument. One of the most important things when starting out is to identify what music you do want to play. That doesn’t mean that it has to be classical – though a lot of great basics can be learned from this genre. But if classical isn’t your speed, that’s fine too.

Once you know what style(s) you want to play, the next step is finding songs that work for your level. If you’re just starting out, try some easier songs. A quick Google search will do you wonders to find out what people would consider easy within a given style. From there, just pick the ones you like!

Why do I recommend starting with easier songs? You certainly don’t need to avoid a song because it’s more difficult, but when you’re starting out it’s important to find things that you not only enjoy playing, but are at a level you can excel at. You don’t want to set yourself up for failure and get discouraged in the long run.

Ok, I picked my songs, now what?

Once you’ve selected appropriate songs within your desired style and difficulty, I recommend these next steps:

  1. Find teachers/mentors who play a similar style and can help you progress faster.

    Having other people who can help you does a few things. First, they can guide when you’re struggling with something or point you in the right direction. Second, they can help you avoid developing bad habits or just learning something flat out wrong. All too often people try to teach themselves completely on their own via YouTube or the like and wind up missing important skills or developing bad playing habits that will haunt them. If you can, it’s always good to get a second, experienced, pair of eyes on what you’re doing.

  2. Learn the fundamental building blocks of the music you want to play.

    (Likely, some scales, chords, etc. as well as recurring patterns like ii-V-I or pentatonic vocabulary). I know, I know – “ugh scales! That’s no fun – I just want to play!” But trust me, working on these basics – especially at the beginning – will really help you out in the long run. When you’re starting out, you’re training your body to do what you need it to do. Learning the fundamentals will greatly increase the speed at which you learn later.

  3. Balance exploration with deliberate, goal oriented practice.

    The way you practice music is important. First, it’s important that you’re having fun when you’re just starting to learn an instrument. You don’t need to take practice super seriously – if it’s not fun, it can quickly turn into a chore and that just as easily becomes something you don’t want to do. Exploration is important for keeping it fun. But you know what also keeps it fun? Progress! There’s nothing sweeter than when you nail your first song. The more deliberate and goal oriented you can be with your practice, the faster you’ll progress and the better you’ll become. Which in turn, will keep you moving towards your goal.

  4. Make music with and for others! It ain’t a solo sport 🙂

    This is by far the most fun part of learning an instrument. Jam with your friends whenever possible! It’s a great way to have fun with your instrument and to learn from, and inspire, each other. Don’t ever say to yourself: “but I’m not good enough to play with others!” because the fact is – you are! Most musicians are more than encouraging and happy to help those new to the art. And if your friends are all new – that’s ok too! You can teach and push each other along the way.

Is there anything else I should know?

Learning music doesn’t have to be difficult, and it should never been seen as a chore. When you’re just starting to learn an instrument, it’s important that you’re having fun and making good progress. The best way to learn music is all in how you approach it. To practice more effectively, start collecting a list of songs you want to play, as well as skills you need to work on.

Once you have a list of songs and skills, you can make index cards for each one, or use a practice journal. In my 25 years of music making, I’ve kept more than 20 music practice journals of different kinds, everything from notecards to moleskins to spreadsheets and each one always came up short.

That’s why we created Modacity – a modern music practice organizer app. Modacity not only keeps you organized, but helps you focus, tracks your progress, and even provides a resource to get advice. We want everyone who decides to learn an instrument to succeed in their goals and stick with it. So our goal is to help you keep making great progress with your practice –  which will in turn keep you motivated and encouraged so you stick with it.

Regardless of what you decide to do, the most important thing is to just start practicing! Put in the time and have clear high level goals and you will get there, we promise. All you have to do is stick with it. So stop making excuses and just jump in!

Marc Gelfo

Marc Gelfo

Marc has been practicing music for 30+ years. After applying cognitive science & computer science to French horn, Marc became an internationally touring symphony musician. His experience includes teaching and performing with thousands of musicians around the world, including the San Francisco Symphony.