Musical Breadth vs. Depth

…the Doctor of Rock’s guide to matching your musical goals to musical starting points.

Recently a friend asked for my thoughts on whether he’d end up a happier musician by focusing on one instrument (depth-first) or spreading his time across instruments, composing, recording, singing, etc. (breadth-first). I’ve spent most of my life as a breadth-first musician with a short attention span, but I don’t really come down on one side or other. My thoughts ultimately boiled down to “first try to figure out what aspects of music make you happy, then work backwards from there”.

I’m going to more or less paste these thoughts in this post. So if you’re ready to take some advice from a mediocre hobbyist with no notable musical experience, read on!


Dear [friend who asked]:

I’m fascinated by this question of what makes music fun for different people, and how a musician can get from their current experience level (including zero experience) to their optimum level of satisfaction.

I’m also fascinated by bulleted lists of anything.

So, marrying my two fascinations, here is a candidate set of “things you want to get out of music” and, for each, a hypothesized strategy for maximizing happiness.  The primary variables addressed in each strategy are (a) the depth-vs-breadth question that started the thread and (b) specific choices of instrument.  For about 50% of these I side with breadth, about 50% with depth, so IMO the bottom line for optimizing fun is figuring out what “fun” is for you.

Unless otherwise stated, all references to music here refer to pop music, not classical (this will matter in some cases).  I’m also ignoring the case where you’re a phenomenal singer who doesn’t otherwise play an instrument.  For the same reason, I’m leaving out the “you love being on stage in front of an audience” motivation, since in my experience this almost exclusively applies to singers, i.e. most other musicians I’ve met love at least one other aspect of music more than the having-a-live-audience part.

You like listening to music but you’re a total novice, and you want to know what the deal is with making music.  You don’t know enough to get any further along in this list.

Spend ≤ $200 on a guitar and either take lessons or learn from YouTube.  Learn songs you like from the very first day, don’t do any drills.  Reconsider your goals (i.e., progress further on this list because this bullet no longer applies to you) after about 3 months.  If you really don’t like it enough to get through 3 months, you probably aren’t into making music, and you may already have met your goal of learning a little about what the deal is.  Consider bailing, and never feel bad about bailing on a hobby; music is one of ~1e10 hobbies in the world.

Implicit here is the notion that there’s not a good surrogate that lets you taste what it means to play music without learning an instrument.  I’d say there’s not even a simulation that’s as realistic as, say, Madden is for football, or Forza for auto racing.  And those are pretty poor simulations.

You want to know what it feels like to be super-awesome at an instrument.

I do understand this fascination, and share it to some degree.  I frequently ask myself questions like “when Slash is eating breakfast with no guitars nearby, does he still feel like he’s awesome at guitar?”.  I think it’s analogous to lifting weights because you want to know what it feels like to be strong, knowing full well you aren’t really going to need to fight a bear or try out for the NFL any time soon.  Also it’s sort of like wanting to know if it feels different to walk around the world looking like Matthew McConaughey or — my preferred man-crush — the guy from Criminal Minds, just knowing how good you look all the time.

By construct, this is a depth-first scenario.  Pick the instrument you’ll most likely be able to sustain for at least 1 year of consistent practice, about 60 minutes a day, 4-5 days a week.  That instrument is a function of your music interests, your current skill level, ergonomics and portability, etc.   I suspect the feeling of being awesome is roughly the same on all instruments, but — being awesome at none — I can’t say for sure.  For most fans of pop music I generally recommend guitar, all other things being equal.  Guitar has a much worse learning curve for the first six weeks but probably a better curve for the first year than piano.

Use breadth only to fill gaps when you’re bored, but even then, probably best to fill those gaps with non-musical pursuits (e.g. sports).

I think this is the best route to making even legitimate part-time money playing music, which is very hard to do without outstanding proficiency on at least one instrument.

Other than that, IMO pursuing this goal has limited return on investment for most adults, because I don’t think there’s ever a clear milestone where you say “I’m awesome now”.

You are a creative type in the literal sense, or you just like “making things”, and expect you’d enjoy composing and/or recording (but not necessarily sharing or performing).

This is generally the tortured artist type.  Nearly everyone I’ve met who doesn’t immediately strike me as an “artistic person” (i.e., meeting at least 50% of stereotypes of artistic people) who has spent time composing (including myself here) has ultimately decided composing isn’t that rewarding, and while practicing composing absolutely helps, it’s much harder to force being good at composition than it is to develop instrumental proficiency, so you sort of are what you are.

This category also covers the “you like to tinker with tools in your garage” category, i.e. the stereotypically masculine urge to Just Build Stuff.  This part I get more; what enjoyment I’ve derived from recording has been 100% “futzing with toys and making stuff” and 0% “voicing what’s in my soul”.

If starting from scratch, pick either guitar or piano (probably piano first), and for the first 3 months spend about half your time practicing your instrument (including learning songs you like) and half your time composing.  After that just compose and record, and let that be your practice time (no drills).  Spend about 20% of your music time learning songs you like, otherwise just make recordings.  The amount of your “recording time” that you spend tinkering with your studio and not really getting anything done depends on which subcategory you fall into (“artist with a voice” vs. “man-cave tinkerer”).  When you first start to feel bored, mix in basic practice on whichever of guitar or piano you didn’t pick first, and on to another instrument when you get bored with that.

If you already play an instrument to basic proficiency, skip that first 3 months and just start composing and recording, probably mixing in cover song arrangements.

You either like or think you might like the social aspects of making music, primarily playing in bands.

Though it’s not where I am right now, amortized over 15 years this is my most powerful motivator and the aspect of music I’ve enjoyed most.  In my experience, this seems to be the most positive predictor of sticking with music.

The most important thing here IMO is to get to a fairly strong level of proficiency on some instrument, so probably the path here starts out most similar to the depth-first “get awesome” path, veering away from that path when you reach the point where you’re ready to just get out there and play with other people.  It’s easy to defer that forever, so I recommend a mix of “casual jams with friends” and “just get out there and audition for bands on Craig’s List, and get rejected a lot”.  Failed auditions (e.g. I auditioned for the singing secret agent in this commercial, and was soundly rejected) are some of my favorite musical recollections and probably had more of an influence on my (non-music-related) career than any other aspect of playing music, so at some point, just start auditioning for shit.  Have horrible auditions, and even play in horrible bands (or bands you don’t fit into musically) for a time to just get band experience.

I also strongly recommend playing bass specifically if this is your goal, if you have even the slightest inclination to play bass.  By construct all instruments are equally difficult to master, but in terms of “getting good enough to play in bands”, bass is provably optimal.  It also helps that bass rigs tend to be a little more general-purpose than guitar rigs, so you’ll need less equipment to audition for 20 different bands.  Keyboards are really tough here if you’re not already really good; I’ve never seen a mediocre keyboard player in a band, because most bands don’t have or need keyboard players.

Guitar is a good second choice, especially if you’re more excited about the “singing around the campfire” or “playing a few songs after work” sort of social experience, which is neither better nor worse than the full-on band experience.  The only reason I don’t recommend guitar as a route to playing in bands is that it turns out there are approximately sixty gazillion guitarists who want to play in bands.

Note I don’t include “love to perform” in this category; I separate the social aspect of playing with other musicians from the social aspect of being a performer.  I don’t love performing and have never really even liked performing, but the social aspects of being in a band — i.e., the relationship you develop with the band (more than the audience) — is completely worth the time put in.  With that said, without having to go out and perform, I’m not sure the same level of trust and commitment would develop within the band, so I think performing is a huge part of it.  As per above, I have no comment on what it means to just love being on stage or what to do about it.

You like listening to music and thinking about music, and want more insight and a better vocabulary so you can talk about it better.

I think this is a pretty rare category, but this is definitely me right now (though to be honest, if time and geography permitted, I’d rather still be playing in a band).  Right now, the only reason I pick up an instrument is because it’s fun to think about songs, and playing an instrument makes me better at thinking about songs.

This is the one category where I’d suggest learning theory from the outset: take a class if you can, read every blog you can about pop theory, and learn piano to basic proficiency (3 months of legitimate practice, possibly stretched out to 6 months because you’re not really in it to learn piano and won’t love practicing), then start mixing in other instruments, to about 3 months proficiency each.  Don’t bother with esoteric instruments: in some order, learn piano, guitar, bass, and drums.  Spend lots of time learning songs you like and really breaking them down, in roman numerals and in whatever descriptive terms you can assign to the recording itself.

The latter — getting in the habit of describing recordings beyond what would appear in the sheet music — gets at another element here that I have less of a clear solution for, namely understanding all of the non-rhythmic/harmonic/melodic aspects of music.  Listening for production, listening for guitar tones, listening for instrument and arrangement choices, etc.  I have no efficient path to getting to this; everyone I know who thinks about music this way has just played in tons of bands and spent a lot of time around musicians.  I think you can get some of this from YouTube, but it may be hard to get far on the non-theory side of music understanding without going further along one of the other paths.

Incidentally if I ever find myself with a year of free time, one of the things I’d like to do is develop a curriculum that’s maybe 50% theory and 50% “other stuff” to teach toward exactly this goal at, say, a local community college.

Another analogy to this point… this is how I feel about football, and it’s why I specifically never miss the Sunday night game: Chris Collinsworth breaks down the game in a way that no other announcer does.  I’ll totally watch a meaningless Browns/Jags game if Collinsworth is calling it.  So after 5 years of watching every week, I can pick out basic formations and schemes, but just as I don’t think you can get far beyond music theory without actually playing music (a lot), I’ll never get much further than “oh, I see two tight ends”.

You enjoy the challenge of any new hobby, and/or you enjoy the feeling of getting better at things.

This is the case where I most strongly recommend a purely breadth-first approach; the first few weeks of any instrument (or any skill in life) are magical.  I had a total blast learning harmonica for 4 weeks this summer, then I plateaued and said “fuck it”, and didn’t feel bad about it.

You’re probably fairly goal-oriented if you’re in this category, so probably set a goal for each stint you spend on each instrument: [learn to play song x] or (depending on your experience) [play an open mic with my new instrument] or [put a video on Youtube with my new instrument].

If this is you, you’re probably also mixing in other hobbies to keep it fresh.

You enjoy the physical act of playing an instrument.

You’re lucky if you’re in this category, it’s analogous to the person who runs because he/she loves to run, and never needs so much as an iPod for motivation.

In terms of how to proceed here, it’s case-specific whether it follows the course of “get awesome” (depth first) or “new hobby” (breadth first).  Probably closer to depth-first, in that the physical satisfaction of having your hands just do the right thing takes a long time to get to… this is probably a one-year-per-instrument cycle, compared to the three-month-per-instrument cycle I might recommend for the “new hobbies are fun” goal.

I’ve definitely had little blips of this in my life, but never enough to be a reason to pick up a guitar every day.


A post-script, in favor of “depth”.

I’ve been thinking more about how I will be able to stay musically active later in life (I’m 36).  This is partly motivated by getting back into some auditioning (and/or scouring Craig’s List) and realizing how many gigging cover bands have a 50+ average age, and also realizing that playing in a cover band is the way I most enjoy being musical, and what I would be doing right now if I didn’t have little kids.  A band I played in for a while was (other than me) basically this: older guys doing this as their primary hobby now that the kids are moved out and they have time to devote to hobbies (and the flexibility to be out until 2am once or twice a month).  They were all folks who played instruments throughout their lives and are, by and large, really good by the time they’re 50.

While I could imagine cutting it on guitar or bass, and even that only with continued improvement over the next 15 years, there’s basically no amount of “breadth” — e.g. spending more time improving my rudimentary keyboard skills, or learning the violin or trumpet — that would improve my ability to contribute to a band where everyone is pretty experienced on their instrument of choice.

So this line of thinking takes me down the “depth” route.

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