Why The Way You’re Thinking About Music Could Be Holding You Back

Scales, Chords, Progressions, and Tunes… These are the words we all use to define and think about music. It’s how we make sense of the songs we hear, how we talk about the solos we love, and how you tackle the nitty-gritty elements of music in the practice room.

The same words are used in prestigious music schools, in weekly private lessons, and in practice rooms around the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re learning a melody, analyzing a phrase, or improvising a solo…

Everything important in the musical universe can be boiled down to a perfect mix of these four elements.

…or so you’ve been told.

But what if this mindset that you’ve been relying on for years isn’t the whole picture? What if you’ve been focusing all of your practice on a tiny piece of a much larger process??

Not so long ago I remember sitting in practice rooms frustrated, having spent hours practicing the scales and methods I learned in school. But I wasn’t making meaningful improvement! I understood everything intellectually and followed the rules, but deep down I knew something crucial was missing.

For many musicians, this scenario is a common occurrence. You’re beating your head against a wall day after day without getting the results you want – yet you continue using the same methods over and over again!

The reason you’re not progressing however, isn’t what you might expect…it’s not your talent, your level of technique, or even the number of hours you practice a day.

The root of the problem goes back to something much more fundamental – the way you’re thinking about music.

The mind matters

If you’ve found yourself in a practice situation where you’re not improving or where you’re in an endless cycle of repeating the same exercises, it’s not entirely your fault.

…it comes down to the science of how we think and make decisions.

Take the work of British cognitive psychologist Peter Wason. In the 1960s he was researching why people continually made mistakes in logical reasoning and developed a theory he called “confirmation bias.”

Through a series of experiments he found that people were more willing to accept new information when it confirmed or aligned with what they already believed – and conversely, rejected information that conflicted with this belief.

It didn’t matter if contradictory evidence was staring them in the face, the subjects repeatedly held onto their ingrained beliefs. And it’s this natural tendency that creates all sorts problems for us as we try to develop new skills.

You see, as students we eagerly latch onto specific mindsets. We form black and white definitions in our minds, identify a “right way” and “wrong way” of doing things, and filter everything else we encounter through this lens.

and the same is true in learning music.

Depending on your teachers or where you learned to play, you’ve unconsciously developed a specific approach to instrumental technique, you follow a method for choosing the notes you improvise with, or a system for thinking about music theory.

While this is useful for getting the fundamentals down, a rigid reliance on these initial points of view for every aspect of your musicianship can hold you back – especially if you’re looking to expand your skills beyond the basics.

And the truth is, there’s no amount of practice time or effort that will get you the results you want if your mindset is closed or your approach is wrong.

I’ll show you one what I mean…

How I got stuck in the mindset of scales

When I started learning how to improvise the first practice resources I had were play-a-long books.

Each day I would head into the practice room, grab a book, and pick out a tune to work on. On the page, next to tunes like the Autumn Leaves or the Blues, was a convenient section with a scale written out for every chord.

To improvise, all I had to do was choose a highlighted note from the corresponding chord and I was good to go…

I was good at memorizing stuff, so I quickly trained myself to find these “right notes” in any musical situation. Fast-forward a few years to improvisation classes in school, where I learned that there were names for the specific scales that went with each chord:

…ionian for major, dorian for minor, mixolydian for dominant. There were harmonic minor scales, pentatonic scales, and whole-tone scales, and there were even scales for altering chords and playing outside of the harmony.

Every tune I played or solo I took, no matter how difficult, could be conquered if I just knew the right scale to play.

The mindset that I got stuck in (my confirmation bias) was that improvisation had to be created with scales. It wasn’t just a practice approach for me, it was the lens through which I began to interpret and create all music.

Studying a chord progression? Find the scales that work. Transcribing or analyzing a solo? Which scales were being used. Closing my eyes to improvise a solo? Think of scales!

But despite all of my practice time, I still wasn’t able to improvise like my heroes. And I wasn’t solving my technical problems or progressing creatively. Yet I pushed ahead with the belief I was on the right track, that I just needed more practice.

Ignoring other points of view

Understanding and practicing scales is one thing, but seeing it as the only way to improve is a different story, especially if you begin to ignore other information or stop learning.

And this is exactly what happened to me…

Along the way teachers would tell me that I needed to develop my ears, that I should start learning tunes by ear, or that I should focus on my time, phrasing, and articulation.

I attended masterclasses where world-class musicians stressed the importance of singing and slowly learning the jazz language

Did I listen to any of this advice? Only the stuff that aligned with my mentality of scales.

I didn’t want to hear about visualizing performance, playing the notes you hear, or phrasing. I wanted concrete solutions that mirrored my approach like pentatonic  patterns, diminished lines, melodic minor scales, and triad pairs.

Eventually, I did start transcribing and writing out solos. But again, I looked at these lines through the lens of scales. For example, I would write down a line like this Chris Potter phrase over Cherokee:

Over that C7 chord I would take all the notes and look for a scale – a theory justification that matched how I was thinking. So I would come up with a Dominant #11 or mixolydian #11 scale:

And this would be my main take-away from the phrase, a scale that I could use over dominant chords in my solos – similar to the approach you find in dozens of books and schools.

The bigger problem with my tunnel vision on scales however, was that I was ignoring crucial musical concepts:

  • The actual sound of these melodies or transcribed phrases
  • What the chord and progression sounded like
  • Concepts like phrasing, melodic construction, articulation & time
  • Thinking about the progression as a whole, instead of individual chords
  • Understanding the concept of language

It wasn’t until I started to question my approach that things started to turn around. It’s when I started to explore other methods and mindsets that I finally saw the improvement that I’d been searching for all along.

Finding your own biases

A mental bias in how you approach music isn’t just limited to scales and music theory…it can affect every aspect of your musicianship.

The key to effectively solving your musical problems and progressing is identifying these mindsets before you get into the practice room.

Remember, the way you think about music determines how you’ll approach your instrument, how or what you practice, or even which tunes you choose to play. Take the way you approach your instrument, for instance…

  • Do you believe that there is one “right way” to play your instrument?  Does practicing means playing a specific set of etudes? Do you believe that you have to play a certain mouthpiece or a certain type of instrument? Do you view certain techniques as  inherently hard? Is “good” performance one without a single mistake?

All of this stuff unconsciously affects how you practice and perform. You might even be setting yourself up with a skewed mindset before you’ve even played a note.

The same questions could be applied to the way you approach tunestranscribe solos, or structure your practice time.

We get in to trouble when we blindly head into the practice room and repeat the same actions. When we close our minds to new information and say “music is defined as (x), the correct technique for an instrument is (y), or the changes to this tune are strictly (z)”…

Before you rush into the practice room, take a moment to question your approach and identify any assumptions that you may be making.

Your solutions are out there…

As musicians, we all have things that frustrate us in the practice room…Roadblocks that we hit when it comes to technique, trouble improvising over standards, or simply wanting to be more creative.

But here’s the thing to remember, the answer isn’t always more practice.

Before you try to conquer a musical problem with hours of practice or what you assume to be the solution, take a step back and consider how you are thinking about the task at hand.

With anything that you practice, you should ask yourself:

  • Why am I practicing this exercise?
  • What do I hope to get out of this?
  • What are my goals and what is standing in the way of these goals?
  • What are the musical problems I’m trying to solve?
  • Are there other methods or approaches that will help me do this?
  • What am I assuming or taking for granted that may not be accurate?

Once you take away this ingrained mindset or mental filter, all sorts of doors and avenues of improvement will open up. You’ll get rid of mental baggage and begin to see other ideas and methods that have been sitting there the entire time.

Whether you’re studying harmony, working on tunes, practicing technique, or improvising, there is always a new approach to practice, a new discovery to be made, or a solution that will work for you…

The key is making sure you are open to finding this information!