Using Songs as Lessons

Updated on July 14, 2017
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Bob Craypoe (also known as R. L. Crepeau) is a musician, writer, webmaster, 3D artist, and creator of the Punksters comic strip series.

Whether you learn a song by sheet music or by ear, each song could be its own lesson
Whether you learn a song by sheet music or by ear, each song could be its own lesson

How We All Start Out

All musicians start out by playing simple songs for the purpose of learning; whether they are used for teaching a specific technique or to teach how to read sheet music. For example, all beginner’s books that teach how to read sheet music will have some basic exercises in the form of a song that is designed to teach you something specific.

When I first learned to read sheet music for guitar from one of those books, they started out teaching how to read sheet music one string at a time. The first song would be just for the first string and then they would go to a song that used the first two strings and then so on. Eventually you would learn a song that involved reading sheet music with notation for all six strings of the guitar. So each of those simple songs involved a lesson. Or you could say that each lesson was taught through the use of a song. In any case, that’s generally how we all start out.

Some will learn by watching other musicians play a song. They can often see the techniques the musicians are using and they will try to emulate them. Some people are fortunate enough to have an ear for music and will be able to pick things up by listening to a song on a CD. In my early years, I learned a lot from listening to records and tapes. It was before the CD or MP3 age. But no matter how you may learn a song, you can still learn a lesson from it.

Unfortunately, even though we often start out learning a lesson from each song, many musicians eventually stop using songs as lessons. I, however, am a firm believer that even experienced musicians should also use songs as lessons. In fact, just about any song could serve as a lesson. This is true whether you are learning how to read music or learning how to play by ear.

Learning a Technique from a Song

Some songs may highlight certain techniques. It could be something like a certain fingerpicking pattern. When Kerry Livgren of the band Kansas wrote the song "Dust in the Wind", he was using a fingerpicking pattern on an acoustic guitar that was part of a fingerpicking exercise. He just started using the pattern and developed a chord progression to go with it. In the process of doing that, he composed a song that became a hit. One of the band's biggest hits as well. If you were to learn that song, you would be learning that technique.

If you were to learn something like Van Halen's song "Eruption", it would be the perfect exercise for learning Eddie Van Halen's hammer-on technique. So these various lessons could be derived from a variety of musical styles as well as a wide variety of techniques.

I remember when I first started learning how to play guitar. Often, I would learn a new song that basically served as a lesson for a certain technique. I would immediately try to apply that newly learned technique by utilizing it in a song of my own. It was basically just applying what I had just learned. I have become so accustomed to doing that over the years that whenever I learn a new playing technique from a song, I immediately try to apply it to a new song of my own. Since I have been doing it for so long, it has really helped to make me into a better guitar player.

Learning Music Composition and Theory from a Song

There are not only playing techniques that can be learned from a song but there are also compositional lessons that could be learned from a song as well. The Beatles' song "Blackbird" is a perfect lesson in the use of chromaticism. There is one part where the bass note goes up a half step at a time while the highest note ascends up the scale by thirds. It's amazing really. I love to use that song as a lesson for some other musicians I give tips to regarding chromaticism.

Some classic rock musicians create some amazing guitar riffs that become the key components of a song. Tony Iommi, the guitarist from the group Black Sabbath, is the riff master. At least as described by his former bandmate Ozzy Osbourne. I tend to agree with Ozzy on that one. Tony Iommi has created so many interesting guitar riffs over the years that it is just amazing. Many of them learned by guitarists when they first pick up the instrument because they want to learn something catchy that everyone knows. The beginning part of the song "Iron Man" is the perfect example. A lot of guitarists learn that first riff of the song. Not many know the song all the way through though, but the first part is great for teaching someone how to use barre chords.

In any case, there are certain scales used to create the various riffs the classic rock guitarists come up with. Many of those classic rock riffs use blues and pentatonic scales. They can often serve as examples of how the various scales can be used to create a song or solo.

A Lesson Learned on One Instrument Could Be Applied to Another

I play more instruments other than just the guitar. So I may learn a song for the guitar and then apply what I have learned to my own songs composed for the mandolin. I may even, at times, do the opposite by taking a lesson learned on the mandolin and apply it to something I am doing on the guitar.

I have taken some songs composed for piano and made guitar arrangements for them as well. I have done it directly from the piano sheet music. Again, this serves as a great learning opportunity as it would pertain to music theory. I also may break down what I may stumble across when arranging certain songs for a different instrument to be used as a lesson to teach someone else something new. Basically, I will create exercises to serve as lessons for beginners, derived from songs I have learned.

You Can Learn from Many Different Styles of Music

Lessons could also be learned from various classical music melodies. Whether they be in a major or minor mode. The ones in the minor keys often use the harmonic minor scale and are great lessons in the use of that scale for the purpose of creating a melody. And now, with a lot of the neo-classical heavy metal going on, those lessons could come in quite handy.

I have actually taken some classical pieces written for violin and transposed them to guitar. In fact, I do that all of the time and it is a great challenge sometimes to transpose something from one instrument to another. That in itself can serve as a lesson because it really gets you thinking about music theory and the application of it.

The Process Could Go On Forever

I will often use certain songs as examples when teaching beginner guitarists new concepts or new techniques. I may take what lesson that may be learned from a song and develop some exercise that a beginner could practice. I use concepts and ideas from songs as lessons all of the time and I also try to teach my students how to derive their own lessons from each song that they may learn. That is how they could get the most out of learning a song.

Sometimes when I learn a new song, I am reminded of something I learned from a previous song that I have already learned. Then I might get the inspiration to work on that idea more and incorporate it into one of my own songs. It really never ends. Especially if you are the type of person who enjoys learning new ideas or new applications for the old ones.

The learning process could really go on forever. Mainly because no musician that has ever lived knew everything about everything as it would pertain to music. There are too many styles of music, too many instruments, too many techniques and so on. Nobody could possibly know it all. That's why you should use every song as a lesson.

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