Interesting dialogue on music development and natural skill from Quora.

Written by Michael E Dehn

Founder and CEO of Metro Pulse a continually running enterprise since May 1980.

May 14, 2023


A Magical Mystery Tour
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Christopher DonovanApr 28

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Graeme Holdaway

Producer/engineer/arranger (1978–present)3y

Was Ginger Baker correct to have disdain for Paul McCartney because he couldn’t read music?

Ginger Baker seemed to have disdain for a lot of world-class musicians, including (or perhaps especially) most of those he worked with. He seemed, from my perspective, growing up in the 60s and 70s, to be ubiquitous. He seemed to be everywhere in the Melody Maker I devoured every week, and on the radio every 20 minutes (if you listened to Radio Caroline)

He was the first of the super-star drummers, and was good enough, and ornery enough to hold his own with the best of the best of other musicians.

Even then, his temper outbursts and general curmudgeonliness were legendary, and he seemed to have a real relish for putting down the music scene’s leading lights, including the most successful writer (arguably- fight me!) in the most successful band of all time (currently number one in the album charts (again!) Paul McCartney of the Beatles.

I found it really interesting that Paul McCartney didn’t read (or-especially write!) music. I would imagine that this was no disadvantage for a young man, steeped in music, who must have an ‘aural memory’ for chords, progressions and melodies, and was good enough as a musician to improvise and for his playing on guitar, bass, and piano to take him wherever he wanted to go.

Baker says in another post on here that ‘George Martin was the Beatles’. Demonstrably farcical, but it does raise the interesting point that Martin, classically trained musician as he was, had exactly what the Beatles lacked: the ability to score additions to, or the main backing to, songs that needed that ‘something extra’ that the Beatles themselves and Paul McCartney in particular wanted to explore. (this is based on the excellent book I read two years ago ‘Revolution in the Head’ by Ian McDonald Revolution in the Head – Wikipedia) So string players, George Martin himself on ‘boogie-woogie’ piano for solos in some of their rock ‘n’ roll covers in the early days, and a startling vari-speeded harpsichord solo (guess which in the comments) as well as whole orchestras playing scored parts, but also one chord, or even just playing anything they felt like (which must have caused Martin some personal anguish!) were grist to their mill, but Martin was the lynch pin that organised, scored (on the Beatle’s behalf, but mostly with their blessing- (he recorded the aforementioned harpsichord solo early one morning, without their knowledge, and presented it to them as a fâit accompli, and they were so impressed with it they went with it) but later there were tensions, but there is no doubt that he made a significant contribution precisely because he read and wrote music, was a superb arranger, as well as being in the emerging role of that time, a record producer with a string of hits already in the bag.

This brings me to the crux of the matter. I was aware, aged 13, learning to play guitar with my mates at school with my small battered Yamaha acoustic, that McCartney couldn’t read music, and frankly, the information was empowering. It gave us hope, that you didn’t have to go the route of stuffy academia, playing an ‘uncool’ brass or woodwind instrument, and pass difficult music exams and play impossible Bach or Handel pieces in front of examiners. You could just pick up a guitar, improvise away, and if you were any good, you could write songs, and join a band! and play them them live! and record them! and have a hit! and become a Superstar! AND YOU DIDN’T NEED TO READ MUSIC TO DO ANY OF THAT!

I don’t think that now, however, and I spend quite a lot of time on keyboards, guitars, bass and lately flute, reading music, and sight-reading in a choir I joined recently, so I understand the benefits, rather later in life

It took me some time to realise its benefits, and the reason is this: I had a brief conversation with my step-mother, who I generally hated, but we had a moment or two of mutual understanding. She asked me what I wanted to do as a career. I replied that I wanted to be a guitar player. She thought for a moment, then replied ‘Guitar-players are ten a penny, why not be the person who records the guitar players?’

I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but four years later I found myself as the in-house recording engineer at a small recording studio in N16, Stoke Newington, London called Decibel Studios, notable at the time for having Marc Bolan in a year or so previously, recording ‘I Love to Boogie’

I was recording a string quartet, and I had a conversation with one of the young attractive female violinists in a break, the talk turned to improvisation. As a guitarist, I had always been able to improvise. She commented ‘Oh I’d love to be able to improvise, but they don’t encourage it, you just have to learn to follow the music, and now, when I attempt to, I just can’t do it, however hard I try.

The penny dropped. McCartney, genius muso that he was, must have avoided rrading and writing music to preserve his precious ability to improvise!

At this stage, I realise it’s perfectly possible to do both, they are both useful in their own right, and not, as I had imagined, mutually exclusive.

As a coda, here is a brilliant, classically trained violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, playing with a consummate improviser-Stephane Grappelli. I think this illustrates my point. You will notice the difference between their styles, the classically trained vs the Gypsy Improviser, judge for yourselves

Kids-improvise on your chosen instrument every day, but if you learn to read and write music, you’ll be much more employable (unless you’re as talented as Paul McCartney) and take everything Ginger Baker said with a pinch of salt, just listen to his recordings. We will not see his like again, and yes, he could improvise AND read music.

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