Part of learning an instrument is physical: teaching your fingers where to go when, and refining your timing and precision as you manipulate the instrument.
However, the other big aspect to learning an instrument is mental, and most of that mental aspect is common across instruments. This is the “listening skills” and “musical understanding” which lie beneath instrumental skill, and once you have developed it for one instrument, you will find it transfers easily to other instruments.
That may seem vague and abstract, so let’s consider some practical examples.
Knowing which notes to play
Developing your sense of relative pitch through ear training gives you an instinctive understanding of which notes “belong” in a given musical context and which ones to play when.
As soon as you begin improvising or adapting the music you play, you rely on a combination of theory knowledge (e.g. the key signature) and listening skills (e.g. interval recognition or solfège) to know which notes you want to play.
Actually playing these notes comes down to your instrument-specific skills: for example, knowing which key on a piano is F#, or how to play a D7 chord on guitar. But knowing which notes you want to play is all in the brain and the ear.
Your sense of rhythm
Accuracy of rhythm and timing has a major impact on how polished your performance sounds, and it is only partly about training your fingers. You must have the motor skills required to play notes with accurate timing, but even before that you must understand in your brain how the rhythm fits together, and have the ability to maintain a metronome-like sense of the beat in your head.
These skills are common across all instruments. If you have a weak sense of rhythm, then even very reliable fingering will sound sloppy. If you have a rock-solid sense of the beat and rhythmic awareness, it won’t take long to make your fingers fall in line on a new instrument.
Playing well with others
Once you have the basic playing skills for an instrument, you will want to play with other musicians. Most of the skills required to do this well are not about sophisticated finger skills on the instrument. They are about improvisation, and collaboration, and interaction with others in the musical moment.
This ability to play easily and naturally with others is fundamentally about listening skills, and the musical ear you develop when playing one instrument in a group will assist you directly when you switch to another instrument and try to play with others.
On the other hand, if you haven’t developed these collaborative listening skills yet, it won’t matter how many instruments you have mastered; you will struggle to play with other musicians.
When it comes to collaborating, improvising, and performing music, it is vital to have confidence. This gives you a freedom to add expression to what could otherwise be a lifeless and robotic performance, and (perhaps more importantly) it allows you to enjoy yourself!
This confidence stems partly from instrument skills (knowing your fingers will do what you need them to) but also from your listening skills. It’s that musical instinct that tells you you’ll be able to recover from errors, add your own flourishes, and create wonderful music every time.
Once you have developed your musical ear you will find your confidence on new instruments comes quickly, because even with a simple ability on the instrument you will be able to enjoy freely creating music with it.
To put it another way: you don’t need lightning-fast fingers to enthrall your audience! You do need a strong musical ear.
Try something new
If you have been training your ears for a specific instrument, make sure you take the time to try a secondary instrument. Even if you don’t plan to master that instrument, you’ll find it’s hugely rewarding to apply your musical listening skills to a new instrument, and it will give you a new appreciation of how your ears have improved.
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