From Headphones to Headliners: Analyzing the Success of Self Taught Musicians

By Suzie Hicks:

I’ve been trying to teach myself how to play the piano for about 6 years now, and I am still a few notes away from perfecting Jingle Bells. I actually wrote my college essay about my lack of musical skills but my undying appreciation for it nonetheless. So, I decided to dedicate my first ever WERS DJ Blog to the members of the musical community that have made their instrumental careers out of determination and a lot of wrong notes.

Many artists across the music industry have become household names without taking a single lesson. Artists like Dave Grohl, Prince, David Bowie, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix have not only swept the world with their music, they did so through sheer talent and determination.

There’s actually a word that describes these people. Autodidact stands for self taught person in any discipline, but relates most notably to music. For example, David Bowie is a famous autodidact. He taught himself piano, guitar, harmonica, koto, bass and percussion before teaching himself painting, sculpting and miming (just for fun).

But, how did these famous musicians find so much success by being their own teacher? What steps did these autodidacts take in order to solidify their passion into real tangible skills? A study done by Peter MacIntyre in 2013, which was published in The Road To Excellence, states that self taught musicians feel less pressure to succeed and thus are more motivated to practice and perform. Additionally, by working at their own pace to learn, artists are more likely to write and perform original material—using their creativity to grasp music theory. This is called implicit learning, in which the subject learns a complex idea incidentally rather than purposefully or consciously.

This implicit learning is facilitated through circumstantial experience—like picking up a harmony for fun while your friend sings, or plunking out notes that you think would sound good—rather than having a teacher place you in a structured, goal oriented setting.

So, to all the other piano plunkers and the aspiring guitar strummers out there, take your time! Let go of the pressure to excel and just jam out—regardless of how bad it sounds. Who knows? You could learn something new. From one hopeful autodidact to another, break a leg!

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