Should I bother learning songs?

When I started teaching, all of my students were adults. They had no visions of being the next Jimmy Page or Jimmy Rogers. They simply wanted to play and play for their own enjoyment. And this meant playing songs, as few people find satisfaction in playing a string of exercises over and over again.

As a teacher, I want my students to play. And while many will grudgingly work (and that’s a very loose interpretation of that word…) on scales and technique exercises, they seem to be happiest when their playing sounds like something. And I find that songs, especially songs that the student knows and likes, tend to encourage the beginning musician to work harder on perfecting his or her skills. Someone who might not take the time to practice a descending C major scale just for the sake of knowing the scale may play it hundreds of times in succession in order to make it fit into the chorus of Wild World. And enjoy doing it, especially when that magic moment comes when the song all falls into place and the audience, whether a friend, family member or pet, nods in appreciation.

Even children starting out playing single notes are more happy to play a melody they recognize (Jingle Bells, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, or a condensed version of Ode to Joy) than they are to play a (seemingly) pointless drill.

But (and there always is a “but,” isn’t there?), as much as I think that teaching music through songs will usually be more engaging for both the student and his or her listeners, it does the student little good to simply “replay” a song. Something has to be learned, something that can be taken out of the context of the song and used someplace else. Usually a different song! And unless all you want to be able to do is to simply copy guitar parts you hear on CDs or records and not even think about what you’re doing, I think it’s hard for someone to walk away from learning a song without indeed having learned something useful.

I know that, no matter what your level of expertise on the guitar or any instrument, it’s important to have a sense of balance when it comes to knowing what you need to learn. And it’s also important to understand that there are many ways of learning any one thing. If you’re honest with yourself about what lessons, if any, you get from learning a song, then I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to learn one. Or several hundred.

The other thing to keep in mind is that songs, traditionally, are pretty much what you’ll find yourself playing as a guitarist. When you perform in front of people, they’re not going to ask, “Would you please play the first two measures of Stairway To Heaven?” or “How about the middle part of Comfortably Numb?” They want to hear a complete song. And even if you just know the strumming part, that’s usually more than fine by them.

For what it’s worth, I never think of songs as a “bother.” My guitar and I are, at almost any given time, at the service of any song. They are my stock in trade, as it were. The guitar and performer are simply extras.