I had a couple of conversations with friends this week that kind of collided in my head, and I wanted to see if I could get the thoughts down.

If you look at an orchestra, it’s usually divided into four sections: brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion. The thing is, I didn’t really know that, and I even played in an orchestra, in elementary school. It’s pretty obvious that there are like, differences between instruments, and like, types that go together - violas and cellos and violins, flutes and piccolos, trumpets and trombones - and if you asked me, I’d probably have admitted that I assumed there were some groupings, but I would have had to guess what they were - and, thinking about it, I’d have guessed wrog.

There's a thing called a "pareto curve" that is useful as a handy rule of thumb when you're thinking about groups and affiliations. You might know it as the "80/20" rule: for every group, activity, whatever, 80 percent of the people are there to watch, and 20 per cent are there to perform.

As we've gotten better at the technology for presenting and performing, with loudspeakers and whatnot, that ratio has gotten weird, but if you look closer, it still kind of holds.

If you're at a concert, 80 percent of the people there are like, casually interested - they might like the band, but they only really went to this concert on a whim, they're not *involved*.

Fans are part of the 20% who are "involved" - the larger part. 80% of the involved are fans, 20% are people putting on the show, of whom 20% are somehow involved with the band... You get the idea. Plot it out on graph paper, you get a distinctive shape.

If you zoom out, you get larger and larger 80/20 splits: people who've heard of the band, people who like the kind of music the band plays, people who like music.

The funny thing is, the further you get from the stage, often the stronger people's opinions are about weird rules too do with the music. If you think people have strong opinions about whether a fiddle or an electric guitar should be the lead instrument in a country band, you should hear about the opinions people have about the banjo's role in thrash metal (btw if you've never heard them, give Native Howl a listen).

It seems weird for people to feel so strongly about something they don't do and don't know much about, until you realize that everyone makes music, no exceptions: everyone hums or whistles or taps their pencil; everyone times their workout to the beat in their headphones.

It's just that many people don't have much musical education, and getting a musical education seems ridiculously hard, because it is like, fractally complex, and even worse, it's changing all the time.

So back at the orchestra performance - you and I now know that there are four categories of instrument up there, but most people are looking at it like I was before I learned better: there's instruments that you play by plucking or scraping strings, and instruments you play by blowing into them.

In that elementary school orchestra, I played snare drum, so I can say with confidence that everyone, everyone forgets about percussion.

So for most of the audience, there are two kinds of instruments, and they have super clear distinctions in terms of sounds and the role they play in the music.

The funny thing is, those roles are super dependent on the type of music being played. The role of a bass in an orchestra is pretty different from the role it plays in a rock band, for example.

When I showed up for orchestra, my musical experience was piano lessons, mostly, but I hated them and I wanted to try something different. The problem was, I didn't know what all those instruments were, much less if I liked them, so I just shrugged helplessly when I was asked.

Which is how I became a drummer.

Once you're assigned an instrument, it's pretty hard to change. Different instruments have different physical skills - I never had to learn emberture as a drummer, and my flutist friends didn't have to have the spacial awareness I had, even though playing both of our instrument was essentially about holding onto a weird stick. You spend a couple of years in orchestra learning all the motions and training your ear and building your cardiovascular fitness, and then you find it's all but impossible to switch without doing all that learning curve again.

Which, you know, your fellow musicians might not be that supportive of, because what they want is to make beautiful music, so just get back in the back and whack the thing with the other thing, okay dude?

Outside the orchestra, I've learned a lot of stuff about music that was very different from the stuff I learned in elementary school.

It turns out that the role an instrument plays in the band is a lot more important and varried than you'd guess from orchestra. You can divide roles into melody, harmony, and rythm, but really they're sort of always infinitely flowing into each other, and the categories exist more as a thinking tool than a limitation.

So in a rock band, it's easy to think of melody as the purview of the vocalist and the lead guitarist, and the harmony as the bass and rythm guitars, and the rythm section as being drums; but really, mostly rock musicians think of the bass and the drums and often the rythm guitar as being the rythm section; acoustic guitar and bass solos are often impossible to distinguish from melody; and really, everybody's taking turns practicing harmony.

Whew. For someone like me who likes my systems well defined and carefully change controlled, that's a whole lot. It's super tempting to just go, "no, f*** you, there are only two kinds of instruments and it's obvious which kind is which, just sit down and play."

The funny thing is, the people who are most likely to say that are the ones furthest back the pareto curve, right? The ones who don't know that much about music but they'll tell you in as much detail as you like about how horns do not belong in a rock and roll band, it sounds crazy and besides, you can't play that way without it eventually turning into ska, which, just... Thou Shalt Not.

So those are the three ideas that have been rattling around in my head this week, trying to connect:

One, that although there are four "sections" in an orchestra, most people really only see two, even though there's actually dozens of different instruments;

Two, that what instrument you play is important, and changing it is super hard, and often not very well supported even by other musicians, but changing roles is instrument-independent and can happen even from bar to bar in the same song, and is more driven by the type of music the band is playing than the particulars of the instrument; and

Three, the people who have the strongest, most intractable opinions about music are often the ones who know the least about it, and just want it to sound good - meaning mostly "the way it sounded when I was in high school."

Sorry if this seems rambly and not really all that much about music, my head's all over the place these days. I'm just glad I live in a society where we play all the different types of music, and we're joyful about the prospect of singing a new song.

Oh, and by the way - happy International Non-Binary People's Day, spend some time thinking about your enby friends today, even those that haven't picked up an instrument since elementary school.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store