I’m not about to claim that I’m a musical expert. I might have experience reflected in my years of piano-related studies, but I have always seen myself as a student of music and nothing more. I don’t think it would matter how many more years go by. As long as there is something new for me to learn, that view isn’t likely to change.
Even now, I’m still learning.
Learning the ukulele has been a challenge for me. After studying and practising the theory of music as it relates to the piano, picking up this new instrument has encouraged me to look back on how I’ve somehow managed to teach my own hands to speak this universal human language. The fundamental elements of music have a lot in common with how we speak. In speech, we communicate by practising linguistic rhythms and intonations, using words as our building blocks. As I understand it, the components that create music can be similarly broken down into a trinity that music technique controls: pitch (notes, the basic units of sound), time (the beats and rhythms we create with sound), and dynamics (the character we give to sound).
Discipline in music is in exercising balance and control of these three elements.
Time is the most constant element between instruments. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing, say, piano or ukulele; the methods in which beats and rhythms are established and note values notated do not change. The main concepts of dynamics can carry between instruments as well, but some instruments can achieve a range of characteristic effects that others can’t by design. As a result, each instrument has a unique voice. For example, you can control the loudness and softness of a piano or ukulele, but you cannot sustain the notes of a ukulele as long, nor bend the notes of a piano at all. Where instruments differ the most is in how pitch is achieved, and this element, in part, determines how the musician must adapt in technique when switching between instruments.
Both these instruments are meant to be played with both hands, but there’s a key difference between each when it comes to technique. On a piano, control of pitch, time, and dynamics must be managed independently of each hand in many cases, but on a ukulele, each hand has a role. The left hand is completely devoted to pitch, depressing strings on certain frets to achieve a different tone. The right hand controls time and dynamics based on how the strings are strummed and muted.
This simple change in technique makes a world of difference in producing the elements of the musical trinity. It’s like learning a completely different way of speaking a language you already know.
Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!
Check out Ukulele Hunt for further exploration