Can Education Kill Instinct?

Note: This is based on a message I originally posted on the Harmony Central Forums. Revised and extended.

This is a topic that seems to come up quite often, both in online forums and in talking to people. Does learning music theory take away from the ability to simply “play what sounds good?” Can learning proper vocal technique remove the raw emotion from singing? Does learning more about the established techniques in a field (like songwriting) remove true creativity and make us all sound alike?

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m going to say no. And here’s why.

The musical toolbox

In my opinion and experience, learning more about any topic can only help. The right approach is to view every lesson, book, or piece of advice as a tray in a buffet steam table, or as a tool in a toolbox. It’s there for you to use when you need it, but there is nothing forcing you to use it (or eat it). But the more items you have to choose from, the better your building or dining experience will be.

To stick with the tool metaphor, a builder can make a lot of great things with a hammer and nails and a cross-cut saw. But what if one day he gets a Skil-Saw and a screwdriver as a gift? Now all of a sudden he can make a lot more things, and some of the things he used to make he can now make faster. Will he still have a use for the hammer? Of course he will. He just doesn’t have to frame every building problem in terms of how it can be done with just a hammer. Getting the new tools doesn’t take away the old tools. That’s the key point.

Learning is an additive process, it’s not a replacement process. Even if it’s true that, as Homer Simpson said, “Every time I learn something new, it pushes something old out of my brain,” we all have enough useless nonsense floating around in our heads that we don’t have to worry about running out of room for the really good stuff.

In particular, learning technique does not cause emotion or instinct to go away. On the contrary, by learning the technique well, it becomes automatic and allows even more freedom for emotional expression. When we’re speaking, we don’t want to take the time to worry about constructing words and phrases. That part has become automatic, and we can focus on the ideas we want to express. In the same way, when we learn well the mechanics of singing or the technical process of songwriting, it becomes automatic and frees us to create better than we would ever have expected.

Learning From The Masters

Michelangelo did it: he spent the first part of his life as an apprentice to the painter Ghirlandaio. The Beatles took a lot of their initial sound from the Everly Brothers. Heck, even Luke Skywalker had to learn from Obi-Wan Kenobi. This certainly didn’t hinder any of their progress.


Now this sounds strange, but I believe it to be true: copying another artist can make you a better artist and help you find your own style. There is much concern about a passing on of an established style, as a cookie cutter makes a plate of nearly identical ginger bread men. But doesn’t this passing along of established technique happen anyway? Everyone starts out sounding like their influences at some point, before finding their own style and branching out. Why not learn to really sound like them, so the differences you forge will be based on moving forward rather than making up for technical deficiencies.

Pablo Picasso spent an entire year of his life doing studies of just one Velazquez painting, yet nobody would say Picasso’s work is derivative of Velazquez, or even that there is a resemblance. He learned from the master, then became a master himself, without sacrificing his personal style.

These are my thoughts. I’m curious to see who agrees or disagrees.