10 Musical Epiphanies That Changed The Way I Thought About Playing Music Forever

Nathan Phelps
5 min readAug 19, 2021
10 Musical Epiphanies That Changed The Way I Thought About Playing Music Forever

If you start music at a young age, concepts of music theory, proper practice, and pedagogy can feel like they swirl around in your head, often contradicting each other, and sometimes, do more harm than good.

Grappling with the complex world of modal theory, tritone substitutions, and classical voice leading because it feels like how you get better while trying to understand why your teacher keeps saying, “But none of it really matters!” is a recipe for misunderstanding.

But with enough time, hard work, and existential crises behind you, things start to make a bit more sense. Concepts that felt murky to begin suddenly feel simple. Explanations go from “I’m not entirely sure but I think” to simply “because”. You begin to connect the dots, and I think we only get there through repeat exposure, great teachers, and genuine effort, and the best markers along the way are those bursts of clarity when things really click.

These are a short collection of my “aha!” moments when that sweet feeling of clarity arrived, condensed into short phrases. Depending on where you are in your journey, you may be ready for them, or not.

Either way, it’s exposure, right?

Anyway. I hope they help.

#1 Triads have solid structure and are amazing at conveying harmony.

Struggling to spice up your one-chord vamps and imply other modes? Look to triads. Built of thirds and fourths, these have the strongest melodic “pull”.

How can you combine inversions and multiple triads from a single scale to imply a soundscape?

Jeff Schneider’s video above is a brilliant explanation of this.

#2 There’s really no difference between chords and scales.

The F major scale is F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E-(F)

Or in degrees: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

The diatonic triads (chords) built off of this are:

1–3–5 / F-A-C

2–4–6 / G-Bb-D

3–5–7 / A-C-E

4–6–1 / Bb- D- F

5–7–2 / C-E-G

6–1–3 / D-F-A

7–2–4 / E-G-Bb

If chords are just groups of scale degrees…

Why do we tend to treat them so separately?


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#3 You don’t really need theory.

Theory exists to:

  • Explain music
  • Facilitate communication between musicians
  • Improve process and speed of composition

You can use music theory to reverse-engineer what makes any music sound good. If a rule is “broken”, then music theory will adapt to explain why it sounds right. It always has and always will.

Some of the best musicians in the world only play by ear and couldn’t tell you how to build a maj9 chord, but I guarantee they know the sound of one.

Does that make them worse at music? God no. Theory can be a fantastic tool for accessing musicianship, expanding our ear, and is just plain fun, but it does not surpass songwriting, phrasing, relevance, rhythm, and feel in terms of importance.

#4 Any note can work over any chord.

With enough confidence, you can make any note work over any chord. Anything goes if you can play it like you mean it.

And don’t forget that repetition legitimizes.

#5 When in doubt of what to practice, learn your favorite record by ear.

Nothing beats learning your records with a critical ear. Pick who you want to sound like, and replicate it as best you can.

#6 Understanding your end goals focuses your practice like nothing else.

Setting overarching goals that dictate your practice sessions, defining what you want to sound like, and determining what role you want music to play in your life is incredibly important for facilitating effective practice.

#7 We all play like shit sometimes.

Forgetting the melody to Autumn Leaves for the 4th time doesn’t make you a failure of a human. It happens. Give yourself a break and recognize that consistency is what matters above all.

#8 One of the best ways to get better is to play live with people who are better than you.

Playing with someone, especially in a live setting, challenges you because there is no turning back the clock. There’s no “let me try that again”. You are along for the ride, and there’s something wonderful about that constraint.

Plus, playing with others allows you to see into how they approach the instrument, and you will almost always discover a new way to think about things.

#9 Feeling boxed in by chord tones? Check your rhythm and inversions.

Playing straight up and down an arpeggio is boring, so no wonder you’re bored with your phrasing. Listen to the masters. They fluidly weave interesting arpeggios and inversions together into larger statements. Taking your chord tones and focusing on mixing inversions and rhythmic displacements is a fantastic way to spend some of your time.

#10 Feel is everything.

Don’t underestimate the value of feel and pocket. If you can’t make a simple song sit right, you can’t make a hard one hit right either. It’s why some of the best musicians in the world are also the most “simple” — it’s all about feel and control.

More complicated ≠ better music

Happy practicing

— Nathan

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Nathan Phelps

Nashville-Based Writer & Musician —Writing about practicing music and whatever else comes to mind.