Guitar as a Second Language

girl at piano

Learning an instrument at a very young age is like learning a first language.


Even though some of my earliest childhood memories include playing a musical instrument, it’s only been a few months since I’ve begun learning guitar. After playing, and eventually teaching vocal and piano lessons for so many years, it’s a strange experience taking guitar lessons, completely different from learning my first instrument.

I would liken learning guitar, not to mention every other form of music I’ve worked on after the piano, including singing, to learning other languages. Piano was my first language. I learned and could read piano music before I even learned to read and write in English, and, unsurprisingly, the memories of learning beginning piano fall somewhere between hazy and nonexistent.

Learning to sing, to play the recorder at some point in elementary school, to play the harp (badly), and now to play the guitar have all been like learning non-native languages. Of these second (and third and forth) instruments, singing is, by far, what I’m the most comfortable with, but I even map singing onto my knowledge of the piano. When I’m learning to sing a new song, I’ll find myself visualizing the keys on the piano, going three white keys to the right when I’m singing up a perfect 4th and going one white key and one black key to the left when I’m jumping down a minor 3rd. Sometimes, if I’m really having a hard time learning something, I’ll find myself moving my fingers or toes to play the keys on an invisible piano as I learn the song.

I first mentioned guitar in this blog entry because it’s the first (non-vocal) instrument I’ve really been interested in mastering since learning piano. As my guitar teacher drills me on guitar strings and frets, I imagine intervals on the piano. When I was learning French in high school, I would have to translate French phrases, piece-by-piece, into English, and similarly translate my response from English to French in my head before answering. I use the same process with the guitar and piano. If my instructor asks me what a certain string on a certain fret represents, I’ll mentally change the guitar into a piano and back again before responding. When listening to music and trying to teach it to myself on the guitar, even if the song is guitar-based to begin with, I’ll first have to imagine the chord progression on the piano before determining what these chords would look like on a guitar.

I’ll be interested to see if I ever get to a point in which I think of music theory in relation to the guitar in any way comparable to how I think of the piano. I’ve heard that if you spend enough time in a foreign country, you begin to think in that language. I look forward to a day when I can “speak” fluent guitar.

If you’ve had a similar experience learning a second instrument, I’d love to hear it. I’ve always wondered what it’s like to learn an instrument only after becoming proficient at voice, or what it’s like to learn piano after learning a non-keyboard instrument. Please share!

1 Comment

  1. Cass

    I understand exactly what you are saying about both the guitar and the language. I’m currently teaching guitar to adolescent mothers in Costa RIca (after playing for 6 months) as part of my year of service. After teaching piano when I was younger and that being my primary “language”, I’m find myself teaching them how to play guitar via piano theory. It is a tough road and not the quickest route. I’m learning to become fluent in Guitar … and also in the notes they use (DO, RE, MI)

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