Sometimes (clearly not that often), I get inspired to write a blog post. That happened today because of a coincidence: I read two interesting but unrelated articles which both mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s contentious/compelling 10,000-Hour-Rule.

Basically, this is the theory that the key to becoming amazing at anything is to put in about 10,000 hours of focused practice. This – not innate talent – is the secret to mastering a domain.

The first article was about D’Angelo’s pending comeback after a long, troubled hiatus. The article is accompanied by a video of D’Angelo playing guitar – which he’s apparently devoted himself to learning during his time off:

“The one benefit of this eleven-year sabbatical was he used 10,000 Gladwellian hours to master the guitar. He can play the shit out of it, and I don’t mean no Lil Wayne shit.” – Questlove

The second article was by my friend Adam Sliwinksi, of the lovely Sō Percussion. In it, he briefly talks about how the group spent 10,000 hours becoming “laser-focused on what it takes to become an accomplished, cohesive group.” Interestingly, Adam’s talking about 10,000 hours they spent working together; as individuals, these guys had already done at least this much time mastering the instruments before they formed the group at all.

Why am I writing about this?

When I meet people who are just starting with electronic music production, they’re often completely overwhelmed. Not only do they not know what to do, they don’t even know what questions to ask to learn what to do. There is a real feeling of helplessness. It’s easy to see why a computer might feel like it’s easier than a conventional musical instrument. Most of the time we spend with computers is spent consuming; it’s a process that’s really not much more active than watching television.

But creating is an entirely different kind of exercise. It’s not passive. It won’t just happen. It takes real work. The only way to make something is to do work. And the only way to get good at making things is to do a lot of work.

My job as Ableton’s documentation guy is primarily about one thing; helping people understand our software so they can use it to make music. We work hard to make things as easy as possible, but making music with a computer is not easy. Like an instrument, software mastery takes focused practice.

If 10,000 hours sounds like a lot of time, keep in mind that it’s not a switch; it’s a process. On your way to expertise, you will get better and better, and you will feel progress happening all the time.

And most importantly, 10,000 hours is what it takes to be elite. Simply getting good will happen much sooner. But it will not happen without putting in real, focused time.

What are you waiting for?


This Ableton Live tutorial shows how to create a Dry/Wet control on any signal path in your Live Set.

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I made this a few days ago:

When Tonje Langeteig’s “I Don’t Want to be a Crappy Housewife” became a viral video hit, the comparisons to Rebecca Black’s “Friday” were ubiquitous. Finally, our short attention spans had a new object of so-bad-it’s-good kitsch ridicule.

I thought this might be an interesting opportunity for a mashup. As it turned out, the songs work surprisingly well together. They’re in closely-related keys and have simple and largely compatible harmonic structures. They share common formal elements – a bridge with an unexpected male rapper.

Most strikingly, however, their lyrics create an interesting counterpoint – “Friday” is unabashedly about being young, while “Housewife” is about being old, and futile attempts to reclaim the innocence of youth. Friday’s heroine is a kid being a kid, while our crappy housewife is an adult, desperately trying to be a kid again.

I’m generally not a big pop music listener. This isn’t some kind of ivory tower stance – I don’t have any problem with the idea of music as a commodity. It’s just that I usually don’t find the music itself all that compelling.

But I have a huge amount of respect for contemporary pop music. From a production point of view, there’s so much to learn from chart radio – how to get a big sound, how to create “hooks,” etc.

With modern music production tools being so inexpensive and easy to use, I’m especially fascinated by the fact that certain songs win while others lose and still others become kitsch icons, when the surface level of all of them is often largely indistinguishable.

What is it – the essence of the thing – that makes these two songs the object of such ridicule? Sure, the lyrics are a little trite. But are they really that much more trite than many of the songs that sell millions of copies?

If I knew the answers to these questions, I’d be a millionaire instead of an armchair musicologist. But what’s clear is that inexpensive, easy tools have not evened out the playing field as much as we like to think. Yes, anyone can make music in their bedroom now, and it will sound 98% as good as anything else.

But there’s something in that other 2% that’s neither inexpensive nor easy.