The Joys of Talentlessness

The Ramones, a band the music industry laughed at, were featured in a solo show at the Grammy museum last year.

Better than The Beatles!


I appreciate the fresh angle at looking at musical activities. And I admit I’m definitely in the crowd of “habit-trackers”, striving and pushing - and buying self-help books on productivity, finishing stuff etc.

On the other hand, I can relate to feeling talentless. I could always sing in tune, but musicianship has never been easy. It took me years to learn to tune a guitar. And the intimidation of walking into guitar stores with kids younger than me playing Hendrix etc verbatim, well I have it tattooed under my skin.

Nevertheless, I think musical talent is something complicated to define. I think it can take many different forms. Some have an ear with perfect pitch, some have “muscular” gifts and some just have a creative approach open for discovery and ignoring “the rules”. And maybe most importantly, a childish joy for making small discoveries along the way.

Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that the greatest gift/talent is to feel love and passion for something. My progress as a musician has been at snail speed. My younger brother learned everything instantly, could tell the chords from tune just by listening to it etc. Still, he never really knew what to do with it.

However we define talent or ambition, I think progress is inevitable. If you spend time doing something you will get better, or discover/learn something different. And everything you pick up can be a joy.

I was very fond of Jerry Saltz article in the Vulture “How to be an artist” – (I just ordered the book!). Not the least lesson 8: Redefine skill: " your skill will be whatever it is you’re doing differently."

You may not have a particular goal that you strive for, but if you choose to pick up an instrument instead of doing something passive, like watching tv. I think that choice and love is still some sort of talent. In my eyes at least.


I want to propose a somewhat different definition of “talent”: I think it’s the ability to achieve what you want to do. If what you want to do is play a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, then this definition of talent is the same as the usual definition. But – as someone who legitimately likes The Shaggs – I’d say they surely meet this definition of talent, because they are able to recreate note-for-note their songs when playing live. This shows that their music wasn’t created randomly but was made with intention; and they achieved that intention. (Also, playing those songs live is probably pretty difficult!)

So, from this point of view, “talentless” means “not achieving what you want to do.” If you think you’re talentless, there are two paths forward: (a) work on reaching your goal or (b) change your goal. Option (b) is the essence of punk rock. From this point of view, lots of people who think they’re talentless actually aren’t.


Also c) have a goal :slight_smile:

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Goals are nice. But don’t forget to play!

(It’s pretty simple…)


I found “practice” almost useless as a way to gain anything but the ability to re-render someone else’s creativity. I think “research” would be a healthier habit. Ear training, studying music theory, mapping chord space – those things I have found immensely valuable.


Not sure if you meant to reply to me but I’ll answer anyway :smiley: Everything you mention is massively valuable but, depending on your goals, I think “practice” can be immensely useful in addition. Partially this is due to the extremely intimate nature by which you have to dissect the work of another creator. If that work is something you like then this insight I think can be invaluable to apply to your own creations.

The second reason is one of practicality. Presuming we are talking “practicing” instrument performance. It can be useful to try to obtain, and subsequently maintain, a level of technical ability that allows you to express what you want to musically, with minimum effort. To go far beyond that is possibly unnecessary but I think that is a pretty good target. Have your technical ability meet and allow your musical aspirations. It can be frustrating to be limited by it, a feeling a know all to well sadly.

I am presuming practice here means with musical expression beyond a point and not mechanical and repetitive drills (which can be counter productive). Ear training is the most overlooked thing to “research” out there. I fully agree with that.

I was only joking though :wink:, it’s cool to see that people are enjoying music. I do too! Wouldn’t do it otherwise.


Really interesting post. It does make me think of this thread Sequencer for Subtle Music I posted at length in there about the subtleties and nuances of human performance. I think that is where I see the value which remains in the “rarefied human capacities”. I am sure there will be AI capable of that very soon but I guess that begins a slippery slope of where in the process there is human “value” left at that point. Maybe in the creation of the AI, something AI will eventually become better at… :joy:That’s a whole other topic though.

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I think you might enjoy a book called Zen Guitar. Really gets down to the wisdom behind where you’re coming from.

I think it’s so important to have an art outlet that you specifically don’t try to get better at. Music stopped being that long ago, but every now and then I get an insane urge to go buy some paints and go nuts. So I do. I have no idea what I’m doing and I don’t care to learn – I just paint, with abandon, without talent, for no reason. It’s inherent joy at its more pure.

The urge has switched over to photography, so I think I’m gonna go there next once I can afford a camera. Can’t wait.


Nice! There is a lot for me to catch up on there! Will get stuck in tomorrow (note to self, stop procrastinating, finish the edits).

Interesting thread, much to think about.

For ‘The Silent Way’ sessions Miles told John McLaughlin “play like you don’t know how to play guitar”.

Is that what we are aiming for?


[J.S.] Bach is sometimes held up as an examplar here.

His view: “What I have achieved by industry and practice, anyone else with tolerable natural gift and ability can also achieve.”

Lots of loaded terms in there!

What he achieved took such a tremendous amount of pain, loss, death, suffering, that I suspect most of us would rather keep our own lives (and level of talent) rather than swap with him.

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Maria Bamford - Why Does Everything Have To Be So Good? (2020)


I like the “research”-approach, but I see no conflict with practice. To “re-render someone else’s creativitity” seems perfectly fine to me from a “steal like an artist”-perspective. In martial arts where you drill and endlessly repeat and refine certain patterns, to be fast and intuitive in combat, seems to me to be the same as people exercising scales to really be free to go anywhere when it’s time to improvise.

I definitely often feel trapped in my own bad technique when I can’t lay down the parts that I hear in my head. Practice would help!

Music serves the same function for me that painting does for you: a medium of play rather than a medium of study.


I have had this song in my head ever since reading the first post in the thread:


The philosophy of Sesame Street came to me while thinking back on this

Sing a song
Sing out loud
Sing out strong
Sing of good things, not bad
Sing of happy, not sad
Sing a song
Make it simple
To last your whole life long
Don’t worry that it’s not good enough
For anyone else to hear
Sing a song


Also, I have found that letting weeds grow to be able to tell them apart from the gorgeous flower beds and get rid of them, is key :seedling:

Meaning: don’t be afraid to create “bad” or “wrong” art. What’s key is learning what works for you and what doesn’t.


I just had my first rought through-listen of my second album in progress, and realized that ever since I got rid of the idea of aiming for a song or an album that defined me as a person, as a creative individual, I have been much more productive and what I create has become much more personal. Ultimately the motivaton used to be external, to show other people who I am and what I’m capable of, and it was just not honest to myself. Like on a job interview or first date we are trying to show the best, or what we believe the other person would perceive as the best of us. Now I’m trying to find answers for myself through what I create, and it has lead to me connecting with my music on steeper emotional level, and to me that’s what matters. It’s extremely empowering to find meaning and emotion in something that I’ve created.