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Hands-On Versus By The Book: The Path To Learning How To Mix

Mixing is a special job and seems to require a certain kind of personality

How do we teach aspiring audio professionals to mix? How important is teaching? Can some people even be taught?

I’ve seen debates in the ProSoundWeb LAB forums as to whether mixing sound can/can’t be taught.

There are a couple of interesting books I’ve read that relate to this idea. The first one is “This Is Your Brain On Music” by Daniel Levitin.

Levitin addresses the age-old question of talent versus work effort, and essentially concludes that the real deciding factor of becoming an “expert” in any subject is how much time was put in. And the threshold of 10,000 hours seems to be the right number for someone to be a well-regarded expert in any field.

Levitin even brings up Mozart as an example, since the Austrian composer is often quoted as being someone who had “talent” and was a “genius.”

Interestingly, Levitin claims that it was likely Mozart had spent 10,000 hours learning music before his compositions were what we would still want to hear today. Of course by then, he was only 10 years old!

Additional research cited by the author followed violin students in the college environment. It was shown that the difference between the levels of the students towards the end of their education was not due to “talent” but due to how much they practiced.

So what does this mean?

To me, it’s still supportable that Mozart was a genius – in other words, something else was going on beyond just thousands of hours of toiling away learning and practicing musical composition.

If not, then why aren’t all the other composers who spent 10,000 hours considered to be just as good as Mozart? And maybe there are examples of genius in our profession – maybe a Phil Ramone or an AI Schmitt, perhaps?

But here’s where I think “This Is Your Brain On Music” gets interesting. In order to learn these new things, there has to be a willingness, or desire, to learn. The subject matter has to seem important to the pupil. And I distinctly remember the difference between subjects that I was interested in and those where I was not.

Math comes to mind. When math was all abstract ideas or things like, “This train left the station at 3 pm, while this train blah blah blah,” then it was as if the concept did not want to enter my brain.

Or, rather, my brain didn’t want the concept to enter.

But when math was applied to sound then I was interested. I learned how algebra applied to filter and power supply designs. I learned how to calculate dB relationships based on changes in voltage or power. Not complex math, mind you, but nevertheless in this scenario, the math was easy. And it was because I wanted to learn it.

Levitin mentions in his book that he often advised that his students would have to “care about the material if you want to do well on the test.” True enough – even though I struggled to get a B on a high school algebra test, I aced just about every one of my audio electronics theory tests, all with the same math.

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