Through 2020 and 2021, isolated at home while covid-19 raged outside, I became a musician. I have been playing in bands since high school and had grown proficient enough on the guitar to be able to accompany myself while singing. But I had never received formal training and though my musical vocabulary was extensive, it was untutored and instinctive.
Over those two years, I would take the time to formally learn how to play the guitar, starting with music theory and graduating to mastering technique. For all this, I turned to YouTube. While it is easy to get distracted on the platform, it is actually a gold mine of information if you want to learn something. And the best YouTube channels are musicology ones.
From music theory to songwriting, or music production, and learning an instrument, there’s frankly nothing better than YouTube. Over the course of those years—and this one as well—I have finally received a musical education. While I magpied information from a plethora of channels, there are three YouTube channels I keep gravitating to. The following is a subjective list, of course, but if you are interested, you should check them out.
Rick Beato (music producer, educator); YouTube channels: Rick Beato/Rick Beato 2
Let’s begin with the most famous of music YouTubers, Rick Beato. The 62-year-old native of Atlanta, US, is today a bona- fide star, with over three million subscribers. His channel, Everything Music, had a low-key footprint in 2015, when it started. Then a video of his went viral. In it, his then-toddler son, Dylan, perfectly identifies individual notes within complex chord clusters. Dylan’s unassuming answers to each chord pattern Beato plays (Dylan has “perfect pitch”, the ability to identify notes without the help of a reference tone) wowed audiences, with the video racking up three million views.
Beato decided to use this sudden fame to dedicate the channel to music education. As he has said many times, his son’s abilities may seem uncanny but they can be nurtured. And when people grow up and lose their perfect pitch, they can still sharpen their relative pitch, with the ability to break down any musical composition by ear.
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Since then, Beato’s channel has gone from strength to strength, primarily because Beato is an excellent communicator and knows what he’s talking about. He received a bachelor of arts in music at Ithaca College in New York in 1980, and a master’s degree in jazz from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1987.
Beato has worked in nearly every level of the US music industry, as a sessions musician, a songwriter, a record producer, an audio engineer and a music lecturer at institutions like the Berklee College of Music in Boston. While his experience is formidable, what really makes him such a great teacher is his sheer love for music and the intricacies of song composition. You will find him gushing over the songwriting of Miles Davis or The Beatles as much as Taylor Swift and H.E.R. His live songwriting sessions are a joy, as are his breakdowns of seemingly dense music theory.
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But if there’s one thing I love, it’s his series What Makes This Song Great?. In each of over 100 episodes, he takes one song from one artist and breaks it down, from the songwriting to the arrangement, to the mix and the performance, using this to comment on why the artist is great. Notable showcases include Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Police and Steely Dan. Also check out his brilliant interviews with the likes of Sting, Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Ron Carter.
David Bennett (pianist, composer, educator); YouTube channel: David Bennett Piano
The jazz pianist from Sussex, England, is only in his 20s, but already a formidable presence in the world of music YouTubers. While his preferred instrument, the piano, doesn’t hold much interest for me, I find his songwriting videos extremely useful. With time, it has become clearer to me that what really sets the true geniuses apart is their ability to write songs. To this end, Bennett’s channel is a godsend.
He started the channel in 2018 and it has racked up a sizable 707,000 followers. The video series of his I love, are the ones on music theory pertaining to songwriting. While many have found music theory an often insurmountable barrier, Bennett’s easy, breezy approach shows it’s anything but. He focuses on standard songwriting tricks, like well-known chord progressions, and showcases songs from different artists that use these same tricks to wildly different ends.
A fantastic recent video on the hugely popular I-V-bVII-IV progression shows how the same progression (down to the same key of C major) is used by artists as wildly different as OK Go for Here It Goes Again, The Foundations in Build Me Up Buttercup, The Dandy Warhols in We Used To Be Friends, TLC in Waterfalls, Duran Duran in Rio, The Cranberries in Linger, Lou Reed in Satellite Of Love or Robyn in Show Me Love.
Simply put, when you part the curtain of seemingly mystical talent and see the craft and process behind the pop song, not only does your appreciation for it increases, but you can also pick up interesting tricks for your own songwriting. Bennett’s YouTube channel is priceless for this reason.
Paul Davids (guitarist, producer, educator); YouTube channel: Paul Davids
If I mine David Bennett’s channel for songwriting hacks, I go to Paul Davids’ channel for the same, with added focus on learning new guitar-playing techniques as well. Davids, who is from the Netherlands, has a bachelor’s degree in music from the Rotterdam Conservatory. He began the channel from his living room in 2015. Seven years and 2.97 million followers later, Davids produces slickly filmed episodes from his new home studio.
And what a joy they are. Davids’ main business is his subscription-based guitar and theory courses and he usually takes aspects from his tutorials to create his videos. Although he covers a vast gamut of guitar-related subjects, including guitar reviews, the ones I find the most edifying are simple lessons that aim to help you become a better guitar player.
Again, the beauty of the videos lies in their simplicity. When Davids shows how you can spice up a standard major chord, by adding a suspended note, arpeggiating the chord or playing an inversion, he’s essentially enhancing your musical vocabulary, showing how you can do much more with just three-four chords. Before I chanced upon his channel, I knew all this in theory, but when Davids actually shows you how to do it, it’s like a string of light bulbs going off in your brain.
Another useful set of Davids’ videos deal with home music production, and as I have been in the process of setting up a small home studio and learning how to record and mix, these too have been a godsend. It’s usually the simple—but vital—things that stand out: how to mic your instruments and your voice, how to correctly master gain (the loudness or softness of sound), how to record basic tracks and overdubs, and, finally, what to look for when mixing. There are many other dedicated music production YouTubers who do this, but I find Davids particularly useful because his primary instrument is the guitar. As an added bonus, check out his fantastic set of videos decoding guitar playing with modern jazz great Rotem Sivan.