’Learn to Speak Music,’ by John Crossingham

A Canadian indie musician teaches the Owl Magazine set how to jam, write chorus and verse—and much more
Michael Barclay

‘Learn to Speak Music,’ by John CrossinghamRock’n’roll is a young person’s pursuit. While reading John Crossingham’s Learn to Speak Music—published by Owl Kids Press and presumably written for the magazine’s target demographic of 9 to 13—the question is: just how young?

Crossingham has written a children’s book explaining in careful detail everything you need to know about starting a band: rehearsing, songwriting, and putting on your first gig. By the time he starts explaining the difference between a PZM and a Shure SM-57 microphone, you have to wonder exactly how young his audience is—and if they’re at all impressed with Crossingham’s international touring experience as a member of Broken Social Scene, a band that doesn’t exactly command a tween audience.

But overestimating a young reader’s intelligence is hardly a crime. Crossingham is careful never to assume knowledge, either. He breaks down the difference between a verse and a chorus, explains what it means to jam, and points out how important social relations are in making music with others. He does so in clear, plain language devoid of the drab bafflegab that drags down other how-to books for any age. Many tips here are invaluable for teens and adults as well, if they don’t mind being talked to like a 10-year-old.

The frequent nods to Crossingham’s indie rock background are forgivable, though I’m curious how many parents and/or children will scramble to find the Neutral Milk Hotel or Do Make Say Think albums that appear on his recommended listening playlists. If you don’t know who those acts are, no matter—it hardly distracts from the bulk of his text. He also enlists expert advice from the likes of Feist, Dallas Green (Alexisonfire, City and Colour), Buck 65, and Metric’s Emily Haines, along with every member of Broken Social Scene, who all offer their own idiosyncratic takes on the first steps to success.

Key to the book’s success are Jeff Kulak’s beautiful illustrations, done in a design paying homage to ’50s and ’60s advertising, instructional literature and children’s books. The style is playful and Paul Frank-ish cutesy enough for children, but sophisticated and retro-revisionist referential enough to stimulate adults’ appreciation of design.

Most importantly, Learn to Speak Music successfully demystifies the musical process in ways approachable by all ages. And despite the appearance of targeting hipster parents rather than their kids, there is thankfully no irony involved at all.