One of the most common questions music students ask is, “What’s the best way to learn a piece of music?” There are many ways! These are the ones I find most helpful:
- Sight reading from notation
When you sight read, it means you can play the piece immediately and accurately the first time you read it.
Benefit: Those who are good at sight-reading have an unlimited repertoire, since they can play anything they can read.
Drawback: You need the notation to be able to play the piece.
How to learn this skill: this ability usually comes after years of music-reading, but it is dependent on knowing that what you see physically on the page represents intervals which you can recognize by the shapes and patterns you see. If you’re trying to think of the names for each note, sight reading is less likely to be successful.
- Memorizing from notation
This means after studying the music and playing the piece numerous times, you can put the notation away and play the piece accurately from memory.
Benefit: You don’t have to carry around a bag full of sheet music and books.
How to learn this skill: Work on remembering one phrase at a time. Don’t read through the whole piece and expect to remember it! And don’t go back to the beginning each time you make a mistake or don’t remember something; start from where you left off. Memory is often set through struggling with something, so don’t refer to the notation every time you aren’t sure; instead, play around with it until you find the right notes. You’ll be sure to remember it next time! Also, rather than memorizing what you see on the page, memorize instead the sound of the music and the patterns it creates both aurally and in the fingering. If you are seeing the notation in your head, you may as well have it on the paper In front of you!
- Reading with practice
This means after studying the piece and reading it through numerous times, you can play it well while reading it.
Benefit: Confidence while reading
Drawback: You are dependent on sheet music and books.
How to learn this skill: The key is a LOT of practice. Instead of reading every note you play, see how much you can play without looking at the notation – you might be surprised!
- Transcribing what you hear, then learn it from your own notation
If you have a good ear, and if you know how to write notation well, this works for those who don’t like to memorize music.
Benefit: You don’t need to start with hard copy notation because you make your own. And in so doing much of it will stay in your memory.
Drawback: You can become dependent on the notation you create, when you could be continually creative.
How to learn this skill: Learn your music theory and get ear training. These skills are essential as a musician.
- Playing by rote – memorizing exactly what you have heard
If you listen carefully to a piece, understand what you are hearing, and have the skill to play it and remember it, this is an effective way for some people to learn.
Benefit: You won’t need notation – the tunes are in your head and in your hands.
Drawback: If someone wants you to play a different arrangement of a piece, unless you also have one of the above skills, you are limited.
How to learn this skill: Some people, especially those who are considered “left brained”, find this easy. It involves no interpretation,, just an accurate memory for exactly what you have heard. Memory can be developed by listening to a piece repeatedly before attempting to play it.
- Memorizing a melody and then creating your own arrangement by ear
If you listen to and can memorize a melody and a general chord structure, you can create your own arrangement of it, which by choice may or may not sound similar to the arrangement you first heard.
Benefit: You can play pretty much anything within your chosen style and skill level , and sometimes even do it on the fly!
Drawback: If you don’t also have some of the other skills listed here, you may not be able to play notated pieces as written, which can be important in ensembles.
How to learn this skill: Listen and listen and listen some more. The, if you have an understanding of music theory or an ear for harmonizing and chord structures, this is an almost automatic skill.
Probably the best way to learn your music is to choose at least three of the above methods: the one you do most naturally, and two others that will enhance it. There may be some work involved, and that’s a good thing. Really having to work at something will integrate the information and the skill permanently.
Very importantly, don’t let anyone tell you there’s only one right way to learn a piece of music. Everyone learns differently. Music is an art and a science, and we need to be flexible.