What does it mean to ‘learn’ a piece of music?

I’m asking this question in response to some conversation following on from my Repertoire Rules (for students) post, where the idea of learning 26 pieces in a year was queried  – could a student possibly learn 26 pieces (or more) in a year, and if so, what did we meaning by ‘learning’?

In my previous post I described the way many students have (and continue to be) taught when they are ‘learning’ a piece of music: what I call The Lamination Technique, where separate hands practice with an emphasis on pitch accuracy is followed by putting hands together, then correcting the rhythm, later applying articulation, later still adding dynamics, and so forth. Students finally reach a point where they say “I’ve learned this piece” even if their performance is not particularly interesting or inspired. What “I’ve learned this piece” ends up meaning is that the student’s performances do not deviate all that far from the required notes, rhythms, articulations, and dynamics, and that the student is reasonably confident they know what those required values are.

So one way of defining ‘learning’ is where first and foremost the goal (and therefore the measure) of learning is accuracy.

Students are cool with this, because as a rule they’ve never before heard the music they are learning so they have no idea in their imagination as to what this music might sound like, where it might be performed, who might want to listen to it, in short, what it might mean; the music exists solely as a sequence of instructions to be followed as accurately as possible.

Compare this with the circumstance of the student wanting to ‘learn’ a pop song. They turn up at the piano lesson with the sheet music and with a complete knowledge of the song – they can ‘play’ the song in their head, even if they’ve never ‘played’ it on the piano. They have already internalised the melodic shapes, the dynamic contours, the phrasing, the attacks, and now they are working from an arrangement to attempt to recreate this vivid musical experience on their own piano at home.

Teachers dread this occurrence. The music is invariably poorly arranged. The arrangement is invariably far too hard for the student. But, in a spirit of wanting to keep the (usually pubescent) student motivated, the teacher embraces the challenge, and the learning process already well0-known through prior years of learning of examination material is now applied to the pop song arrangement sitting on the music stand.

The student starts to pluck out the notes one by one, separate hands. And what emerges from the instrument sounds nothing like the musical image the student is hearing in their head. But this is the only way teacher and student know how to ‘learn’ a piece, so the task of accurately mastering the pitch of each note is followed by the task of mastering the rhythmic patterns and accurately coordinating the pitches of the two hands. Absent from this process for many weeks will be any sense of dynamic, phrasing or attack, and so the student simply cannot hear any of the gestures that make the song so desirable – so meaningful – that they wanted to learn it in the first place.

Teachers tend to blame the arrangements for the failure of these pop-song-learning experiments, or to bemoan the mismatch between the student’s abilities and the degree of difficulty of the arrangement. But I suspect these two genuine sources of challenge are not the genuine source of the failure; that lies in the approach to the learning. The mistaken notion that in music accuracy is what it’s all about, and that gesture is something you can apply (if you have time) at the end of the process (once the ‘learning’ is done), leads to students ‘learning’ something that sounds the complete antithesis to the music that set their imaginations in flight.

As my three year old would say, that is not good.

So let’s look at what ‘learning’ a piece of music means.

Firstly, the student needs to understand the idea of the piece, and I say firstly because traditionally students are expected to cotton on to the idea of the piece having slogged their way through the information of the piece. Students have no interest in the information of the piece unless they’ve already bought into the ideas. Understanding the idea of the piece will almost always involve hearing it, and it shouldn’t need explaining that that is because music makes its meanings sonically, not through its written manifestation.

Learning a piece of music starts with the student being engaged with the music itself.

Secondly, the student needs to approach the piece itself as the learning experience, not as an obstacle course. So the student should have all the skills in place prior to embarking on an engagement with the piece of music, not frantically acquiring skills on a bar-by-bar basis as the student encounters unfamiliar obstacles. It is the piece itself which is being learned, not the entire art of playing the piano.

Learning a piece of music presupposes that the student can play it, not that they can’t!

Thirdly, the learning style called into play for the piece will be determined by the piece itself. So some pieces will be easily learned from reading the score. Others will be easily learned when taught by demonstration. Others will be easily learned when a structural approach is taken, while yet others will suit a listening-based approach. It is the responsibility of the teacher to assess which learning style will suit the repertoire, and to guide the student to fastest possible engagement with what the piece is about.

Learning a piece of music will involve processes related to and emerging from the way the piece of music is composed, the ideas it conveys, and the nature of its notation.

Next for discussion is a conversation I’ve never really heard piano teachers have with each other: by what measure can we say that a student has ‘learned’ a piece?

6 thoughts on “What does it mean to ‘learn’ a piece of music?

  1. I hear what you’re saying Elissa and I like it very much. As a young learner I was taught mostly by “The Lamination Technique”, so teaching any other way doesn’t really come naturally. Do you have any practical suggestions as to how teachers can retrain their thinking and teaching techniques to incorporate these different approaches?

    • Gail, I’m working on a few more posts to directly respond to your excellent query about practical suggestions for changing from ‘Laminating’ to other ways of learning….. I’ll get them up over the next few days.

  2. Also having been brought up in the “Lamination” paradigm, I experienced something much different when I started playing jazz.

    In a jazz group, you were basically thrown in the deep end of the pool. One or two of the band members would know the tune and served as flotation devices while I flailed about at the piano trying to figure out what was going on. There wasn’t time to use the lamination method – the form and the big ideas came first: here’s the bridge, oh here comes that F#alt7 spot (bah…missed it again!), wait..did I just miss the head?

    I found that “learning” a new tune depended very little on knowing the actual notes (since in jazz, the actual notes change from performance to performance.) I regarded myself as having learned a tune when I no longer relied on the others and could convincingly hang a melody on the form.

    I’ve started using this benchmark with my students. I consider them to have “learned” a piece when the big picture framework (form, phrasing, and shape) is in place, still realizing of course that there’s a significant part of the journey that’s yet to be explored.

    A fascinating question, Elissa. Thanks for bringing it up!

  3. I think the pivotal question here is how ready/able are teachers to make the move from their traditional exam/structured approach to using a wider variety of approaches. Students will make this adjustment almost instanly – it is the teachers who will struggle. The reluctance to change borne out of being uncomfortable with new methods.

    I believe most teachers are open to such suggestions, however when at the sharp end with a student in front of them they revert to type.

    Will be interesting to follow your thoughts as they develop. Thanks.

  4. I know what you’re talking about regarding jazz, Jason. There is so much more freedom when you are not confined by the notes on the page. Improvisation is pretty much a lost technique among most classical musicians I know personally. Maybe that is part of the problem. I learnt to improvise when I joined a church band and can do pretty well in that environment. However, I still can’t do it as easily in the classical style yet (probably a mind block!) but it will click eventually I think.

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