In math education, there are two (not necessarily dichotomous) camps: (a) people who advocate drill and kill (which is a form of rote learning) (b) people who advocate constructive learning

Now, I see benefits to both forms of learning, and in fact, there's quite a bit that is complementary between them, and I can see how the drill-and-kill method would help with other kinds of reflective or constructive learning.

I came across this app called Yousician, which helps with the drill-and-kill aspect of learning guitar, allowing users to focus on extended periods of deliberate practice. I have heard some reviewers belittle this app due to the fact that it doesn't really teach you the elements of music that have to do with forming some kind of creative output. It just helps you with the mechanics of playing guitar.

This got me wondering if it is possible to bifurcate guitar playing into the mechanical or procedural aspects, like fretting the right notes when sight-reading, playing scales and arpeggios well, etc., and the creative aspects like forming melody lines and licks, etc. Drawing a parallel to math education, I don't see how you can become proficient at higher levels of creative playing without nailing down the mechanical/procedural elements first.

So, an app like Yousician would be a great first step as long as it is followed up by regular guitar classes to bring the student up from the end of beginner level to advanced.

Am I right in my analysis?

  • 5
    Totally, utterly, and completely off topic: What a horrible app name. Jun 2, 2021 at 10:01
  • By "forming melody lines and licks", "creative output", and "creative playing", do you mean expressive playing and interpretation of the sheet music, or do you mean composition and/or improvisation? I am incapable of playing some of my most advanced solo piano compositions and arrangements at full speed, even after 6 months of practice, so I strongly believe that you can become proficient at higher levels of composition and arrangement without nailing down the mechanical/procedural elements first.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jun 2, 2021 at 11:54
  • @Dekkadeci: I meant composition and improvisation, mainly.
    – Joebevo
    Jun 2, 2021 at 12:00
  • @Joebevo, no one is an advocate for "drill and kill." No one advocates killing a student's interest. Jun 2, 2021 at 14:15
  • Is it wise? I don’t know, but I have an opinion. Ask Mr. Owl.
    – wabisabied
    Jun 3, 2021 at 17:16

4 Answers 4


I wouldn't compare rote learning in math with rote learning in music, because music is a temporal art and math isn't. For music you want to train reflexive movements so you can play without hesitation. Being in time is everything. But math doesn't really have that requirement. Certainly not with the split second timing of music.

...I don't see how you can become proficient at higher levels of creative playing without nailing down the mechanical/procedural elements first.

I disagree. Especially about setting up a dichotomy between creative/mechanical and higher/lower. Plenty of musical creativity is procedural. It's very pattern driven. The axiom of repetition with variation is basically a procedure statement. Mechanical performance matters are not all low level. Plenty of etudes are specifically about mechanical challenges and are for high level players.

I think performance (mechanical) and improvisation (creative) aspects should be studied hand in hand at the level appropriate for the player. Composition should be a third aspect of musical learning, which I think is distinctly different than the other two, and that throws out the notion of a bifurcation.

He is an example to illustrate what I mean. Playing DO RE MI surely is something to learn at the most basic level. Playing it mechanically is a matter of finger coordination and dealing with the instrument itself, keys, frets, valves, etc. As you develop the ability play DO RE MI in various positions and keys, with a few basic rhythms, you can add in some improvisation to turn rote patterns into a musical phrase. The path to doing that will by necessity introduce some compositional ideas like repetition to continue a line, repetition with variation to add variety, function of scale degrees, and structuring phrases with cadences. A lot of that could be first taught by example and then later learned more deeply in music theory study...

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...start with a basic DO RE MI that the earliest student can play, repeat it to extend the phrase, vary it with a modified rhythm using some neighboring non-chord tones, vary the order of tones in the last bar to end on RE for a half cadence. Stuff like this should be improvised regularly from rote material through application of rhythm patterns and rudimentary harmony (essentially cadences which should be practiced in rote exercises as well.)

Depending on what the rote material is other improvisational exercises could be devised. But the point is the mechanical and creative are complimentary. They don't need to be separated into two apposed domains. Exercise both at an appropriate level.


This is a classic either or red herring of a question. Do we do A or B, the two cannot be done together. In fact this is not true at all. One can combine both methods and take what is useful from both.

Mastering any musical instrument involves mastering your own body movements, the physics of the instrument, and your connection with the instrument. You cannot effectively make up creative licks or learn songs if you do not have any physical connection to the instrument, if you cannot make a good sound from it. Learning songs and being creative is the motive and if you don't do anything creative most students quit. This is why I think the approach my teacher used was a good mix of both. From day one there was introduction to reading and learning correct technique through exercises. But he also said "what song do you want to learn" and created exercises from one or two simple riffs or licks from that song (it was a Kiss tune, and I was 7 or 8 years old).

If you look at the classical approach, refer to Pepe Romero's book or Carcassi, you will see a mix of "mechanical" exercises for both right and left hands in dependently, and performance pieces that uses the techniques taught in each section progressing in difficulty.

I would say the your "bifurcating" suggestion is exactly how the guitar is taught and has been for over 150 years.

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    Your teacher had the right approach in my opinion. Teaching based around helping you learn to play something that interested you specifically gave you a more meaningful short term goal and allowed for you to experience a meaningful reward - learning to play something that you liked. It is important for any student learning any instrument to receive some gratification early in the process by learning to play something that interests them. You can learn the mechanics in the process of learning to play something that you actually want to be able to play. Jun 3, 2021 at 14:35

This seems to be a long-winded way of saying "Should I practice my scales and other technical exercises aiming mainly for fluency, then practice 'pieces' thinking more of the artistic result?" To which the answer, of course, is 'Yes'.


Why restrict this to guitar? It's appropriate for any muscal instrument. Let's face it, each one has different ways which are used in note production, so initally, at very least, each needs to be studied from a practical point of view - how to get some noise out of the darned thing!

That's at a very basic level, after which making music come from it is the next step. Scales, arpeggios, chords are all the musical basics - not particularly entwined with producing those sounds, but a by-product of that.

There are many players who don't know scales, etc., but something intrinsic in them makes them natural players, who can and do produce great music, without relying on theory to do so. It may well cost them extra time working out what notes to use, but they get there. Maybe that's the trade-off - time spent learning scales, etc., versus time spent 'experimenting'?

So, there's no neccessity to split into one direction rather than the other, maybe for some that happens naturally, but - even being absolutely brilliant playing the technicals - scales, etc., does not guarantee the other part happens automatically. It may help, but doesn't do more than open the doorway to playing creatively. Rather like most of us can string a sentence together, but does that mean we could all be poet laureates?

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