Most musical schools start with a bottom-up teaching eg. Czerny etudes for the dexterity and the velocity of fingers. However, teachers usually go through all the etudes before moving on towards real works.

While I agree with the necessity of such basic practice and education, I wonder whether there exists an approach that is rather top-down based and goes like "OK, here's this piece; now if you want to be able to play this part, you need to practice the following exercises: ".

5 Answers 5


Interesting - there is a 'top down' for guitar music. I'm thinking of popular guitar tunes, rather than classical guitar.

People who self-teach generally start off learning chord shapes which will enable you to strum your way through a song. A lot of guitar tutorials work this way.

You can also learn "basic" chords which will work, and add more intricacy as you get more confident.

If you then want to move on to the more difficult/intricate parts, eg a solo or some intricate picking, you can tackle that as a separate exercise.

Learning scales (eg good ol' pentatonic as a starting point) and riffs will help with the dexterity for more intricate parts.

Others will answer with more detail for piano/other instruments, but I think what I say here is true for guitar.

  • So you suggest to try to play a particular piece, and eg. in the case of a piano, let the fingering come as comfortable as possible and not let the worldwide taught fingering standards confuse the pupil? Apr 14, 2014 at 11:52
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    Not really - I'm talking about guitar (for which that would work). OP hasn't stated a particular instrument, although the etudes is a piano piece. I couldn't really comment on how to go about piano, and there might be (probably are) reasons why going for the standard ways of doing things are best, although I'm a big advocate of innovation. I'm guessing that getting comfortable with your own chord fingering on a piano could amount to getting into unhelpful habits. I guess my point is that it might be different for different instruments, hopefully I'm leaving room for that. Apr 14, 2014 at 12:05
  • Yes, it's clear, thank you. Yes, basically I'm approching the subject from the perspective of the piano, I didn't think the efficiency and the unhelpfulness of certain habits might be instrument variant. Apr 14, 2014 at 12:42
  • I think there's possibly more scope for getting into a fingery knot on a piano than on guitar. My understanding of piano is limited though. Most simple/popular guitar chords fit the hands in a fairly intuitive way so I think it's probably easier to self-teach fingering on guitar, although there are of course well understood techniques & hand positioning that make things easier. Mar 17, 2015 at 10:27
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    I'm a guitar player and I teach guitar for a living, but I come from a long line of concert pianists and am familiar with the Czerny etudes. The goal of them is primarily to get the left hand (playing the chords) synchronized with the scales played by the left hand. They supposedly provide a very solid foundation for playing classical music. If you don't want to play classical music make sure you have/ find a teacher who plays the genre you like.
    – Jay Skyler
    Apr 22, 2015 at 15:32

There is no need to train on exercises only. My piano teacher gives real songs and exercises in somewhat 50 : 50 % proportion.

Many really nice piano pieces like "Love me Tender" or "Jingle Bells" or "Let it Be" melody line are actually not so difficult to play. There is no lack in "easy piano" books with adapted, simplified versions of really great, real songs. After you master the simplified song (one hand only, for instance), get and try the more complete version.

Of course, such song will never sound like performed by the professional band. The band uses more instruments, additional chords and melody insertions and the like. But hopefully this is not your purpose.

  • I like this approach. One question: in case of self-teaching, how does one "extract" and isolate the necessary technique required for a certain piece? Apr 15, 2014 at 8:06
  • +1, there's nothing wrong with making a piece of music your own and playing it your way - unless you're being examined (I'm self taught, I don't play to pass tests). Some songs my left hand plays the song's bassline, some songs my left hand plays the chords, some songs it's a mixture. Apr 15, 2014 at 9:57
  • @András Hummer adapting a complex piece to make it simpler seems advanced, you need to buy such notations, or maybe find on the web.
    – h22
    Apr 15, 2014 at 13:52

I once asked a famous violinist this same question, and this is what he said to me:

If you only learn the technique for a certain piece, you need to begin anew with every piece that you learn. If you achieve technical mastery before the music, learning the piece becomes a matter of applying your technique.

All that said, it's not fun drilling etudes for hours with no music. So I agree with others' answers in saying that there should be a mix (ideally music that reinforces the learned techniques, or perhaps concert etudes).

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    I would add that with every new piece the amount of new technique required to learn will eventually start decreasing. Apr 15, 2014 at 8:05

False premise. Music teachers DO start with real music, whether it's a made-up 'Dance of the Goblins' for youngsters or 'Minuet in G' for adults. Alongside these, there will be some work on scales and arpeggios. I've never known a teacher work through Czerny before introducing real music.

So, yes, there is an approach that includes real music from the outset. And everyone uses it.


Something to consider, when using a "top-down" approach:

When studying pedagogics, we learned about two different approaches:

  1. Learning theory first, then doing experiments to apply it.
  2. Doing experiments first, then learning the theory behind it.

If I understand correctly, the "top-down" approach you describe would be similar to approach 2. First attempting to do a practical task, then learning the theory behind it to be able to understand and complete the practical task. Experiments and tests done with a whole lot students show that approach 2 gives higher motivation, and higher learning rewards. If I remember correctly, also the long-term learning, and learning portability increases. Meaning that the material was remembered for a longer time, and was more likely to be utilized in new situations.

Traditional learning usually prefers approach 1, but this can possibly cause low motivation, and only short-time learning.

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