I am learning to play the harmonica. As with so many people around the world, the approach I use is to take a song and its notes somewhere from the internet and practice it until I can play it well.

But somehow I feel I'm missing something very important here. As I proceed further and deep into it I feel this thing can be briefly divided into two parts:

  1. Learning how to play a instrument.
  2. Learning what to play on the instrument.

The whole idea of practice is to do the first part. That is to learn the instrument, its behavior, its sounds and then getting so used to it that ultimately playing the instrument becomes a part of your muscle memory. I know that is no ordinary feat in itself but there is hardly anything special about it.

I am a programmer by profession, and I can type very fast. I know editor commands of a code editor called Emacs so well that I do some actions automatically. But none of this helps me in software cognition or code cognition. They sure help me in expressing ideas faster, but they are tools for when I solve the problem on paper so that I can quickly express it on the computer. In other words, typing quickly is not programming.

In the same way, I draw parallels between learning a instrument and learning typing. Currently I take song notes from the internet and just practice. This means that I am currently just learning the instrument, not music itself. I also see that a few people have the intuition to just figure out music by ear! I know there is some logical cognition involved which helps them do this.

My question is, how can I learn music cognition? What should I read and practice about music that helps in thinking and producing my own music and understand music produced by others? Is it possible to develop music cognition? Or is it only some sort of natural talent?

5 Answers 5


Playing by ear and "intuition" is related to the field of music theory, but more practically is related to ear training and aural skills. As you suspect, some people develop this innately from an early age, but it is a skill that can be developed by a novice later in life.

Here's the cliff notes version: You need to practice listening to music, singing what you hear, and identifying errors in your own playing. Can you tell when someone else plays a wrong note? Can you tell when you play a wrong note? Being able to play by ear is basically this: listen to what you want to play until you know how it sounds (and can sing it back), and then figure it out on your instrument. At first, this second part will be a lot of trial and error, so start simple. This is the skill that professional training and music theory can help with, but if you can identify when you play something that didn't match what you hear, it'll just take practice to develop the connection between what you hear and what you can play.

Improvising is basically the same, except instead of hearing music first, you're hearing it inside your head as you come up with it, and the link between your ear and your instrument is so strong that you are able to play that "fluently." It's kind of like learning how to type. At first you need to pick out each individual letter in each word or each sentence, but now you can just think in sentences and let your fingers do the work.


What you want to get into is music theory. A big part of the music theory courses (at least the ones I have taken) is interval and harmony recognition. By understanding the theory and learning to hear the intervals it will be easier to play by ear. This is however something that takes a lot of practice and yes, for some it will be easier than for others. Another very important part is learning to play scales. Another thing you will want to learn is the relationships of chords and the circle of fifths (Wikipedia has a good guide here).

There is a lot more but these are a few pointers to start out with.


For ear-training you could follow the basic procedure used by Suzuki students. At first, play melody lines you already know really well, anything from nursery rhymes to pop songs to Christmas carols. Start with something simple like Twinkle Twinkle, pick a starting note and try to reconstruct the tune. Be kind to yourself and go a couple of notes at a time; once you have three or four correct-sounding notes in a row, practice them a few times before moving on. Try not to write anything down until you've got the whole simple tune by ear. Once you've really got it, try playing around with the tune by varying the rhythm, adding decorative extra notes, or transposing (picking a different starting note and playing the melody correctly from there). That helps you become more certain about your grasp of the notes, and it's also the beginnings of improvisation.

Then, move on to tunes you don't already know, but saturate your ears in a recording of the desired tunes for at least a week or so until you can sing along easily. Even better is if you can sing or mentally hear the tune (getting it "stuck in your head") without first being prompted by the recording. Once at this point, use the recording and trial-and-error to find the starting note on your instrument, and then try to figure out the notes as you did for the already-known tunes. Don't try to play along with the recording (it won't allow you enough time to think) -- rely on your knowledge of how it goes.

Do something fun with each tune. Try to resist the adult learner's lure of rushing through too many pieces too quickly without really understanding and enjoying each one.

After doing this for a while you will be able to hear certain patterns like going higher vs. going lower, moving by one or two notes vs. moving by a large leap, without having to test out every possibility on your instrument. The more patterns you learn to hear, the faster you will become at learning new pieces by ear. If you do invest time in studying music theory, you will know many more patterns and they will help.

Dr. Suzuki believed that musical ability can be learned and developed through practice in the same way as one's ability to speak one's mother tongue. This method of learning is through practice (making music and then playing around with it) instead of learning theoretical rules first and then applying them.

Hearing a piece once or twice and being able to identify all the notes is actually a pretty hard task -- college students have to do it for exams and they sweat and stress over it.


Listening to music and trying to play it (with or without sheet music) is a primary way to gain an understanding of music. But I can't recommend enough reading about music theory and ideas. Though I can't agree with or understand completely everything they say, the famous composers Paul Hindemith and Arnold Shoenberg have very interesting books on music fundamentals. Try also reading Heinrich Schenker (of Schenkerian Analysis). The common denominator of these three is probably the study of Western Harmony, which seems to instantiate the most challenging aspects of music that desire special concentration.

For a rather encyclopedic account, see Walter Piston's Harmony.

Try also reading history. The story of how the West came to employee almost exclusively the twelve tone equal tempered scale is not just technically rich, but highlights the emphasis and understanding of Western Music's greatest minds.

If you haven't considered it already, I'd strongly recommend studying Bach (like the Well-Tempered Clavier). Many consider his works supremely elegant and representative of the most significant musical ideas.


Not just "natural talent" by any means. Intuition is a subconscious process trained by experience. A big part of what intuition does is comparing an input to a database of familiar patterns. For instance, it compares the song you're hearing and its chord progression to the database of all songs you know and the harmonies used in those, and tells you which chord is likely to come next. If your database is empty (which is how you once started), then your intuition has nothing to work with. If you have a robust library in there, you're likely to get fairly good results.

It doesn't really run on logic and, being subconscious, it's not directly controllable. But it's definitely learned and can be trained on purpose.

How? Well, get it enough experience to feed on. Listen to music. Play music. Notice rhythms and harmonies and progressions. Listen and play some more. Broaden your horizons. Deepen your understanding. Listen. Play.

(And, yes, knowing some theory helps you properly annotate the patterns as you're saving them.)

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