This question is going to take some time to explain (at least for me), so pardon the length ahead of time. Also note that it seem like it elicits opinions but this is not the intent. I'm interested in people's opinions on what works for them but I'm sure there is an objective perspective based on research in cognitive neuroscience and am aware of some musicians taking advantage of this.

The nature of the question applies more to classical performance rather than improv (at least that is what I'm interested in).

So here is some background to illustrate where I'm coming from (what's on my mind). I have always found it easier to learn a song and commit it to memory before attempting to include all the expressive markings indicated in the sheet music, such as dynamics, accents, etc. It seems reasonable to me and has "worked" in the sense that eventually I get to a performance level, i.e. the piece is memorized, clean, can be played expressively, and I can even improvise by playing with the basic components of the piece. This approach can be described loosely as 'Figure out what to play then how to play it', or 'Get the melody correct, then the directions'. I even have memory of past instructors guiding me in that direction but some of that could be me filling in memories. Back in high school I had a violin teacher who insisted on playing every note the very first time exactly as it is indicated, with accents, vibrato, dynamics, expressiveness. All these dimensions at the very first effort to play. He promoted the idea that if you start perfectly there will be no real practice necessary (my embellishment). Really what I think he meant is that practice time would be minimized. I'm not talking about a hour on one given day, but the months that go into getting ready for a solo performance. At the time this seemed impossible to me and a little obsessive.

Later in life I began to read about how "muscle memory" works and how we train ourselves by repetition. Clearly no one wants to repeat a mistake or a bad habit, that is counterproductive. But is it not the case that by practicing to play a group of notes in tune without proper attention to accents and dynamics you've made a type of mistake? Is doing things this way (learn the what then the how) a set up to only have to retrain yourself?

I follow my old violin teacher's advice w/r to playing fast. In fact all my teachers promoted the idea that to play fast you need to first play perfectly. But I usually equate this to perfect placement of the fingers in the instrument and perfect timing of the various body parts involved. Again, I take the position that it isn't much effort to add dynamics and emotion after the piece is completely memorized and at tempo. But I'm not completely sure that's true.

Anyone who has mastered an instrument knows it takes effort to learn each new technique, to learn the correct amount of force or pressure required to create different tones and volumes, to learn vibrato and tremolo. So is it even reasonable to expect anyone to play all aspects of a piece from the first attempt at the first note? Or is this the secret to expert performance?

Based on the above my questions are:

  1. What approach do people take for working a piece of music up to solo performance quality?

  2. Does anyone use the approach I attribute to my violin teacher?

  3. Does anyone know of a scientifically proven superior approach to practice based on neuroscience?

  • i don't see how you can play something at performance level if you can't even play the notes. need to learn the piece in order..Notes, rhythm/speed, feeling (dynamics, accents, etc). the easier the piece compared to your ability the easier it is to play more aspects of the piece correctly off the bat. comment and not an answer because i can't speak to #3.
    – b3ko
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 19:46
  • We may be talking past each other, or maybe I didn't say things correctly. Why not play just the first note as a piece?
    – user50691
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 20:00
  • What do you mean "play just the first note as a piece"?
    – b3ko
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 20:12
  • You could pare this down to something as short as: "Is it better to learn the notes and chords in the right order and then learn the accents and dynamics and timing, or should all the elements of every note be learned right from the start?" Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 20:34
  • 2
    The answers for the questions you asked are basicaly the "secrets" that every high performance musician wants to know. Someone could write a book about this subject. In fact, several people did and there is plenty material and lots of point of views. I could cite, for example: "Technique, Mechanism, Learning" by Eduardo Fernández, "The Musician's Way" by Gerald Klickstein or even "The Inner Game of Music" by Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallwey.
    – TiagoPC
    Commented Jul 14, 2018 at 2:07

3 Answers 3


This may help one aspect: repetition of success.
As a teacher put it quite succinctly during a recent rehearsal, "too many students play a passage 10 times wrong, then get it right, declare success, and move on." That won't work. As Todd W. discussed, muscle/neuro training requires repetition of the right way . The moment you achieve success with a passage, or a measure, or whatever, repeat until you can get it right X times in a row ( 5 < X < 15 ) .

  • That makes sense. I have heard that from all my teachers. In addition, when plying anything the first time your body doesn't know what is right or wrong so the very first thing you attempt is memorized as a pattern (for better or worse).
    – user50691
    Commented Jul 13, 2018 at 12:46

The branch of science you actually want to ask about is cognitive research, which is about how humans think and learn. Neuroscience is more about brain and nerve function and chemistry below the level of conscious thought.

Cognitive research tells us several things that are relevant to learning music:

  • We have to learn fundamentals before we can learn more advanced concepts. As musicians, this confirms what we sort of know already: we have to master the basic techniques, finger positions, etc., before we can more easily learn long sequences of precise motions that create a piece of music.
  • Part of human learning involves chunking, which is when our minds assemble simpler bits of information into related chunks of information. For example, we might start off playing a chord by placing each finger individually one at a time, but in time, we see the chord notated on the page and our fingers can very quickly form the shape needed to play the chord. Our minds have chunked those different finger positions together into one overall hand position. Chunking continues to more and more difficult concepts.
  • We retain information learned best when we are experiencing a strong emotion or stress when presented with the information. That suggests that the more we can feel the emotion of a piece, the better we might remember it. At the same time, we might not have to feel the piece itself. If we set out to learn music that reminds us of a long lost loved one, we might be more likely to learn it faster and remember it better.

My take on this information and your question is that there isn't one right way to learn a piece. It may help to have a strategy and awareness of what fundamentals you need to master and how you want to assemble your chunks.

I learn pieces the way you do: I want to learn the notes in order with the timing and then I feel like the expression and emphasis and accents come easily. One reason why that makes sense to me is because the note order is more fixed and rigid. If I choose to play a different note, it's a different piece. If I play some accents more strongly than others, that is more my interpretation. Likewise with tempo and rubato. Therefore, I personally disagree with teachers who say you should perfectly recreate all of the markings on a score every time. A computer can do that.

Suggested reading: Why Don't Students Like School?

  • +1, the point about chunking is really fascinating. This makes me wonder if there are two simultaneous learning processes that occur as we learn a new piece: our brain learns the shapes of chords, melodic lines, etc. and our fingers learn the muscle patterns associated with playing the song. What are your thoughts on this?
    – jdjazz
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 20:41
  • I didn't mean to confuse cognition with neurology but that was not what I meant. I was referring to a situation where the fundamentals were known and a new piece was being learnt. I do not believe you addressed my question at all. It is not about "learning" an instrument but about learning to play a piece given that you know how to play the instrument. But I am grateful for your last paragraph, the personal experience.
    – user50691
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 22:25
  • Also, I am not sure that cognition and neurology are unrelated. If the two branches of science define them differently then they are, but everything you describe is due to neurological processes.
    – user50691
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 22:32
  • @ggcg The bullet about chunking would seem to directly address your question, in my view. I think you're asking about which way to learn a piece. No matter how you learn a piece, you're chunking, so the question is, which kinds of chunks do you want to form. Also my third bullet is about learning a piece. No part of my answer was meant to be about learning an instrument - I understand your question is about learning a piece. Many times when I approach a new piece I discover there is a technique I will need to learn to be able to play it, hence the first bullet. Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 23:06
  • @ggcg I'll leave it up to you if you want to look at the Wikipedia pages or other sources for the difference between cognitive science and neurology. I only thought I would point that out in case you wanted to do more research about how humans learn since you specifically asked for an answer based on science. The branch of science that includes studies of how humans learn is most commonly called "cognitive science". Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 23:10

This is just personal experience, but when I am setting out to learn a piece thoroughly, I focus on notes/rhythms/fingerings first. I want to get that all set before I work on interpretive stuff like dynamics, phrasing, articulation and such. That being said, I start off slowly in both categories. Even after I have the notes/rhythms/fingerings down solid and up to a good tempo, when it is time to add the interpretive stuff, I go back to the beginning and play slowly again. I want to make sure that if practice these correctly from the beginning, and it takes some slow, conscious thought to add these to the notes I already learned. I cannot add these to the correct notes "at tempo" and expect to get it right.

If I am sight-reading (which I am quite good at), I try to process as much as I can of all of it the first time. But I also know I am not going to get it 100% correct, even if mostly correct.

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