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I've been a guitar player for 8 years now and I've started to learn the piano recently, which led me to get more into music theory and score reading.

When I learned a song on the guitar, I used to learn it by ear or from a tab and not from an actual music score. I've been trying to change this habit lately to get to know my instrument better. Now when I learn a piece for the piano, I first dig into the score, learning the notes and chord progressions and how to play them on the piano. However as I get used to play the piece on the instrument I tend to use only my muscle memory and I don't think about what notes and chords I'm playing anymore.

My question is : would thinking about the notes and chords of a piece while I'm playing them make me a better musician ? Would it help me to learn music theory faster or to play the instrument better ? How do experienced musicians approach this kind of thing ?

Thank you for your answers !

tl;dr : would thinking about the notes and chords of a piece while I'm playing them make me a better musician ?

  • 3
    I don't see how distracting yourself with note names and chord types while performing will make you perform better, but knowing what is going in your practice will give you a better understanding of the music in general. – Legorhin Nov 11 at 20:15
  • Shortest answer: It depends. Are you a concertmaster? Yes you need to think about theory in advance. Are you a bluesman? Definetely not. – Guilherme Ribeiro Developer Nov 14 at 12:11
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This is a good question but I think a hard one to pin down a short answer for. There reason is that there are several things going on in a musician's mind and body during the learning process and performance.

First I would say that you want to use muscle memory. And, you do not want to be "thinking" about anything. When you get to that level performance is like an out of body experience. Thinking ruins this. So I'd say that if you are relying on muscle memory you are evolving to a better place.

At the end of the day music is about the pitches and rhythms. I think that a musician, after much training, will be able to hear what they want to play in their head and then play it. If this is what you mean by "thinking" about the notes then perhaps this is okay, it will be necessarily for improvisation. For me I don't consider a piece performance ready until (1) I can play it through w/o the sheet music, (2) I can improvise a little without getting lost (even on classical pieces), and (3) I can sit quietly and hear the piece in my head without forgetting any part of it.

I should say that I am a guitarist but I think some of these points apply to any instrument. I typically start with sheet music or by ear, if I know a song by ear then I can usually play it without much effort. I have used TAB but prefer sheet music. After enough time you get to the point where you can hear the music in your head as you read the sheet music (w/o touching the instrument). This is valuable as it helps speed up the learning process. Once you know what you expect to hear then figuring out the correct fingering is important. Even piano players have multiple options for shifting as the move across the key board. At some point you commit one to memory but as the song gets deeper into your subconscious you body will loosen up and you'll find that you can execute the piece with alternate fingering. Now you are not relying so much on muscle memory but on the connection between your inner ear and your hands.

As for music theory, it's great and I recommend all musicians learn as much as they can. But again, thinking ruins the process of performing. Some of the greatest musicians (and very educated ones) have said in interviews about this topic that they don't think of anything when improvising, they just play what they hear in their head. Knowing the structure of music helps again with figuring out the structure of a piece and the more you know the faster you pick up new pieces. But when it comes to playing you can't be held down by the thought process. It's more for analyzing what you see in a score or for making good decisions in your own compositions. Not useful in performing a song.

  • "thinking ruins this": makes me think when you play something perfectly and then you start to think about what you're doing and suddenly everything fails and you're off tempo trying to figure out where fingers go next :) – Thomas Nov 12 at 13:18
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The immediate job of playing THIS piece well ultimately comes down to muscle memory.

But learning the piece is a lot quicker when you recognise patterns. Same difference whether they're heard or read. And that's all 'theory' is really - codifying patterns that work.

2

Everything sounds fine. I just finished recording a fairly complex guitar piece and realised I was thinking about all kinds of everyday stuff while I was doing. I try to bring my mind more or less back to the job at hand, but not in a " concentration with effort" way. Relaxed mindfulness is great but if the mind briefyly pops off here and there it's OK. Kind of like in meditation.

The point of all the endless scales, chord patterns and general repetition of just about everything we do in pratice is to make things more or less automatic under performance conditions. You do not want to be trying to do musical maths while performing. Leave that for the practice room (as a stepping stone to actual music).

So the answer to your question is "probably not".

2

Yes, you become a better musician, if you are able to add the conceptual side of music into your thinking more closely. Having concepts and abstractions is essential for reasoning, and notation, notes and other theoretical tools can provide those. You need some kind of "objects" that have locations and names, for thinking about what things there are, where they are relative to each other, and how they interact with each other. And how things you do affect what you hear, and how both of them relate to the conceptual objects.

Location, composition, structure, behavior, ... What notes there are in a chord, where the notes are in notation and on your instrument, what happens if you change one of the notes, and what it would sound like if you did that. A lot of practice can help you build these concepts even without theory, but having e.g. names for the notes and their relationships can help a lot in reasoning and communication. How well do you think you might be able to calculate things, if you didn't know the names for numbers? When calculating in your head without tools, don't you think about numbers a lot?

The piano keyboard can provide an excellent locational map, because it's kind of a linear one-dimensional map of all pitches. Each pitch is only in one place, and they're spatially arranged in a logical way. The guitar is much more challenging in that regard, because every note or pitch is in many different locations at the same time. To make things worse, even the strings aren't placed at equal pitch distances - the G - B interval is four frets/semitones, when all the others are five!? Who thought that was a good idea!?! ;) (joking of course)

We can think that there are three dependent "axis": (1) what you hear, (2) what you do on the instrument, and (3) how this is written in notational concepts. All these things are interconnected.

Some people only need 1 and 2. They can operate their instrument and they know what it sounds like, so well that they can predict what any imagined actions would sound like before actually performing them... But they might not be able to read music, so they can only play by ear. Then again, someone else may only handle aspect 2: they are told what keys to press and strings to pluck, but it's mechanical and they cannot relate the actions with the sound or predict what sounds their actions might produce. Another person might be able to read music and obey the mechanical commands, so they would be operating in 2 and 3 only, but if they imagine sounds without having it in writing, they won't be able to perform it. In other words, they cannot play by ear. If you can handle all three, at least it won't make you a worse musician!

(A composer or arranger could be thinking purely in terms of notation and what it sounds like ... maybe in that case you could consider notation itself as the instrument.)

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All answers you’ve got until now are great. In summary they are my learning concept even if they seem to be somehow contradictions.

Analyzing leads to understanding, concentration leads to meditation, muscle memory helps you play in the flow and and 150% of knowledge and improvisation helps you to take up the thread when you’re dropped out.

Learning patterns, chord progressions, triads and scales, motives and abstractions in form of a lead-sheet will support sight reading, recognition and memory.

would thinking about the notes and chords of a piece while I'm playing them make me a better musician ?

You will be a better musician, but not necessarily a better performer.

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An extremely thought-provoking question!

Starting with the actual wording: what constitutes a 'better musician'? One who can play a piece perfectly with no mistakes? Not necessarily. For me a 'better musician' is one who will do that anyway, but also be capable of bringing that music to life, putting their own slant to it, and obviously understanding where it's going, and why. So being able to play a piece flawlessly is only a part of this, and in itself not indicative of a 'better musician'. That muscle memory is of paramount importance, yes, but being able to 'bark at print' really doesn't belie much as far as 'musician' is concerned.

There are various levels concerned in learning and performing, and that's where the theory etc. comes in. If one understands the 'geography' of a piece, it becomes not only easier to learn, but easier to remember and also becomes better to perform with understanding.

In the early stages of learning a piece, there's a lot of importance in knowing what the notes are, how long they last, and where they all fit together. That's the time for conciously knowing the names, etc. Not during a performance, though. That's at a completely different level, where perhaps muscle memory has been established, so quoting note names at that stage is unneccessary. Muscle memory is all very well, but during a performance, it still needs to be controlled.

That's where the 'better musician' comes in - controlling the music and how it's played at that moment. Changing the dynamics on the fly - obviously in a lot of styles of music the notes themselves are sacrosanct - so that's all that can be changed (that's why I prefer jazz...).

Referring back to tab for guitar - that's more restricting, as it tells where each note must be played: not allowing the player to have the control that being a guitarist affords. That's one big difference between guitar and piano - on the latter, there's little choice!

So - in the practice section of learning a piece, yes, get to know notes, chords and their interactions. In performance, a few of those facets may be useful to you - as landmarks, if you like - but at that point, you should be at a completely different (higher) level, and mentally be in a very different place.

Think about it - how many times when you read this answer did you actually think - oh yes, that's three consonants together in that word, for example?

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You talk about what happens when you become familiar with the piece, but I know a professional pianist who is a good sight-reader, and she doesn't even work out the individual notes when she first sees them. She sees a chord, a harmony, a rhythm, not a collection of 120 dots on the page that need to be analysed and deciphered. I wish I could do that! But I think that should be your aspiration. After all, that's the way we read English text.

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"Muscle memory." I hate the phrase. It is misused. Your muscles have no memory, it is your brain which controls them. When you play the piano, it is not the muscles in your hand playing, it is your brain. If we swapped brains, once our brains figured out the new measurements, our techniques would transfer, too. Like a teenager who trips over the floor or falls walking up stairs, it is because their tendons and bones grew and the brain needs to figure out the new measurements. The kid isn't clumsy, his brain is in a new body. That is why you never forget how to ride a bike despite not "practicing" for years, getting fat, getting skinny, growing or getting old. Your brain has hardwired how to balance and commands the ancillary muscles to make it so. The muscles are just the engine. If you stood on one leg and looked at your foot, ankle and calves, you will see (if you have low body fat) your brain using your muscles and tendons to maintain balance. Your muscles are not doing that, your brain is. Likewise, when you play the piano, it is not your finger nor hands but, your brain. This is where many teachers and students go wrong because they focus on brow beating the fingers into submission when really they should cultivate proper movement from the mind where movement originates.

When you first touch a piano, your brain hard wires or makes neural pathways on how to use the muscles and tendons to make a bone strike a key. That is so called muscle memory. So, you had better make that first movement correct and ergonomic because if there are any improper movements associated, those are hard wired, too. This is why some people have lifetime technique issues because it is already in the brain to be that way. Improper movement is very difficult to eradicate for other reasons I won't get into.

Never "memorize" a song by playing it mindlessly a hundred times. That is not memory at all. It is your ear, patterns and guesswork. If you don't maintain playing it, it will atrophy and you will forget it. It is not memory because if you get nervous or loose your place, it is gone and so is your performance. I've seen it a hundred times. It literally means you do not know what you are doing and are guessing.

So per your question what to think about. There are several skills which must come together and crosspollinate with one another. I advocate that you forget your letter training and instead think of notes in the scale as numbers. CEG is absolute but 135 can be anything. It can be FAC, GBD, BbDF . . . . Playing by numbers is also the secret to sight transposing, improvisation and "memorization." NONE of it is thoughtless or hocus pocus. It is all in the brain.

Then, train your ear to know what the numbers sound like. For instance, I just know that Blue Moon starts on the 5th. Mary had a Little Lamb on the 3rd. Joy To the World 8th. Happy Birthday on the 5th. Star Wars is 1 to 5. Once you train your brain and ear to know any degree of the scale, you will just know what the notes are and never have to memorize or see the music because your brain's ear will know how the song goes and your brain will just know what the notes are. Like spelling. You know the basic rules, how to sound out, the alphabet and if you heard the word cat, catacomb, catatonic . . . you will either just know how to spell it or your brain can figure it out based upon crosspollinated knowledge and calculations. You use your ear and knowledge of the alphabet to figure it out. You don't have memorized every word but you can figure them out.

When I memorize a classical piece, I will listen to it once to get it into my mind's ear, then play it to assess trouble spots, then go sit by the pool with the score and study the melody and its intervals. I'll study the chord progression, voicing's, key changes and counterpoints. Then after a few hours, without the score I will go play it. Then back to the pool to study problem parts. After doing this for a few days, the piece is mine. It isn't memorized but, combined with my ear, being able to read in my mind what my brain hears, knowing where every note is going and I admit, a dab or rote tossed in, I will never forget the song. I can also sit down with pen and paper and write it out because my ear can see the score.

Pop songs or standards are different. Since I "fake" those, all I need to do is hear the melody for my mind's ear to just know what the notes are. Pick any note on the keyboard and play Happy Birthday. That first note will by your 5th so you now know what key you are in. Then, don't guess, hear each note in your head and calculate what the notes are. It is amazing how when people "hunt and peck" that melody, how many miss the octave. You should never make a mistake playing a melody that simple if you know what you are doing. If you make a mistake, you are guessing.

There is nothing mystical about making music. You can close your eyes and let rote take over and just regurgitate patterns or, know what you are doing, craft a solo, build to a climax, develop a mood or a variation. That is why the greatest musicians seemingly don't make mistakes because they know what they are doing and are not guessing.

When I teach students this method, I start with just focusing on 135 and use Mary Had a Little Lamb. Sing it. It starts on the third. Don't guess, know. Even if it takes time. Do it away from the piano. You should get these numbers: 3212333 222 355 3212333322321. Now go to the piano and start on the third tone of ANY key. Don't guess, know. YOU will know if you are cheating. One hour away from the piano is worth more than five hours at it.

Congratulations. You are combining brain, ear and fingers to "memorize" music and you are on your way not to be a musician but, an artist.

Also, the issue of technique is also in the brain, not a Hanon exercise or hours of practice. You only need to hard wire proper movement unless you've already hardwired improper movement.

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...thinking about the notes and chords...

You didn't say it explicitly, but I assume you mean naming the tones/pitches and chords.

There are two basic naming approaches: absolute and relative.

Absolute names are letter and accidental for tones, like: Ab or C#. For chords the names are letter and accidental for the root and a chord quality, like Ab dominant seventh or C# minor.

Relative names place tones and chords into a tonality, a key and then use special terms and symbols to indicate relationship and functions. These relationships and functions are at the heart of harmony theory, and the terminology is much more complex that mere absolute names. For example:

  • Ab dominant seventh is the dominant chord in the key Db major.
  • C# minor is the relative minor of E major.
  • in the key of Db major the tone Db is the first scale degree and is named the tonic, the tone a half step below the tonic is the seventh scale degree and is named the leading tone, in the key of Db the leading tone is C, etc. etc.

To the extent that music works with harmonic patterns, knowing the relative relationships is helpful.

Thinking about the notes when playing a piece...

If you practice harmonic patterns, or analyze the harmony of pieces you are working on, I can't imagine how you would not think about the relative relationships. But, gradually, as things become familiar you will probably stop thinking about it.

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