Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Is Music more Mental or Physical?

Would you say playing (or singing) music is more mental or more physical? Student (and teacher) perceptions of this can color how we practice and play an instrument (including the vocal chords).

Do we mentally make fingers do what they need to do, or physically drill them so they do the work for us? How we balance the ebb and flow between mental and physical tells a lot about how we and our students practice and learn.

[Before we discuss this, I want to invite you to review teacher comments by Sherie, Chris, and an extensive response from Toby, all on Payments & Cancellation Policies; from Betty on How to Get Connected; and a controversy presented by Jeff commenting on Finding Students For You, with explanations by two online companies represented by Brian and Steve.]

Below are some student examples, and maybe a surprise conclusion, which I hope provide food for thought. I don’t have scientific answers about the balance of mental and physical in playing music, but by thinking about this, we certainly can benefit in terms of practical ideas for learning and teaching.

Steve contorts his face all the time while playing. He is obviously trying very hard mentally to control what his fingers are doing. He hits a rough spot and then goes back to the beginning to start over and see if he can remember everything right and get over the rough spot. This doesn’t work too well.

When I got him to take out 3 notes that bridged the good part and the rough spot, and acquaint his fingers with their pattern physically, he was relieved to find out that he could go through the rough spot fine.

The lesson there was that his fingers needed the physical experience of that pattern in order to do the work for him. It wasn’t enough for his mind to know what was happening, nor was it fair to expect his mind to keep track of all that.

Phyllis gets all the phrases of a tune fine but sometimes leaves one out or repeats one in the wrong place. Partly she fixed this by practicing the few notes that connect phrases to each, like Steve did with his rough spot. But mostly she fixed it by put up a red flag, mentally, so her ears could guide the fingers into the correct phrase. Once they began the phrase, the fingers and ears knew what to do.

What about Dave, who can’t understand how he was able to play some music in a group when he didn’t feel he had it under control? Often our ears and fingers surprise us (if we give them a chance) because we expect our mental faculties to be on top of everything and we suddenly find our ears and fingers doing fine on their own!

It’s useful to think about physical tasks, and mental attitudes, but I wonder if we don’t go too far sometimes, treating technique as physical, for example, and musicality as mental.  It can affect the procedure we use, the order in which we teach.

In the end, we probably have to accept that the physical and the mental processes are indivisible, all one ebb and flow.  The learning and playing of music may be one of the best proofs of this.

We can’t mentally micromanage our fingers, nor can we let our fingers take care of everything. How we think and feel about a piece of music; our thoughts, fleeting or otherwise, about the people who are listening; our sense of phrasing, fingering patterns, bowing or breath; our posture and momentum; are all integral parts of playing music. There’s something missing if we try to split things up.  We have to balance and learn about it all, from day one through tomorrow.

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]


  1. valerie

    This is very interesting to me. I had an adlt student once tell me that they could NOT memorize. A teacher had told her that she was just ‘one of those people’. I told her that it didn’t matter to me if she memorized or not, but that I thought we should work on it, because I knew she was able;mthat there(to me, anyway) are three ways of memorizing: Finger memorization – when your mind goes on auto pilot and your fingers just keep on playing, visualizaion – and listening. Long story short, she was able to memorize and continures to do so regularly. I think there is something to be said for letting your fingers remember a large part of the technique for you – certainly listening is very VERY important – but I think it’s the visual that I use the most when teaching. To my vocal students I will discuss the text and what the person is feeling (for instance, Castle on a cloud from Les Miserable) and really make them think about how they would feel , etc., (I’m sure this is nothing new to anyone!) My piano students I have the most fun with when trying to get a certain touch or dynamic – I must confess that when trying to get a very sharp staccato touch from a sydent I have often told them to think of something really ‘gross’ that they don’t want to touch but have to just ‘for a sec’. This seems to work even better than the hot stove analogy!
    Well certainly these are just ramblings from a teacher who is really tired, and all of you have probably used the same techniques. I would be interested in any other thoughts, though.

  2. valerie

    My apologies for all the typos in the previous message. I didn’t have my reading glasses on…

  3. Derek Kudrow

    Hello, I am new to MTH but it seems like a great site. In reference to Art vs. Science, chicken or egg, mind & body etc.. There is from my experience a neuro-muscular association that needs to occur in learning any passage. This has happened for me personally most easily when I isolate the passage and play it very slowly! Many, many times. Derek Kudrow – Guitar

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.