Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Reversing the Learning Process

Reversing the learning process

There is a common presumption among music students that learning a piece of music is processed in this order:

1.  The mind tries to understand what’s going on through analysis, reading, listening to the teacher.
2.  The hands are told by the brain what to do so they can practice and learn their job.
3.  The ears serve as audience and judge to see how it comes out.

More and more, I have come to realize that this presumption only serves to frustrate students and slow them down.  For example, some students have trouble being asked to play a note if they do not understand why or how it fits into what they’re working on.  Others might go over a phrase of music several times successfully, and then look up and say that they don’t know how to play it.  A student may play several notes of a musical phrase and have their fingers poised correctly for the next note, but feel they can’t play it because they don’t “know” what comes next.

Some students need to read the music and feel confused if asked to play even a few notes in a row without reading them.  Others may be in a class which is playing a phrase of music around them, and even though the teacher has just described how to start playing it, they balk because they don’t “know” what to do.

What is going on here?  Maybe that presumed order of learning music is notactually how it works.  Maybe there is a mismatch between expectations and reality.

Here’s how I think the process actually works:

Start by reversing the above sequence, and see what that looks like.

1.  The ears quickly learn the sound of the music to be worked on, its profile and timing
2.  The hands learn their job according to what the ears tell them is right
3.  The mind becomes familiar with the music and notices invaluable connections in the patterns, fingerings, key, phrasing, that help cement an understanding of what’s been learned, so it can be launched again successfully

Here’s a comparison of scenarios in which a student plays with their mind first, then hands, then uses the ears last, as opposed to working with the ears first, letting the hands learn, and then evaluating with the mind.  By the way, these are scenarios I have run across many times in teaching.

~ Mind first:  Beth’s fingers are in the right place, poised to play the next note, but she won’t play it because in her mind she’s not sure it’s right.
~ Ears first:  Beth tries out that next note in order to hear it, and her ears confirms that it sounds right (or not); her mind takes note for next time.

~ Mind first:  George remembers that this passage has a descending scale; he plays down a scale, but it doesn’t sound right.  He tries again down the same scale two or three more times, but it still doesn’t sound right.  He’s not sure what to do.
~ Ears first:  George plays down the scale but it doesn’t sound right, so he pays attention to his ears as he plays the scale, noting which note sounds off, and he tries a different note option to find the right one, trusting his ears to make the right call.

~ Mind first:  Ari learns successfully to play a phrase of music by ear, then after learning a second phrase, claims that he completely forgot the first one.
~ Ears first:  Ari doesn’t think he remembers the first phrase but with a few reminders from his teacher, he starts in and discovers that it sounds familiar and starts off just as he played it a short while ago.  He might have to try again but is on the right track.

~ Mind first:  Ellen hears the teacher say, or remembers from the sheet music, that she must play on her violin with first finger, open string, then third finger.  Her teacher also sings a descending scale, but she ignores hearing that and focuses on what she thinks she’s supposed to play, which 1, 0, 3 — except she plays all three notes on the same string, which makes the last note a fifth higher than it should be.  She thinks she’s done the right thing.
~ Ears first:  Ellen hears me say the finger numbers and hears me sing the descending scale.  She might try third finger on the same string but knows immediately it doesn’t match what she heard, and learns an important lesson about that descending scale for her next attempt at learning it.

Trusting and valuing the ears, and giving the muscle memory the benefit of the doubt, requires an open mind, an observing mind, one that can learn from the body, rather than always be in charge.  Often I will ask a student repeat playing a passage “for the ears’ sake” and then have them do it again “for the hands’ sake”.  In this way, students realize that playing music is not about understanding what’s to be done, but about doing it.  It’s about allowing ears and hands to learn, not about telling them what to do.

A big part of the problem is that people tend only to think about what they can verbalize, and as I’ve noted in past blog posts, we don’t really have words to describe what the ears or the muscles do, so students who are intent on applying their brains to the problem at hand, usually limit their thinking to tangible ideas such as written notes, numbers, descriptions, rather than trust and learn from their ears and hands.

What do you think?  Does this key into your teaching experiences?  Write a comment to share your thoughts!

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. Robin Steinweg

    I like the idea of hearing first, then learning to play. It fits with how we learn to speak as babies. It’s so much easier to play a familiar piece. Just so we make sure they also can read the music, right? 😉

  2. Ed Pearlman

    Reading music is an important skill. This article is not actually about learning by ear, but rather suggesting that the learning process starts with the ears, and the mind would do well to allow for that. When reading music, the goal is to play in time so the ears can pick up the feel of the phrase or passage. Playing note by note without consideration for timing, which is possible when reading music, only confuses the ears and stymies the whole process. The brain can’t force things.

  3. Mary Majerus

    I’ve been frustrated at this process because tactile learners really can not do the mind first approach. They hear and feel the music first. Thank you for mentioning it is hard to verbalized what the ears and muscles do. I feel liberated to do what you said and play the piece for them because it is always helpful if I hear it as well! My voice teachers always had me listen to fabulous singers to understand the nuances of musicality which can rarely be put into words.

  4. leandro

    I put my son in early piano lesson , he only has five years ?

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