In this post, I will discuss my process of learning and analyzing music that I perform in the hope that it may be interesting for fellow musicians and music lovers to learn about the process behind what getting a piece ready for performance looks like “behind the scenes”, so to speak. There are many ways to do this; the process that I outline below is what currently works for me, and I don’t think there is any one “right” way to approach learning music. That being said, here is how I currently approach learning a new piece:
Before learning or even playing through a piece, I listen to it. Being a guitarist, I tend to first listen to a guitar rendition, listening for whether or not I like the piece, where the main sections are, any musical elements (melody, bass, recurring rhythmic figure, etc) that need to be brought out, and just try to get an overall idea of the musical essence of the piece. If the piece was originally written on another instrument, I will then listen to the piece on the original instrument. I find this to nearly always be enlightening, as the timbre, dynamics, and sometimes even notes may be differently played on the original instrument than on the guitar. This significantly broadens possibilities for interpretation. Sometimes there are additional aspects of a piece not written in the guitar arrangement that I will transcribe and incorporate into my version of the piece. On the other hand, sometimes it is physically impossible to play everything exactly as it is played on the original instrument, in which case I strive for a compromise that includes the most musically prominent parts while also being playable and musically viable on the guitar. Another listening exercise that I will often do is to listen to many interpretations of the piece while following along with the score, which allows me to get a better idea of the musical essence of the piece while helping me to think creatively about how I may choose to interpret the piece.
After listening to it enough that I have an approximate aural image of the piece, I will then start to learn the music, starting slowly, double checking that I’m playing the correct notes, and looking for patterns that I can hold onto later when I begin to memorize. I will often instinctively try to figure out what chords are being outlined, as this enhances my enjoyment of the piece, helps with memorization, and gives me ideas for future original compositions. Once this is done, I will then do a harmonic analysis (usually with pop chords, sometimes with roman numerals), and identify key musical elements such as sections, keys, phrases, cadences, and pedal tones. Because it can take a while for me to acquire an aural image of the piece, I tend to play each musical part (melody, bass, inner voices) separately, at first just listening, then humming or singing along. I find that this also deepens my awareness of each musical element, and renews my appreciation for the music that I am learning.
At this point, I will start to add dynamics. I begin by trying out the indications on the score, and making sure that these ideas make musical sense. Once these dynamics are internalized, I will experiment with adding my own dynamics, using the different tonal colors of the guitar (normal, ponticello, tasto, etc), and bringing out important musical lines. I will tend to bring out the musical lines that are either distinctive or interesting, and try not to bring out lines with repeating notes.
Once this is accomplished, I will begin memorizing the piece. I tend to alternate playing with the music and without the music, memorizing the music in small chunks and then gradually piecing these chunks together until I have memorized the entire piece. During this process, I strive to be aware of the melody and harmonic progressions, as these help me to memorize the music more quickly and thoroughly. When I reach a point (or have to reach a point due to having an upcoming concert in which I will be playing the given piece) where I can play the piece several times, beginning to end, with no mistakes, I will then add it to my repertoire and perform it as often as I can. As I perform the piece, I often find that my interpretation and overall manner of playing it evolves over time as I become more comfortable with the piece and continue to discover more aspects of the music.
I hope this overview of my process was somewhat helpful and/or interesting to read. What is your process for learning music (whether on guitar or another instrument)? I’d love to learn about your approach to this topic in the comments below!