The Quickest Way (I've Found) To Learn New Music

If you're like me, you find the idea of learning a new song both exciting and a little daunting. Here's a method I've discovered that helps me keep the excitement going and gets rid of that daunting feeling.

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH


Learning to read music can be a struggle at first. There are so many different subtleties to the way notes and articulation look on the page and, even if they're introduced gradually one by one, you'll soon find yourself overwhelmed by how much you're instructed to do by the music.


As time goes by, you begin to get used to everything that gets thrown at you but as your skill increases, the songs start to get longer and more challenging until suddenly you're tasked with performing a 30-page long piece of music at 320 bpm in front of 100 people in a few weeks time. Even if this is a song you've chosen because you like the idea of playing it, there are times during practice sessions when we feel this was a stupid idea.


WHAT'S THE BEST METHOD?


So how do we tackle a new song? Well there are a number of things we can and should do. Over the years, I've come across many musicians with their own little methods that help them tackle a new piece of music.


The first is the idea that you research the song before you even start playing it. Who composed it? What era is this from? What's the style of genre? What's the original instrument this was composed for? Who was the piece composed for? Were they a musician? Etc. etc. There are loads of questions we can ask ourselves in order to get a better idea of how to understand the music.


Secondly, analyse the music itself. What key is it in? What's the style? What's the tempo? What beat should you count in your head? Should we write in the accidentals to make it easier to read? Where are the best places to breathe? What's the most difficult part of the music? From here you can start to get a better sense of how to approach playing this new song.


If you want to go a step further however, perhaps it's worth trying to find out if there are recordings of this being played, whether it's a professional recording released on CD, or a video of someone's recital on youtube. This method is dangerous however as people interpret music in different ways. We are all unique and will have our own stylistic ways of playing something, whether that's putting emphasis on particular notes, manipulating the rhythm slightly in specific places, or removing slurs and notes entirely to make a passage feel better under the fingers. Also, while it's less likely in professional recordings, there might be mistakes in these performances.


I had come across this latter method of learning when one of my fellow musicians at university mentioned that they play along to other people's recordings, but by starting with ABRSM's Speedshifter app, they are able to slow the music down enough for them to follow along without making too many mistakes themselves. When they feel they can keep up, they speed the recording back up gradually using the Speedshifter app. That's fine but it then means they'll learn to copy and play exactly like that performer in the recording, not allowing their own unique style to show. In an exam, interpretation is one of the criteria, so it's important we allow ourselves the freedom to play in our own way, even if it's subtle.


MY FAVOURED METHOD


I found that, while that last method is risky, it sped up my ability to learn a new song. The risks of learning the mistakes made in those recordings however, led me to think of doing it differently. This new method is time-consuming and does require some skill with notation-based apps like Sibelius or MuseScore (the latter of which is completely free and does pretty much everything Sibelius does) but, for me, it's the best way to learn a new song.


By inputting the song into MuseScore from scratch, including the other parts if the piece is accompanied (hence the time-consuming nature of this method), I am able to hear the music in its most literal state. No embellishing, no extra rhythm changes, no reduced notes; basically, no expression. There's also the ability to slow down or speed up the tempo, and add a metronome beat too. You can play along with the audio playback of the music, which includes the accompaniment, and keep time with the metronome playing; fantastic!


I've been using this particular method for 6 years now and I can safely say, despite it being time-consuming to begin with, I am able to learn the song much quicker than I used to. Plus, the more you do it, the quicker you get at the inputting stage. When I'm happy with being able to play the song as literal as is heard in the app's playback, I can then add expression when I play it on my own, as I will now have a good sense of how it sounds. When I play with my piano accompanist, there's no getting mixed up with expression ideas as I know the accompanist will have practiced along to a metronome.


A FINAL THOUGHT

In an ideal world where we have plenty of time, I would utilise all these methods mentioned above when learning a new song but when hard-pressed for time, I will always choose the MuseScore method as it gets results quickly and means I don't get frustrated trying to play the same bit over and over again to the lone sound of a piercing ticking noise of the metronome.


What methods have you come across and which one do you find works best when learning a new song? Back to blog page

  • YouTube
  • SoundCloud
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook

© 2020 Ed Brown