Should You Learn a Piece of Music From the End to the Beginning?

Piano Lessons / music theory / Should You Learn a Piece of Music From the End to the Beginning?

Welcome to Living Pianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about learning a piece of music from the end to the beginning. This is quite a concept! I once had a long discussion with a pianist who swore by this technique. There is some merit to it. If you watch my videos, you know my practice method is to start from the beginning of a piece. You read it through a couple of times, then get to work learning one small section at a time. Take a little phrase, learn the right-hand, then the left-hand, memorize each of them. Then memorize hands together. Then go on to the next chunk. Connect each section as you go until you get to the end of the piece. Well, what about starting at the end and working backwards?

Why would someone learn a piece backwards?

If you start at the end of a piece and work backwards, when you’re done practicing, the end is already solidified for you. You just get to the beginning and you’re done! It sounds great, doesn’t it? Sometimes you will see a student recital and they’re doing just fine, but when they get to the end, they don’t close strong. The end of their piece is weak and you feel badly for them. Maybe they just didn’t have enough time to get the end of the piece secure. So why not just start a piece from the end? That way, you avoid that whole problem. I have never used this technique, even though this gentleman begged me to do so. He even gave me a score. He said, “Learn this working from the end to the beginning like I learn pieces, and I’ll learn one your way, from the beginning to the end.” And I didn’t take him up on it. You may wonder why not?

Like reading a book, learning a piece of music is a story that unfolds.

There’s a logic to the sequential nature of a musical composition. Dramatic material, motifs, all develop as they go. To go from the end to the beginning is like being in a maze. You don’t know where you are. When you finally get to the beginning you have to rethink everything because it’s not meant to be thought of that way. I just have an aversion to the whole idea. When I’m learning a piece of music, it’s an exciting adventure! I start off at the beginning. I’m always raring to go at the beginning because I’ve often heard the piece before. If I’ve read through it, I’m already a bit familiar with the beginning. As I get further along, I’ll notice similarities to the beginning. It’s fun exploring a piece and seeing the changes along the way. It’s interesting to see how the themes are slightly different in various places.

Learning a piece beginning to end gives you a deep understanding of the structure of the music that learning it backwards would not reveal.

My take on this is that it’s better to learn a piece in order. Afterall, there is a reason the composer wrote it that way! I’m sure some of you have a differing viewpoints. I’d love to hear from you! I’ve articulated some of the benefits of learning from the end to the beginning. Maybe you have others that I haven’t even thought of that would encourage me to try it at least once with a piece of music. For those of you who have tried learning a piece from the end to the beginning and from the beginning to the end, and found one to be better than the other, let us know in the comments here at LivingPianos.com, and on YouTube. I look forward to hearing from you! I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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11 thoughts on “Should You Learn a Piece of Music From the End to the Beginning?”

  1. I have never contemplated learning from ending to beginning because the music in my head is as scored and played on every recording. My problem from a small boy was having the music intact in my head but not having the technical no how to transpose to the keyboard. So l played ” by ear ” a great deal. A curse now.

    1. Ultimately, even when taking the music initially from the score, the ideal is to play the music by ear! Of course it is essential to refer back to the score again and again to make sure you are playing faithfully the composers’ intentions.

  2. Robert
    I totally agree with you. I have my students play a new piece from beginning to end 25’x the first week. No practicing…just get to the end no matter how bad it sounds. Early folk songs are easy; nine pages of Haydn takes a lot of time.
    The 2nd week we break the piece down into logical parts (no more than 8 bars or so) and work on a section a day(advanced pieces 2 or 3)…meaning hands alone & together 3-5x’s. Before they practice each part they must run through the whole piece hands alone. After they’ve practiced each part, they run through it beginning to end. The third week they pay close attention to dynamics of each part. That sometimes takes an extra week depending on the level of the student…advanced students use dynamics from the start. Next, the hands alone are practiced super fast (10 notches faster than “a tempo”). And finally they spend a week at “a tempo” trying to play the piece perfectly 3x’s. When they can do this, they “polish” the piece, turning in at least 17 “perfects” for eqch of the next 3 weeks ( total of 50 perfects…tabulated on paper). The piece then goes into their daily repertoire concert (abt 10 – 20 min of music) until it gets replaced by something else. By the way, once they complete their first 25, the metronome goes on for the rest of the work. These are kids ages 5 – 17 and mom/dad supervises..

  3. Hi Robert,
    How about a combination of the two?
    For example, the Gm Ballade…
    the coda is so different from the rest of the piece —
    and so difficult — I think it’s a good idea to start working on the coda
    AT THE SAME TIME that you’re learning the piece from the beginning.

    Hope you’re well during these crazy times.
    Emil

    1. I’m with you! I didn’t mention this technique, but tackling the most difficult part of a composition first, while learning from the beginning sequentially, offers the best of both worlds!

  4. Thanks very much Robert.
    As usual, a good insight. In my limited learning, I have done it top to bottom per your instruction..
    I sometimes, with a little guilt, look at the last 2 measures to reassure myself the
    resolution is worth the in between.
    Best,
    Richard

  5. Hi Robert,
    Thank you for a very thought provoking video. I can see backwards to forwards as a tool to become note and chord familiar. That is valuable to identify similar passages, repeats. It’s worth a try to see if it helps but ultimately I think start to finish will teach the true music, harmony, TIMING of what one is trying to accomplish. But finish to start may be a tool.

    1. Learning a piece sequentially is logical. Sometimes it’s good to jump ahead to hard parts as you continue working through the piece so when you get to them you aren’t held back.

  6. hi Robert – as a follow-up to my previous reply, I should re-iterate that in the finishing stages of having learned a piece from the end to the beginning, I ultimately put the piece together in its finished form by playing (“learning”) it from beginning to end – with the advantage being that as I do this, the piece becomes more and more familiar and confident as I approach the end. So it’s not as though the piece is “always” practiced and learned from end to beginning – it ultimately finds its final form from beginning to end. Just to clarify – 🙂

    1. You could reverse the process going through that way and probably get similar results with the benefit of seeing how the piece unfolds as you learn in. However, whatever works for you is fine.

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