Why You Shouldn’t Learn Music One Line at a Time

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about why learning music one line at a time makes no sense. I’m going to demonstrate this for you in two ways. First, I’m going to play the beginning of Bach’s famous Minuet in G. I’m just going to play the first line. Then I’m going to do something different to show you why it makes absolutely no sense to learn a line of music at a time. It’s not just that it might not be the appropriate length of material to learn at a time. It’s something else that you’re going to understand once I give you this parallel. Let’s take the first line of Bach’s Minuet in G. Bach composed so many of these lovely pieces that are little gems that are accessible even to people in relatively early years of study. I love these pieces! They are a treasure for piano students. And they’re great pieces as well.

If you approach this piece and learn just the first line to start, why wouldn’t that make sense?

For an example, I’m going to read you a little bit of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I’m just going to read the first line of this play. “The fog was where I wanted to be, halfway down the path you can’t see this…” That first line doesn’t really make sense. But if I were to read the entire line, it says, “The fog was where I wanted to be. Halfway down the path you can’t see this house.” Alright, now that has meaning. So how does that relate to music? Well, if you listen to the rest of the musical phrase of the Bach Minuet, not just the line, you get the full musical idea. Just as the text of the play makes more sense by finishing the sentence, the music makes more sense by finishing the phrase, which doesn’t always line up with the lines of music.

Instead of learning music line by line, learn one phrase at a time.

The phrase is a complete thought, whereas the line is arbitrary. It makes much more sense to learn the phrase. Now if that’s too much material to learn, you could break it in half and learn half phrases at a time. That would still make sense. Knowing how much music to learn at a time is important. If I go further with this Eugene O’Neill play, the next sentence, “You’d never know it was here or any of the other places down the…” Obviously, that doesn’t work at all. Of course, it’s supposed to go on. “You’d never know it was here or any of the other places down the avenue.” Much like on the Bach Minuet, if I take the next phrase and just go to the end of the line, you end up with an incomplete thought. It makes about as much sense as learning half a sentence in a play, doesn’t it? Because you need to finish the phrase.

The music is written out on the page in a certain way, but that has no bearing on how much to learn at a time.

 

It’s critical to learn sections that make sense musically. Also, to take the amount that you can digest in a relatively reasonable amount of time. Because if you take too large of a chunk, just like if you are memorizing lines of a play and you try to memorize a whole paragraph, you might read it until your eyes are crossed and you still might not get it! But if you take just a sentence at a time and string the sentences together it is much more digestible. It’s exactly the same with your music! Take an amount you can digest, learning hands separately, taking five minutes with each hand, another five minutes to put them together, and then you can go on phrase by phrase connecting material as you go. It’s just like memorizing a play!

I hope this is helpful for you! I hope it’s opened your eyes to the significance of the musical phrase. Sometimes phrases are delineated with slur markings over them. Sometimes you just have to get a sense of the music in order to know how much to take at a time, because it varies tremendously. Some pieces have very long phrases, other pieces have shorter phrases. So it isn’t one-size-fits-all. You have to use your musical sense by reading through the piece first to understand the structure and the sizes of the phrases. Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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4 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Learn Music One Line at a Time”

  1. Very helpful, but as a beginner it is hard to know how to determine what a phrase is.
    You addressed it at the end of the video, but a little too quickly.
    You might consider another video describing how to spot the phrases.
    Thanks for all of your videos, great lessons.

    1. I’ll give that some thought. The best way to get a sense of where phrases begin and end is to read through the music 2 or 3 times slowly to get a grasp of the sound. You can even try playing just the melody to hear where things sound like they finish. Thanks for the suggestion!

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