There is evidence from recent neurological research that supports the concept of breaking music into small sections to learn it better.  Though the majority of musicians still try to learn their pieces by going through them from top to bottom (and stopping to make quick fixes along the way), these musicians are actually working against the brain’s natural way of learning.

In Daniel Levitin’s fascinating book, This Is Your Brain on Music, he points out the importance of phrases and chunks of music to enhance the learning process.

Levitin writes at length about memory, stating, “…our memory for music involves hierarchical encoding…not all parts of a musical phrase hold equal status.  We have certain entry points and exit points that correspond to specific phrases in the music.”

Basically, this means that the human brain naturally stores music in our long-term memory in small chunks, each with its own beginning and ending.

If this is the way our memory works, we should take advantage of this fact.  We can structure our practicing and learning of a piece of music to fit our natural memory system.

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By breaking up music into small sections, we can utilize these “entry points” as places to start practicing a piece of music.  We may even be speeding up the memorization process by feeding the brain the information in a format it is naturally inclined to accept.

Don’t think of your music as one large block of notes to be played from beginning to end.  Instead, find the sections and organize these into distinct practice items. 

Research on the brain shows that, unlike a tape recorder–which can play back recorded music starting at any point–our brains seem to search for these specific entry points in a song when we retrieve the music from our memories.  We can comfortably start going over the music in our minds when we start from one of these entry points, but it’s difficult to do so starting one or two notes earlier or later.

Think of the Alphabet Song (which is Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star).  It’s very easy to think “l, m, n, o, p” in our minds–we hear the melody easily and we also hear the order of the notes easily. 

But, here is a brain teaser:  As fast as possible, try to say the next three letters after “o.”

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We can eventually come up with  “o, p, q, r” in our minds, but it’s as if the information is random.

When I try to say “o, p, q, r” silently or out loud, I actually think in my mind “l, m, n, o, p,” and “q, r, s” before I can string together the correct sequence.  Luckily, our brains can do this pretty quickly.  But, it’s still much better for your playing to start practicing at the musical equivalent of  “l, m, n, o, p” instead of “o, p, q, r.”

So, an early task when learning any piece of music is to break it up into these musical chunks.  See what makes sense to you.  Not every piece of music is as simple as the Alphabet Song.  But, no matter what you’re learning, practicing several small chunks from the beginning of each chunk will make the learning process faster and easier!

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