A Simple Way to Keep Music in Your Fingers When Practicing More Isn’t an Option

Nowadays, listening to music is easy.

For one, it’s everywhere. We have access to pretty much anything, anytime, and anywhere we want – on our computers, our phones, heck, even some of our TV’s.

It’s also super easy to fast-forward, rewind, and repeat music, so we can listen to sections or entire tracks over and over and over.

It’s easy to forget that there was a time not so long ago when this was much more difficult…

For instance, my mom likes to tell the story of all the times she had to go up and down the stairs to put the needle back at the beginning of the record so I could listen to my Suzuki songs. Of course, since most Suzuki songs aren’t terribly long, she’d get in a pretty good workout most days.

Cassette tapes weren’t much better. For one, it took time to sit there and wait for the tape to physically rewind. And you’d also have to guess how long to press the rewind button…too long and you’d overshoot the beginning of the song. Frustrating!

Despite all the hassles, my mom made listening to music a priority. There was music playing when I woke up. Music playing in the car during the ride to and from school (and this was before cars even had cassette players built in!). Music during rides to and from lessons. There was even music as I was going to bed at night for many years.

But was there any benefit from all of this listening? Is there any research which demonstrates whether it’s worth all the effort?

Learning by ear

A team of researchers led by pianist-turned-neuroscience researcher Amir Lahav sought to answer this very question.

They took 36 non-musicians, and set about teaching them how to play a 15-note musical passage by ear, on an electronic keyboard. Each participant practiced the passage until they reached a point where they were no longer making mistakes. On average, it took less than a half-hour or so for most participants to get to this point.

Then, they were split into three groups and brought back into the lab for three additional training sessions during the next week.

One group – the “passive-listening” group – had three twenty minute sessions (one per day) where they sat in a restful position with palms up (to discourage fingering along with the music), and listened to the passage over and over.

Another group – the “distracted-listening” group – spent three twenty minute sessions working on a challenging jigsaw puzzle while the passage played on in the background.

The third group – the “nature-listening” group – spent three twenty minutes sessions simply listening to nature sounds, while seated in a restful position.

Note that after the initial ~30-minute training session, they never again practiced the passage on a piano. The most some of them got was an opportunity to simply listen to the passage again.

A test!

A week after their initial learning session, all the participants returned to the lab for a final test – a single trial where they were to give their best (most accurate) performance of the passage.

The performances were evaluated on three basic criteria:

  1. Pitch (did they play the right notes?)
  2. Rhythm (at the right time?)
  3. Dynamics (with the target dynamics that were established in the learning phase?)

Wait, what?

Believe it or not, yes, it turned out that listening to music enhanced the retention of a passage of music – even in the absence of any further practice!

In terms of pitch accuracy, the passive-listening group played significantly more notes correctly than either the distracted-listening (i.e. puzzle/background music) group or the nature-listening group.

And with regards to rhythm and dynamics, both the listening groups outperformed the nature sounds group.

Interestingly, there was no significant difference in performance between the passive and distracted listening groups when it came to either rhythm or dynamics. Only pitch.


It’s true that these were untrained musicians learning relatively basic passages on a keyboard. However, there are some related studies which suggest that there really may be something happening in the brain when listening to music, that helps to consolidate learning.

For instance, a study of professional musicians found that simply activating the auditory part of a task also results in activation of the motor-related regions of the brain responsible for that movement.

More research is needed of course, but it does seem that listening to music could serve as a helpful practice aid, at least when it comes to the retention of music or in trying to polish off the rust and get an old piece back in shape.

Take action

So…are you preparing for a big competition or audition and have a ton of rep to keep in your fingers?

Or maybe you just need to learn a lot of rep in a short period of time?

Try putting on some recordings of these pieces in the background when you’re driving, going for a run, or cooking dinner. Or if you’re not in the mood to practice, put on a recording and listen instead. Perhaps even tap your fingers along with the piece, or mentally play it as you listen.

It can’t hurt, right?

I’m also curious – was it just me, or have you find listening to be a helpful adjunct to your physical practice as well?

Additional reading

More on Lahav and the broader applications of his work: A soundtrack for the body

photo credit: MIKI Yoshihito (´ï½¥Ï‰ï½¥) via photopin cc

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32 Responses

  1. Just remembering what it is you’re trying to reproduce is half the battle – especially if you have good ears. If I know a piece well I can find my way around the melody having never learned it. Of course this is very hard if the tune is unfamiliar and you’re not sure what comes next!

  2. Hello Noa,

    isn’t it the mirror neurons in action? It activates the same neurological circuits when you listen to to a piece and when you play it.

    I remember having dreamt about water skiing when I was younger, working on the things my coach had told me to correct. The day after, it was better.

    Thanks again for the wonderful postings 🙂

    1. Indeed! The authors propose this as one of the likely explanations for this phenomenon.

      If only we could train ourselves have dreams like this on a consistent basis! That’d be pretty handy…

  3. I have experienced similar results in my own practice. I find that listening to recordings before, during, and after I have learned a new piece allows for faster memorization and better retention of the music. I predict that this is a technique I will continue to use all throughout my musical career.

  4. Dr. Noa,

    I’ve had very mixed results with listening. While I noted a definite improvement in certain areas of playing including memorisation, I found that listening interfered with the development of my interpretation of the pieces. I would have listened more often but I do not want that to affect my aural image or interpretation for that piece. Do you have any insight on that?

    1. Good point. Listening to much can indeed interfere with developing your own inner voice. This is probably not the only way to counteract that, but score study is a critical part of practice too. As a teacher once reminded me, recordings are often not a good representation of what’s written in the score, in that they don’t represent an accurate baseline, but are already a significant departure from the composer’s original recommendations.

    2. May I suggest that one listens to several artists playing the repertoire in question? I do this on my own as a teacher, and also with my students. This way one can chose exactly what they prefer and what do not prefer. It actually helps a student to have more conviction in the end, because they will really think about each phrase, and what they want to do and what they do not want to do. Then we will discuss it and I will ask them are they aware of how they are shaping each phrase and so on. For high school students it has helped immensely, as they analyze everything they are doing and become acutely aware of minor details they may not have noticed before.

      1. Excellent suggestion–multiple sources are always helpful. Also better than passive listening –reading the score while listening, which hasn’t been mentioned.
        When preparing for recital, I would also listen less and score study alone more as I learn the music.

        1. Yes, I use the score while listening to several performers and I line them up for my students too. I do this when choosing repertoire too. I give them students a chance to think about what they want to play.

          I agree once the pieces are set and we are nearing a performance, no listening of others.

      2. A good suggestion. I do this as often as possible, and it certainly alleviates some of the interpretational tangles. Perhaps the best solution is to set aside a few weeks for developing your interpretation, during which you decide not to listen to any recordings. Once your personal interpretation is defined, it is a lot easier to listen to other versions without threatening your own performance. In fact, listening to other recordings at this stage is enormously useful because it forces you to ‘defend’ your interpretational choices, and your playing matures as a result.

  5. Yes , I definately find to be true.
    I am an adult learner -the flute which I love. I am just a beginner and about to do a grade 3 exam.
    I am also a doctor in my other life – and flute playing I have always thought is quite similar to stroke rehabilitation. You need to create new neural passages in the brain. Listening has always helped me – although beloved CDs now very inaudible due to repeated playing!
    Thanks for your blog. Always enjoyable and helpful.

  6. Great post! Whenever I am trying to learn new tunes and especially memorize them, I make a playlist and listen to it a lot. Sometimes I may even go to bed with it playing in my headphones. Of course I fall asleep long before I get through 1 or 2 songs but, isn’t there something about subliminal learning happening with this method?
    This has been especially helpful in the are of sight-singing, which is an area I have had extreme difficulty with. I always make a recording of me playing playing the melodies on the piano that we are to learn, in the key I can comfortably sing it in, and listen to it at least once a day so that they become more familiar to me. Over the time the melodies will get in my ear and thus become more easier to sing when it comes to test time.
    I love this blog!

    1. It’s not “sight” singing if you are playing or listening to the tune before you attempt to sing it. What you are doing is learning by ear. That’s fine if your goal is just to learn the music, but if you’re specifically looking to improve your sight singing, I would try something else.

      My best tool in sight singing is interval practice. When confronted with a new tune, I hum the first couple of intervals, out of tempo, and identify and hum through any patterns in the piece (such as an arpeggiated chord). Then I can use those as anchors while sight singing it the first time. Try practicing intervals and scale patterns in the key of the piece before trying to sing it. That will help.

      The best way to get good at sight singing… is to do a lot of sight singing. Playing the bass line on a piano while you sing will also help your intonation.

  7. Great article. I interviewed Alex Grossi (current guitar player for Quiet Riot), he gave a great tip when learning songs. Listen to it twenty times before even trying to get your instrument to figure it out. This helps you pick up on all the nuances you won’t hear initially.

  8. I’m an amateur string player. I definitely find that listening to a chamber work several times helps when playing it in the ensemble. If I’m sight reading, the familiarity helps me play better, and whether or not I’ve spent a lot of time practicing the work, familiarity also helps me get back on track quickly if I miscount and go astray from the score.

  9. Listening to music is very helpful to me.
    It helps me to pay more attention to my ears, instead of my fingers, when I’m actually playing it; so my subconscious brain can take care of the mechanical part.
    Whenever I play a piece that I hadn’t been practicing for a few weeks/months, I focus on sound. If I take my attention into mechanics for only a moment, I’ll make a mistake, or blank out…
    Having listened to a recording recently is almost as good as playing once trough for me…

    Oh, and it makes a BIG difference how much I’ve been sleeping when I try to play rusty pieces!

  10. I’m a choral singer, and when I’m learning a new work I keep the CD in my car to cram in an extra hour a day of “practice” on top of traditional practice. It helps the most with internalizing the rhythms and harmonic structure, a bit less so with pitches (as the study you cited supports), and I also sing along with it as I drive when I’m trying to memorize the piece. As another commenter noted, the quirks of the specific recording strongly shape my interpretation of the work when I listen so much, but we are provided a recording that matches the intent of the conductor for this reason.

  11. Wow such great tips. Thanks! Now I can keep my mind engaged with music all the time instead of switching to something non-constructive like games when I get tired of practicing

  12. This was an interesting article. One struggle I’ve had is with improvising on a tune that I’ve listened to a particular recording of countless times because when it gets time for me to improvise I hear the recorded improvisation in my head as what I should be playing even though I’m supposed to be making up my own improvisation. So, whatever I play feels wrong because I’m not playing what I’ve heard on the recording. I don’t regret listening to the recording but it’s like I need to convince my brain that it’s okay that I’m not playing what it thinks I should be playing at that time.

  13. Hello

    I agree that Listening to music nowadays is too easy. What I see is that it’s too too easy. We can access to it too fast. What I do now : I try to leave traces. I listen to a song on computer ? I try to note on paper why I listened to. I do something on my computer, It gives value to music.
    Music loses its cost…
    I try to make lists of music to listen to. I try to broaden my interests.

    I hate listening to a concerto because this blocks my vision of it. I could have played it more creatively and with a personal touch if I had not listened to it because now, I’m influenced.

  14. Many winters, I flew from the east coast to Colorado or Utah for ski trips just before a rehearsal set was to begin for an orchestral concert. I always take my music and a listening device (walkman to ipod to iphone!). On the plane in both directions, I listen to the music and follow my score. I find that when I return, it is as if I had actually practiced! I call it “osmosis practicing.”

  15. What if you can barely play to begin with? I started learning the harp a little more than four years ago, at the same time learning to sight-read, and I’m still fairly terrible. I have a minor neurological disorder that affects my hands, which is an obstacle, and I don’t practice religiously (job, house, dogs, lethargy). Is this technique still useful for rank amateurs?

    1. Given how easy it is to listen to music, while we’re going for a walk, driving to/from work, etc., I think it certainly doesn’t hurt to add this in even if you’re still relatively new to the instrument.

      I did a ton of listening as as child, which I think does a lot to get the outline of the piece into your head, even before you try to get it into your fingers. So that way, it’s like you already have an “auditory template” for what you’re aiming for, even when you sit down to play and practice.

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