To Listen or Not to Listen: Does Listening to a Recording Help Us Learn Faster and Play More Accurately?

Let’s say you have to learn a few short pieces in the next 24 hours, and have 4 hours to practice. How would you approach this task? Would you just dive right in and spend all 4 hours reading through the parts and working out the details? Or would you hop on YouTube and spend 30-60 minutes listening to some recordings first before doing any work on your instrument?

As a young Suzuki kid, it was always the latter. I did a ton of listening – upon awakening, during meals, in the car, and even as I was falling asleep every night. I remember well the little Sony stereo set on my dresser that my mom would turn on and leave running as she left the room after tucking me in.

I’m not sure if it’s because of all the listening I did, but I did seem to move through repertoire pretty quickly as a little kid (except for the seeming eternity I spent on LaFolia ).

Even into my grad school days, listening to recordings was always a key part of my learning process when beginning work on a new piece. Whether it was a concerto or piano trio, I always sought out recordings before taking a look at the score or trying to play through it on my violin.

My wife on the other hand (a pianist), was always a look-at-the-score-first kind of person, and didn’t like listening to recordings until after she had already gotten the piece into her fingers. However, a few months ago, when faced with a lot of rep to learn for a performance she had to do on short notice, I suggested that she put recordings of every piece on her phone and spend her 16-hr plane ride immersed in an endlessly repeating playlist.

She’s a quick learner, and probably would have been just fine even without humoring my suggestion, but the marathon listening session certainly didn’t hurt, and I like to think that it helped her get everything into her fingers more quickly upon arrival.

A bit like being able to see what a 10,000-piece puzzle is supposed to look like before trying to put the pieces together.

So this leads to an interesting question about the impact of listening on our learning. Is this just an old Suzuki habit that I never let go of? Or does listening to music in the early going accelerate the learning process?

12 minutes. 13 notes.

To see what effect an auditory “model” might have on musicians’ learning rates, a team of researchers recruited 32 instrumental music majors1 with some secondary piano training2 to learn a short passage either (a) after listening to a recording or (b) without listening to a recording.

All students were allowed one 12-minute training session sometime between 8-10pm, in which they practiced the following 13-note melody with their left hand (all participants were righties).

From Cash, C.D., Allen, S.E., Simmons, A.L., & Duke, R.A. "Effects Of Model Performances On Music Skill Acquisition And Overnight Memory Consolidation." Journal Of Research In Music Education 62.1 (2014): 89-99.
From Cash, C.D., Allen, S.E., Simmons, A.L., & Duke, R.A. (2014). Effects Of Model Performances On Music Skill Acquisition And Overnight Memory Consolidation. Journal Of Research In Music Education, 62(1), 89-99.

Everyone was instructed to “play the melody as quickly, accurately, and evenly as possible,” but those in the listening group were also presented with a recording of the passage, which they heard 10 times before doing any practicing.

12 hours later…

Approximately 12 hours later, after a night of sleep, they returned to the lab to see how much of the previous evening’s practice stuck.

So how did the groups do?

Well, both groups improved with practice, in that everyone performed the passage more accurately after 12 minutes of practice than they did on their first try (no surprise there). In addition, both performed more accurately the following morning than they did at the end of their practice session. Yes, you read that correctly – they continued to improve overnight despite no further practice. Which might sound a little surprising at first, but was actually something the researchers expected to find, as continued motor learning after a period of sleep is a phenomenon that has been observed in other studies.

Different rates of learning

Though both groups improved during the practice session, they did not improve at the same rate. The students who heard the recording started out with an average accuracy score of 52.18 and over the course of the practice session improved to an average score of 99.96 (a 92% improvement). The group which was not given a recording to listen to started out at about the same level of accuracy – 48.71 – but only improved to an average score of 84.16 (a gain of only 73%).

Different levels of performance

Not only did the groups differ in terms of the rapidity of their learning, but the two groups achieved different levels of performance too. The group which heard the recording continued to improve overnight (again, despite not practicing any further), and ended with an average final accuracy score of 108.75 at the next morning’s test (an improvement of 9% over the previous evening’s performance). The no-listening group improved a wee bit too, but only by 4%, finishing with a final accuracy score of 87.24.

What do you think?

At first glance, the results of the study seem pretty clear, but it’s hard to say from the results what’s best in the long term. In the short term, yes, it seems that having an auditory model can accelerate our progress in the early going and help us get to a higher level of performance quicker. But does this lock us into a particular way of playing a piece too soon? And make it more difficult to develop our own interpretation of a piece? Or is this more of a concern for advanced players than it is for beginners?

What have you found in your own learning or teaching? Do you find it useful to listen to recordings before looking at the score? Or find it more valuable in the long run to start from the score with no auditory model?


  1. All participants were string or woodwind players.
  2. No more than a few years of private instruction/group piano class total.

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33 Responses

  1. I find that playing by ear is the most effective way to go. Therefore, I’m inclined to say hearing it before you play it is the best way to go, but the problem is that people don’t always know what that takes. It takes a special kind of listening to simply relax and allow the right sounds to come out of you without having to command your body so much. I would be interested in the results of such a study done again, this time on beginners (especially those starting from zero).

  2. I totally agree that our performance continue to improve overnight even without keep practising. Sometimes, when I learn a piece on piano, I may get stuck at certain passage, and the improvements is limited even if I kept on practising. So, I would stop for a day or two, and resume that same piece, I would often find myself gotten better on the piece! It’s very surprising! I guess the key is not to over do it.

  3. It strikes me as not an especially fair experiment in the score study vs listening comparison, if the non-listening group didn’t get to actually see the score before their practice session. As Alex points out above, trailing this study on absolute beginners would also be interesting, however I’d also be interested in seeing if it has any impact on learning to read music notation as well. Lots of interesting directions this kind of research can take…

  4. I always like to have a go at a new piece first without actively listening to a recording. But I do find that listening to other recordings helpful and, for me, really does speed up the learning process. I try to listen to as many different performances as I can (isn’t YouTube great!) whilst following the score. I think this prevents getting stuck into a single interpretation and is a good way of developing an initial understanding of the work and how different artists approach it.
    Incidentally another thing I have been trying recently when learning (and memorising) a new piece is to teach it. When I teach a piece I see it in a different way – more analytical. I recognise structure, themes, harmonies etc. with much more clarity. It does need to be well practised and in ones fingers first of course!

  5. I am a teacher with Suzuki training, but am mostly teaching in a public high school these days. However, I do have a few private students. One family makes no effort to listen to the recording at all. In spite of the student’s excellent ear and great feel for the violin, it has been a long uphill struggle to get her to book 2. Imagine everyone’s surprise when she learned an entire book of Christmas carols the week after Thanksgiving last year. She knew what to expect when she played them. It was a huge breakthrough for her, and I hope that her parents will now finally follow through and have her listen every day.

  6. I wish ther had been a third group. This group would have sung the melody through before approaching their instrument. I wonder what effect this would have on the learning process.

    And I would enjoy trying this with 8 year old beginners.

  7. I agree with Richard about the multiple recordings part, freeing you from one interpretation. I also listen to multiple recordings of a piece (if available) when I am in the learning phase, but then I usually stop listening to other recordings once I start developing my own interpretation of the piece, so as not to play exactly like my favorite recording.

  8. I have found that myself and my students who use score study and listening to a variety of recordings in a variety of ways; listening for enjoyment of the music, for deep awareness of what is going on besides my part, for nuance of musical inflection, details of HOW an artist is making the music come to life etc… is necessary and very helpful to learning and a great performance…
    Thank you as alway Noa for providing the information and inspiration …. Jennifer

  9. I’m a professional harpist. For solo work, I always learn the piece first before I listen to any recordings because I don’t want someone else’s artistic interpretation to influence mine before I have a good idea of how I want the piece to sound. Orchestral parts are a completely different story. I will often read through the part to identify what I think are the potential trouble spots, then listen to several different recordings to see how my part will be fitting in to the whole and to check tempi. That includes, for a harpist, figuring out if the part will even be heard. Many complicated harp parts are completely overpowered by the orchestra and it’s reasonable to simplify.

  10. With only 32 participants, looking at individual data
    may or may not be helpful. In such a small group, averages may be misleading.

  11. At one point in my life I was a voice student and listened to a lot of vocal repertoire. I often chose things to learn from “falling in love” with a particular performance and listened to it many times for a few weeks and then not at all for a couple of months. After this time, I was always surprised at how different my own performance of the piece had become from the original recording that had inspired me.

  12. I’m not usually one to listen to something without a few hacks at it on my horn first, but one time I got a phone call at 4pm that there was a flute masters recital at 7pm that night, and the clarinetist for the duo that was programmed had food poisoning. It was a piece I’d never played before, but I agreed to do it. I managed to get two run-throughs, and then during the first half of the recital, I went to the basement, looked at the difficult parts, and then just looked up a recording on YouTube so I could really hear, without having to worry about fingers, notes, and whatnot, how my part was supposed to fit in with the flute and the piano. It made a drastic difference when it came time for the performance! I’ve since made listening a more integral part of my learning process. In my recent audition prep, I had to take two weeks off for travel, so I made a playlist and put it on loop for my 11-hr flights, and even though I had no access to my clarinet for two weeks, when I came back to it, I found that I had still made progress. Sure, in an ideal world, we would all be able to hear the music before we play it, but especially for young wind players who don’t really start studying music until middle school and don’t have the aural background of Suzuki players, recordings are a great way to help students understand the piece without having to worry about all the other technical aspects. As an advanced student, listening to a variety of recordings can help you find your voice by determining what you do and don’t like in certain interpretations, and listening to a variety of world-class musicians can give you so many ideas about the music that isn’t written on the page. I don’t know of a great performer who isn’t also a great listener.

  13. I like Ellen Johansen’s suggestion to test a group who sings before playing. I’d like to test a group that learns without written notation, never using the page as a visual cue. This is a test of differences in learning speed, accuracy and recall, but if musicality and expression could be quantified the advantages of making learning music an aural experience rather than a visually driven one would be even more obvious.

  14. From the study: “Our data demonstrate that hearing a model performance that is performed at a speed beyond what may be attained in a single practice session led experienced musicians to accomplish more during active practice and to benefit more from overnight memory consolidation than did musicians who did not hear a model.”

    Study also stated that the musicians tested, highly skilled on their instruments, seemed to favor accuracy over speed, settling into tempi that were below half note=138 , the tempo of the aural model.

    Wondering if this has implications for learning passages of a piece that are too fast. Rather than simply attacking the tricky, fast passage without a previous listen, perhaps it’s helpful to listen to that passage a number of times?

    1. Hi John,

      Yeah, I thought this was interesting too. As the researchers point out, we do tend to emphasize accuracy over speed, so without an audio reference of what the tempo “ought” to be (or at least could be), we probably would tend to play/practice and aim for a tempo on the slower side, leading to a slower tempo than we might actually be capable of.

  15. I realize this study used a digital piano, but, in general, if a study uses an acoustic, traditional piano to conduct an experiment, draw conclusions and generalize to other instruments, is there an inherent problem because the piano, unlike most other instruments, cannot easily be moved while playing? I remember reading that Ray Charles had said the piano was easier for him to learn than other instruments because it did not move, so he always had a steady reference point for his hand movements. How critical is lack of movement of the instrument itself?

  16. I play oboe in a number of orchestras in southwestern Ontario, Canada. Very recently, one of my orchestras was doing O Patrio Mia from Aida (which has a number of long, very exposed solos) as part of a one-off, one-rehearsal concert. I have to admit that I opened my folder for this much later than I should have, and I was on the road a lot at the time and had very little time to prepare. I got a fantastic recording of the aria, put it on a USB key, and listened to it a number of times in the car. I got to the gig, having (gulp) not physically practiced the music once, but because I had a great concept in my head I played everything really well, and had a lot of people come to me afterwards to say how much they enjoyed what I was doing with it. This is not my only experience with the power of this – I am most definitely sold!

  17. I am a piano teacher and I generally shy away from having them listen first. I have a lot of beginners, and I worry it would take away from their reading abilities. I won’t even play it for them before they’ve had a chance to figure out the rhythms themselves. I’d be curious about your thoughts on that.

    1. Hi Rebecca,

      That sounds like a good idea to me. I think it all depends on what exactly we’re trying to help our students learn at the moment. If we want them to get the notes into their fingers quicker, then listening may be the way to go. But if we’re trying to get them to figure out how to interpret the black dots on the page for themselves and learn how to read and audiate without a model (which I think I personally struggled with, given how reliant I became on my ear), then having them read first before listening sounds more valuable.

  18. I think there’s too much variation here to reach a conclusive conclusion, and too few people. There’s learning styles to consider as well, which will lead people to have their preferences.
    Something I have found for my own pieces – as both a pianist and violinist – is that when I learn something new that I rely more on the score for piano and more on my ear for violin as a comparison of the two; I definitely look for recordings sooner for the violin than the piano, although I listen broadly in general. So the instrument itself, for me, has always played a part.
    If it’s a matter of learning something quickly, anything that can help is an asset and the first thing I would do is grab the sheet music and look for a performance that I like/similar to how I would want to perform the piece and listen to it with the sheets. Singing it too, as others suggested, was the first thing I did when I saw the example above.
    Sorry that this got longer than I had hoped, but I wanted to add my 2 cents.

  19. Thank you for asking what I think. Practicing the violin everyday isn’t something that I did everyday as a teenager so I have no experience to speak. Auditory model is cool. Auditory model is easy to find.
    Asking questions is something that I currently do. If you listen to recording and ask critical questions, can you little by little break free of auditory models ? Do you listen to the entire performance ? Can I combine the two ? Begin with sight-reading and checking out auditory model for specific sections ? I DON’T KNOW!!!
    I had read a musician who listened to two recordings, the one of Yo-yo and the one of the cellist woman, and he didn’t do like the two, he decided did something in the middle.

    My comment isn’t that of a daily practicer!!!
    You write articles and I read them. I comment and you read my comment. That being said, I don’t like the way I am overconfident leaving a comment of the sort. Maybe I ask questions as an overconfident person. I don’t like my comment. I don’t like the way I speak about something I don’t know. I don’t like the way I pretentiously ask questions. Practicing the musical instrument isn’t something I did everyday!!!

  20. Nice article. One of my favourite blogs by the way. I would agree that listening improves learning. In my 30 years of teaching experience I found that students who were faster learners tended to listen more actively to music. In other words they weren’t listening passively to say background music. There was often a musical parent raising their awareness making comments like “Can you hear the way to guitarist comes in there on the off beat?” A parent doesn’t necessarily have to be a musical. My father has always been passionate about music although he didn’t play but he did dissect the music and made me very aware of the different instruments. Especially guitar.

  21. but I am also going to try to sing the score alone without using a recording as if the computer didn’t exist — just by borrowing the score from imslp and by trying it out with the voice (and by helping myself with the intervals of the violin if needed) and then, by trying it out on the violin and by switching between the voice singing and my playing the violin. I am going to try this out.

  22. I find it enormously helpful to listen to recordings before (and while) learning a piece. I like getting as many different recordings as I can–ideas from lots of different performers.

  23. As a young string player, I did everything that the “never listen” camp decries and more. I always listened to the composition I was going to play before starting to practice it. Even worse, I played along with recordings as practice. (yes…*gasp*)

    It worked quite fine for me, and generally speaking, I received praise for my musical perception. In other words, nobody thought that I was playing like an instrumental drone who didn’t seem to have any original ideas about the piece he was playing. I wonder why?

    Well, first of all, I took some pains to find a recording of the piece I wanted to play that I agreed with, which required some listening to various recordings of the piece. Second, when I had found a recording which suited my tastes, I followed it with the piano or orchestra score in front of me and analyzed it harmonically and formally before starting to practice it. Third, I would then learn to play the entire piece at concert performance level before returning to the recording. Fourth, I played along with the recording only to get comfortable with the piano or orchestral accompaniment and learn my cues and always played straight through an entire movement of the piece (some exceptions made for tricky entries). Fifth, I made mental notes of what I disagreed with musically about the recording and rarely used the things I did agree with as mental reference points during rehearsals with a piano (sorry, you’ll just have to take my word for it in spite of what you’re thinking).

    The end result was that I didn’t waste any time getting comfortable with playing a piece with a “live” pianist (I obviously only used the above method when learning new pieces), and proceeded straight to working on interpretive matters with the pianist in rehearsal. I think the pianists I worked with rather appreciated working on the music with me rather than just playing through the pieces I had on my program. And I was able to learn repertoire pretty quickly, making it a goal to learn and perform a new recital program before audiences every 2-3 months. This was on top of playing chamber music in public with my string quartet, and obviously could vary due to my concert schedule of playing pieces I already knew. But I made sure to always have something new in the works even as I performed tried and true repertoire.

    Obviously, my approach isn’t one I would recommend to everyone. I had a fairly strong opinion about musical interpretation from a fairly young age (thanks to growing up in a musical family and good teachers), and I was able to work more independently than is usually the norm. E.g., once I had reached a certain level of playing, I would always make my own fingerings and bowings before bringing a piece to a lesson, and I preferred a break of two weeks between lessons when studying new repertoire so I had learned it to the best of my own abilities – including weeding out playing wrong rhythms and notes – before getting a teachers’ input about how I could improve on my technique and fingerings or bowings where necessary. Naturally, once I had learned the basics, I would have a lesson every week while working with the teacher.

    All I can say is that personally, I didn’t observe any negatives from using recordings as preparatory aids (“preparatory aids” is the key concept here). I believe that the way I used recordings helped me learn repertoire faster than would otherwise have been the case and make me more comfortable once I went out onto a concert stage before an audience because I was thoroughly familiar with the “feel” of the piece and knew that I had put in the work to create an interpretation that I felt I “owned.”

    As Carl Jung wrote, “The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.” The same goes for practicing and studying.

  24. Fascinating article.

    Coming from a non-classical background where playing by ear is the norm, it’s incredibly interesting to get some insight into the more classical take on this.

    For me, learning a new piece always starts with listening. Jazz and popular music has a tradition of recorded music. I want to dig into the sound, the feel, the exact timing.. Everything that makes a recording magic. Only after I know the piece fairly well, I’ll start figuring out how to play it.

    In teaching, I’ve pretty much stopped using almost all forms of notation. In the beginning, I teach students how to learn something by ear, later I help them with songs they’ve figured out at home. Guiding them through the trickier bits and with tips on how to play it, of course. What I’ve noticed is that this makes the students much more ‘in control’ of their learning proces, which is an incredible motivator. They can feel their musicianship growing.

    To me, it always feels like I ‘own’ a piece much more when I’ve learned it by ear compared to when I’ve used notation. It would be interesting to see a study with a third group: one that learned the piece without the sheet music.

  25. Interesting. I’ve read similar studies that concluded also that sleep enhanced the day’s practice more than without sleep. That’s why I now tell my students, not practice makes perfect, but practice – plus sleep makes perfect.

    As to teachers negativity on using audio recordings to help accelarate learning – perhaps they are questioning the validity of “discovery learning” if they hear the way it’s supposed to sound before they work on it themselves.

  26. One summer I had the good fortune to play in a festival orchestra comprised of fellow musicians from the U.S., but also many from the U.K. and Eastern Europe. Given the high level of expertise demonstrated with well-known repertoire (La Boheme, Carmen), it was surprising the rhythm and ensemble difficulties the group demonstrated with (what I think of as) equally well-known rep, such as Porgy & Bess and Appalachian Spring. Though I kept wondering “Haven’t you guys ever heard a recording of this?!” the conductor made no such complaints (which is not to say he wasn’t a bit mean and grumbly with us at times).

    Maybe what’s going on there is the possibility that Americans are more likely to have heard recordings (and thus be more familiar) with Gershwin and Copland than Europeans would. So, I guess that reaffirms my takeaway from this study: that it’s always better to have a piece (or 13 piano notes) in your ear before you play it. Listening to recordings is obviously the quickest way to accomplish this, but by no means the only way. Though I’ve grown up listening to many recordings, I’m also one of those people blessed with perfect pitch, so looking at the score of an unknown piece quickly translates to sound in my mind. I’m careful about recommending students listen to too many recordings because I believe (but it’d be great to see if scientific studies confirm or negate my belief that) doing so can 1. deprive students of the opportunity to learn ear-training, and 2. make their sound and interpretation a carbon copy of what they hear. However, if you never listened to recordings, then how could you emulate the greats, being inspired by their sounds and interpretations, but using them also as a point of departure for your own musical journey?

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