Evidence That Listening to a Recording Could Accelerate the Learning Process for New Repertoire

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Let’s say you have a few short pieces that need to be learned before rehearsal tomorrow, and only a few hours today to practice. How would you approach this task?

Would you just dive right in and spend all of your practice time reading through the parts and working out the details?

Or would you hop on YouTube first, and spend a little bit of time listening to some recordings before doing any work on your instrument?

In my early Suzuki years, 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 ).

And 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 years 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 actually 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 (Cash et al., 2014) 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 ultimately achieved different levels of performance too. To see what sort of difference in memory consolidation there might be overnight, the researchers asked the participants to come back for another test the next day after a night’s sleep.

The group which heard the recording, despite not practicing any further, 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.

Takeaways

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 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?

It might be that the optimal approach depends on how much time is available, and also one’s personal preferences. If you’d like to ponder this further, it’s a topic that came up in the podcast episode with cellist Natasha Brofsky and violist Roger Tapping (here). And it came up in conversation with cellist Mark Kosower too (here), who also noted the importance of listening to multiple recordings, instead of just one.


References

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. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022429413520409

Footnotes

  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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Comments

34 Responses

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. I’ve been playing to recordings since around 1971 and since I only started learning to read notation a few years ago, I’d certainly just find the song online and try to copy as much of it as I could . I’ve used this approach since day one and am still doing it that way some 50 years later.

    Here’s a sample of my results with the ear/copy method.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sh5ON-LYbwQ

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