12 rules for efficient learning in music

1. Select your field of interest

"If music cannot qualify for you on the three grounds of ... interest, and personal value, you should, perhaps, avoid it..."

"In music, select first a general field and within this field from stage to stage a specific aspect or content which you desire to master."

"Knowing exactly what is to be learned is the first stage of mastery..."

2. Intend to Learn

"This does not mean an occasional or sporadic intention but a firm decision to give continuity of effort until mastery is attained."

"Occasional intention is ruinous because tends to destroy what has been attained."

"The intentions that count in life are habitual. ...When the intention to remember has become a habit, you will have the feeling mastery and joy of achievement."

3. Trust the first impression

"In wrestling, shooting, photography - in all acts of skill - success comes to the one who most effectively throws his best energies into a single stroke of effort."

"In learning something, make a deliberate and deep first impression and then trust that."

"Instead of repeating the impression, repeat the recall or memory. This principle is opposed to the rote method by which the learner simply grinds away blindly, thinking that something will be ground in."

"When you take up a new selection, make a rapid survey of its general characteristics to note what is familiar and what are new features. Observe or perform the first new feature deliberately, intending to make this first impression adequate and permanent, repeating it in recall, or from recall, as often as is necessary to deepen this first impression; but be determined not to go back for a second impression. Then take the successive new features in turn in the same manner until the whole selection is mastered."

"This being done, the individual units can be woven together. Again let us say practice each unit, bind the successive units together, but always by recall and not by repeating impression. Such is the practice that counts. Trust the first impression and your memory will serve you well."

"Thinking is meeting new difficulties with deliberation and solving them."

"If it is a new fact, a stroke, a phrase, a difficult fingering, note it's relation to what you already know or can do."

"Recognition of this relationship is the bond that ties the new to the old, which is the act of learning. Intelligent learning consists largely in effective classification. Therefore, fit each new experience into its relationships to what you already have; that is, classify it deliberately with great precision and with as full meaning as possible."

Carl E. Seashore - The Psychology of Music

4. Classify: learn by thinking

"The botanist can recognize and recall thousands of plants be-cause he has the habit of seeing relationships. One plant is like another in this and that respect; therefore, it belongs to the same class. Instead of remembering the thousands of individual plants, the botanist remembers them by types and relationships, each within the class to which it belongs. So it is in music. Note the relationship of the new experience, classify it in the first impression, and it will be yours."

"For this reason, the first impression should be very deliberate and should be lingered upon until the details and character of its meaning are adequately recognized. To the student who is accustomed merely to grind away, it is difficult to realize what a short cut to learning this principle furnishes. It is the key to most of the systems of memory training which have been famous from time to time in the past."

5. Cultivate concrete imagery

"We see, hear, taste, touch, or smell an object in its presence; we may recall it and see, hear, taste, touch, or smell it in mental image. For example, last night I heard a song; at this moment I can close my eyes and hear it, noting in great detail the characteristics of the rendition."

"Full, vivid, and accurate mental imagery is one of the most outstanding characteristics of a musical mind."

"It is this that enables the musician to live in a tonal world. He occasionally hears or performs music, but far more frequently images it either in recall or in anticipation."

"Now our rule in making the first impression is to note details that aid in classification so that they come back faithfully reproduced in the mental image."

"This concrete and faithful imagery is most essential in the first recall, immediately after the first impres-sion, but imagery is closely related to fantasy and fantasy is one of the best aids to memory in that it gives us striking, interesting, odd, and lasting impressions which aid in recall."

6. Build larger and larger units

"At certain advanced stages we learn by wholes, but the best rule for learning in general is to learn one specific small thing at a time: then weave these larger units..."

"This was implied in rule three but is so important that we must let it stand out in a rule by itself. If you build in small units in which the first impression is trusted and immediately recalled in vivid imagery, a progressive mastery of such units should enable you to practice what has been learned from memory without looking it up again or being retold."

"Doing this is the test of whether or not you are trusting your memory. Memory is like a friend; trust him and he will be true to you. This rule requires a careful planning and a. well-sustained policy in order that you may not have any difficulty in practicing by recall instead of by impression."

7. Practice only by recall

"If you build in small units in which the first impression is trusted and immediately recalled in vivid imagery, ... should enable you to practice from memory..."

"Memory is like a friend, trust him and he will be true to you."

8. Rest economically

"So far our rules force the concentration of effort in doing a thing incisively in the first instant. Such effort cannot be long sustained; but it carries its own reward and more in that, when your effort has been efficiently concentrated in success-ful attacks, you will have accomplished in a very short time what the happy-go-lucky methods would take a very long time to do, and you are therefore entitled to rest."

"Rest should be distributed throughout a learning process so as to occur in short periods after each small unit that is mastered and in longer and longer periods in proportion to the size of the unit that is mastered. Thus, instead of practicing a selection by the rote method for two hours, work by spurts, allowing yourself complete relaxation after each unit and you will have accomplished your task in but a small fraction of the hour, will have had periodic relaxation, and will have the remainder of the period for entire freedom."

"The ability to do this is an art which not only saves time in learning but develops those traits of personality in which you show yourself master of the situation. Many a music student becomes a nervous wreck from ill-adjusted study methods in the violation of this rule. Many a student becomes disgusted with music because he cannot learn by dull drudgery."

9. Recognize what is learned and express it in action

"When, as a child, you learned to walk, the best way of retaining that skill was to walk. So when you have acquired a skill of insight, knowledge, feeling, action, or interpretation of music, keep it alive in action."

"Treat your music as a good friend; speak to him, work with him, play with him, laugh with him, do something for him. Let music function in your life."

10. Review in cycles

"Certain types of knowledge, skill, facility, and efficiency need to be reviewed systematically."

"This is well recognized in the organization of teaching of arithmetic in the grades. A certain process is repeated at higher levels at larger and larger intervals by the practice of recall or performance. In such review, the essentials should stand out progressively more clearly."

"In any account of learning, we acquire a lot of incidental accretions in matters of no consequence. One condition of memory is the power to forget the nonessential or irrelevant. The cycle of review should tend to eliminate these and let the permanently valuable stand out in higher relief."

11. Build each new acquisition into a habit

"No one acts musically until the techniques have been shoved back into the subconscious where they take care of themselves as habits."

"No one can read music or play or sing until the fundamental facts and skills have been converted into habits which function without fail in progressively larger integrations Only then can a singer sing with feeling and abandon; only then can the pianist pick up a complicated score and play it at sight; only then can the conductor inspire unified effort in the artistic playing of the ensemble."

"Historically, there have been two schools of teachers: those who cultivate conscious attention on a specific element or process in on a specific element or process involved at a given stage in musical training, and those who take the opposite view and say, for example, "Sing naturally and with feel-ing and pay no attention to how the tone is produced."

"The psychological theory combines these two and says, "At the learning stage, be intensely conscious of the element involved in the par-ticular that is to be learned, then relegate these elements to habit and in musical performance give yourself up to the situation as a whole, guided largely by a feelingful intelligence."

12. Learn at your own level

"Great difficulty is involved in class instruction in music owing to the diversity of talent in a group. While this is a problem of the teacher, it is ultimately your problem to see to it that your learning effort is concentrated upon the acquisition, not of what you would have, but what is within your power of acquisition at the time.&q

"Refuse to learn what you already know, refuse to drill on what you already can perform with skill, insist upon the privilege of working at your own natural level so that the task that you undertake is neither too easy nor too hard."

"Perhaps most frequently this will mean insistence on going back and acquiring that which was passed over too lightly in order that you may have the background for the making of further progress."


These are excerpts from Chapter 13 of 'Carl E. Seashore - The Psychology of Music'. The second half of that chapter has related advice for teachers, and I unreservedly recommend the book as a resource for the musician who is curious about his own art.

Carl E. Seashore - The Psychology of Music
From Psychology of Music by Carl E. Seashore.