How to Study-Practice: Ways to Know a Piece of Music

Preparation for performance is not about brute force “memorization” of unrelated dots on a page. It’s about internalizing the musical patterns so that they become a permanent part of you.  Such fluency requires you to engage all your capacities… body, mind, and spirit.  In doing so, you are going to go well beyond learning to “play the piano”.

Below are some of the patterns that make a piece of music tick.  Don’t worry about the details right now. The goal here is to expose you to a different way of looking at music… and to begin a lifetime of mindful study, not mindless mechanical practice.


Form. The form is the temporal skeleton of the piece. Outline the overall form. Is it a simple 8 bar song, 12 bar blues, 16 bar, ABA, AABA, ABCD, other? Is there an intro? What are the verses, chorus, bridge? Are there special sections, interludes, breaks, ending, coda?

Phrases. Within the larger form there will be phrases and subphrases. How long are these phrases and how do they relate to each other?

Key Centers. What key(s) is the piece in?  What kind of scales are being used? Major, Minor, Dorian, others?

Rhythm. What is the time signature and what are its rhythmic implications?

Melody. Analyze the melody. What are the most important notes in the melody? Which are essential and which are ornamentation? Notice how the important melody notes almost always outline the chord structure.

  • Strongly consider analyzing using Solfege.
  • Identify the rhythmic motives and notice how they repeat.
  • Sing the melody out loud. If you can’t hum it, you don’t know it!

Harmony. Analyze the chords and chord changes. These form the harmonic outline of the piece. Don’t merely memorize them. Know them by function and by sound so that you will always hear-feel where you are in the overall structure of the piece. If there are key changes, how do the keys relate to each other? Is the change of key abrupt or is it done by modulation?

Sound. Sing the melody. Sing the bass line. Sing the notes that outline the harmony.

Sight. Close your eyes and imagine playing the piece in your mind’s ear. Close you eyes and imagine playing the piece in your mind’s eye. Can you see the piano keys as you imagine the sounds?

Technique. What is the technical choreography of the piece? What is an appropriate fingering? What types of body motions are required?

Style. What is the characteristic style of the piece? Rhythm, accompaniment patterns, chord voicings, melodic figures, ornaments, trills, tremolos, grace notes, special stylistic devices?

Interpretation. How are the phrasing and dynamics (loud, soft, crescendo, diminuendo) used to create momentum or convey a feeling? What articulations are used? legato, staccato, others? How do they relate to the rhythmic motives and phrasing and character of the piece? What emotions or other message does the piece convey?


On the surface, all of the above seems like a daunting amount of work… until you realize four things:

  • There is usually a lot of repetition within a given piece, so studying one part of the piece will yield immediate dividends elsewhere in the piece.
  • There is usually a lot of repetition of certain patterns within a particular genre of music, so studying one piece will yield dividends many times over when you study other pieces in a similar style.
  • Even different styles of music share many commonly-used musical elements. The general study of melody, harmony, rhythm, and technique in one style will yield dividends when you study other musical styles.
  • Time and time again you will discover and re-discover that all music is composed of a pretty short list of simple and universal building blocks, but each style combines and explores them in different and interesting ways.

LEARN MORE… Ears First

About Frank J Peter

A uniquely burdened and blessed citizen of the world thinking and acting out loud!
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