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Anyone embarking on a career in music will find they have a lot to learn — and fast.

Session musicians play brand-new songs each day at a professional level. Songwriters need to understand music publishing, and artists need to understand how record deals work. Music teachers must understand both music and how to be effective instructors. And anyone learning an instrument can testify that it’s hard labor.

How unfortunate, then, that so many of us don’t know how to learn effectively. If you’ve ever read through a book, highlighting the vital parts, then you’ve fallen victim to a useless learning strategy. Did you know that highlighting, underlining, and circling important parts of a text is no better than just reading it?

Fortunately, as interest in cognitive science has surged over the past few decades, we’ve come to understand much more about how we learn — and how to get better at it.

Learning is one of the most vital skills for any musician. But before you jump right to the best learning strategies, it helps to know what exactly is happening when you learn new things.

What Is Learning?

To learn well, it helps to understand what’s going on in your brain.

Your brain is made up of billions of cells called neurons. Neurons connect with other neurons at points called synapses.

More importantly, when one neuron lights up with energy, it also communicates that information to other neurons via these synapses. This creates a domino effect: if the energy surge is strong enough, then all the neurons connected to the first neuron will light up, too, and then all the neurons connected to those neurons in a vast fan of energy that spreads across part of your brain.The path that this wave of energy takes through your brain is called a neural network.

These neural networks are responsible for nearly everything we do. When you play a B minor chord on guitar, one network lights up. When you play a C major, another network lights up.

When you learn to play guitar, or anything else, what you are actually doing is building these networks in your mind.

If you learn well, they’ll be fast, powerful, and solidly-built. But if you learn poorly, you’ll struggle by playing wrong notes, forgetting parts, and otherwise making mistakes. By understanding how these networks get built, you can learn quickly and accurately in a short time.

Neural networks can be called by another name: chunks.

“Chunking” is the mental leap that brings disparate information into cohesive units.

Chunking is vital in order to perform any complex action. When you start learning a new skill, like piano, everything takes extraordinary effort. Sitting feels strange, your fingers don’t have the right amount of bend, you’re hitting keys too hard or too lightly, and you can’t remember which of the black keys are in the scale. In other words, you have to think hard about every action you take.

But soon you learn how to sit, place your fingers on the piano, and play with the right amount of pressure. Instead of thinking about three separate things, you just have one thought: play.

This is what chunking is all about. First, you learn small actions or bits of knowledge. Gradually, you combine them into bigger and bigger units until you can channel pure emotion into playing a Mozart sonata.

Chunking lets your neural network activate a complicated act, like playing the piano, with the same effort it used to take to active a simple version of the same act, like playing a single note. The more chunks you have, the more you know, and the faster you can think and act.

How Your Mind Builds Chunks

Chunks are the core of learning. And, fortunately, they’re simple to build.

First, we’ll walk through how to build chunks in general. Then, in the next section, we’ll see what specific learning strategies are the most effective, backed by research.

To build chunks, you must first understand what you are learning in context. Isolated facts are the antithesis of chunks — after all, chunks are just networks of related information in your mind.

When you learn something new, start by getting a general overview of the topic. If you’re learning a song, listen all the way through a few times. If you want to understand music publishing, read through a book, or even the Wikipedia page.

Each of these will serve like a fuzzy map that you can start filling in with specific information. It’s like building all the corners of a jigsaw puzzle, so you can start filling in the rest of the pieces one by one.

Next, you need to choose small, manageable parts of the problem to tackle. Perhaps the song has an unfamiliar chord in the verse — you might start by only learning this chord. When you’ve got the chord down, start to build the chunk up by working on the full verse. Or, perhaps you start only with basic copyright law before getting into the rest of publishing. The most important part is to start small and master things one at a time.

This is the basic process of building mental chunks. But there are all kinds of ways to build chunks — which learning strategies are the best?

Learn More, Work Less

Whew! Now you know what learning is all about. You start without knowledge, and your job is to build up tiny chunks into ever-bigger ones. You start out barely able to sound a note, and soon enough you’re sight-reading complicated guitar chords in a session. That’s the power of effective learning!

So what strategies are actually the best for building chunks? There are four strategies worth examining — and I’ll share a few that aren’t worth your time, too.

Practice Tests
More than 100 years of research (seriously, the first study was published in 1909) has demonstrated the power of practice tests.

The reason this works so well is that you’re forced to recall from memory — no cheating allowed. Testing your knowledge from pure memory seems to be the single-best way to understand and maintain knowledge that we know of. And it’s easy to do.

Try reading a passage in your music publishing book, then close the book and try to explain the concept from memory. You could also download practice questions online, refer to questions from a textbook, or make your own. The most important part is that you don’t look at the answers and rely only on your memory. You’ll often find that a topic you thought you understood well becomes impossible to explain from memory!

This is important: never try to build bigger chunks out of knowledge you don’t quite understand yet. Make sure you can answer correctly on a practice test, first — whether that’s playing a scale or song from memory, or answering questions about book knowledge. Learning incorrectly will bite you later.

Distributed Practice / Spaced Repetition

Massed practice is quite different from distributed practice. In massed practice, you study something hard for a block of time, but only once. You might be learning a new chord, and so you work at the chord for an hour and consider it done. In distributed practice, however, you space out repetitions over time. You might practice the chord for 15 minutes once per week for four weeks, adding up to the same total hour of time.

Which one will give you the best result?

In summarized research from John Dunlonsky, students judged massed practice to be more effective than practice spread out over time.

They were 100% wrong.

It turns out that learning feels tougher when it’s distributed over time instead of all at once, and that feeling of toughness makes learners think they are learning less. But the opposite is true. That feeling of toughness is what good, long-lasting learning feels like.

As Dunlosky writes, “Students retain knowledge and skills for a longer period of time when they distribute their practice than when they mass it, even if they use the same amount of time.”

Practice tests and spaced repetition are tough. But they’re also the two most effective strategies for learning we’ve got.

How can you apply this to your learning?

The way you apply these strategies will depend on what you’re learning.

  • If you’re learning book knowledge, like copyright laws or music theory: first, get an overview of the topic by reading an introduction or a Wikipedia page. Then, focus in on a small, important part of the topic. During focused study, read and learn a small chunk, then shut the book and try to recall it from memory. If the authors provide practice questions, periodically answer them as a test. Consider making flash cards for important knowledge and testing yourself on those cards daily or weekly. Finally, every time you learn a new, big piece of knowledge about the topic, ask yourself how it relates to the big picture.

  • If you’re learning something physical, like an instrument or a new song: get an overview by listening to the song all the way through. Then, focus in on a small segment, like the verse, or even smaller, like a specific run in the verse. For a focused burst of time, play through the section until you can comfortably play it. Then, either move to another section or take a break, spacing out your practice over time. Make sure to test yourself without the aid of music or other guides and see if you can still play it. Finally, put it together with other parts of the song to build bigger chunks. You’ll also find our piece on deliberate practice useful for this kind of learning.

These learning strategies will accelerate your practice and help you make the best use of your time. Of course, even the best strategies won’t help if you aren’t motivated to put in the time. If you’re struggling with practice, you might find our article about motivation in music useful.

Happy practicing!