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Laurie's Violin School: Is listening 'cheating,' or the best way to learn?

Laurie Niles

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Published: October 13, 2014 at 8:59 PM [UTC]

Listening to good music can accelerate learning like little else.

It's so effective that it almost feels like cheating. Do you need to memorize something this week? Listen to it 10 times and witness how quickly that eases your assignment. Need to learn your orchestra part? Same thing: listen. Need to figure out a new piece? Listen. In fact, some teachers argue that listening to learn your music IS cheating!

Well, it's not. And also, it is. Allow me to explain:

Here's how listening helps: If you look at musical learning as mirroring language learning, listening is absolutely crucial to early learning. Does one learn to read before one learns to speak? No, the sequence goes: one is immersed in hearing language, then one learns to form words, then one strings phrases together while speaking, then one strings together sentences. And after one learns to speak, learns the alphabet, phonics, words, phrases, sentences. Long process! One starts speaking words around the age of one; one reads them around the age six.

That's a long lag time, and usually it doesn't take quite as long in music. But the sequence is instructive, and so is understanding the volume of language that a person hears and internalizes, before beginning to read it.

To have a good feel for various kinds of music, you need to hear it and internalize it as well. That takes a lot of listening. But once the music is in your ear, it is much easier to match pitches, to know when you are playing a wrong note, and even to feel the groove of various musical styles.

When does listening becomes a problem?

I'll tell a story that some teachers may find familiar: I once had a student come to me after finishing the Suzuki books -- she played her solo repertoire beautifully. And she couldn't read well enough to prepare an etude every week or to figure out her orchestra music; she wanted a recording, she needed to know "how it goes."

This is less a problem of listening and more a problem of neglecting reading. It was a criticism in the early days of the Suzuki method, which uses listening extensively, and has been largely addressed by Suzuki teachers, most of whom now start to teach reading very young.

But it's not just Suzuki students who sometimes avoid reading; it's anyone with a good ear. And sometimes the problem isn't an inability to read, it's just neglecting to look closely at the score.

In a recent interview with Philippe Quint, he related an amusing story from his younger days, about learning to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto after having listening to the piece since early childhood. When he finally got to play it, he excitedly learned the whole thing in one week, after which his furious teacher sent him back to the practice room with instructions to stop listening and study the score! So even in the finest players, the ear can't always decipher all, and the score is essential to the process.

Listening may be the crutch that people use when they can't read (or don't), but that doesn't mean that listening itself is a bad thing. It just means that students need to work on reading, away from listening. Listening is not a way to learn reading, reading is a way to learn reading. The early phases of reading require some pain-in-the-neck "figuring it out." Like playing, reading takes practice: one first has to figure things out slowly many times before figuring them out quickly, and to do so without the "cheat" of someone telling you how it goes and carrying you along.

Beyond the reading question is the question of interpretation. Beginners will imitate their teachers and the recordings they hear, just as beginner-speakers will imitate their parents' speech patterns (for better or for worse!) This is a healthy and natural part of learning. But the more advanced student or artist will try to avoid over-listening to any specific recording, so they don't "ape' any particular artist. Listening to various recordings, instead of just one, can help in this regard.

But back to the benefits of listening: I'm convinced (without scientific evidence, I'll admit) that if you are learning a piece and listening to it simultaneously, the sound prompts the brain to work out specifics of fingerings, bowings, string crossings, etc., away from the instrument. Even having the music repeat in your mind as an earworm can prompt your brain to work on the playing aspects as well.

I tend to think that it's a rare student who listens too much these days, honestly. Listening takes time, and in the fast-paced, over-booked, multi-tasking, noisy environment that is today's world, listening is a slow and singular process. So don't take my word for it; try it for yourself. Seek out a recording of your current piece, or the piece your orchestra is playing. Find a a new artist who inspires you, or an alternate interpretation. Listen to the period baroque version, a differently-orchestrated version, or a popularized version. See how listening works on your mind and on your playing.

I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.

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Posted on October 13, 2014 at 10:24 PM
You stated "I'm convinced (without scientific evidence, I'll admit) that if you are learning a piece and listening to it simultaneously, the sound prompts the brain to work out specifics of fingerings, bowings, string crossings, etc., away from the instrument. Even having the music repeat in your mind as an earworm can prompt your brain to work on the playing aspects as well."

I refer you and readers to your June 17, 2014 article The Science and Art of Practicing with Molly Gebrian and Shelly Tramposh in which you provided a link to the very interesting paper "?What Musicians Can Learn about Practicing from Current Brain Research" by Molly Gebrian (

Molly wrote "every time you practice or learn something new, you’re actually changing your brain...when you learn a new skill, especially something like the extended techniques used in contemporary music, there is a necessary period of days or weeks that your brain needs to rewire itself and for new neuronal ensembles and circuits to form...The other amazing thing that happens in musicians’ brains as new synapses form is that our motor cortex gets connected to our auditory cortex...if a musician listens to a recording of a piece they know and play well, not only does their auditory cortex light up on a brain scan (called an fMRI), but the portion of their motor cortex devoted to their fingers does too. Furthermore, neuroscientists have shown that the motor cortex isn’t just lighting up as a whole unit – the areas that control the individual fingers light up in the order and timing they would to execute the correct fingering (Bangert and Altenmuller, 2003) [Molly did not provide the publication, but it seems to be this:]...The opposite happens too: if you tell a pianist to play a piece silently on a tabletop, their auditory cortex lights up as it would if they were actually playing (and hearing) the piece."

Molly also discussed the role of sleep in learning, stating "a very important component of motor (and auditory) learning is sleep...The primary thing that improved with sleep for the people in these studies was speed (at least that’s what the experimenters were measuring). Since the amount of daytime improvement and learning after sleep aren’t related, spending hours and hours on a really tricky fast passage on the first few days of practicing isn’t as efficient as getting it fluent at a slower tempo and then just leaving it until the next day. The next day, not only will you be able to play it faster, but you’ll spend much less time getting it to a faster tempo than you would’ve the day before."

Ken, SD

From Gene Huang
Posted on October 13, 2014 at 11:04 PM
For years, I've been telling my son that he should listen to the orchestra pieces he is learning -- not just once, but over and over. Now that I have recently joined a local community orchestra myself, I am practicing what I preach. My hour commute (each way) to the office is now my mental practice time. When I was a student, I probably would not have had the patience to spend time just listening. But since I have to do the commute, it forces me to listen, and I think it definitely helps me to learn the pieces more quickly.

Posted on October 13, 2014 at 11:50 PM
I listen in the car to recordings of what my orchestra is working on. It's a great way to become familiar with the music and at the same time use productively my commute time.
Posted on October 14, 2014 at 1:41 AM
I came to this web site looking for advice on memorization. Doesn't technique and teaching methods depend on the student? I am 54 and live in the country. I will never play with an orchestra. I play because I love music and the violin. I have a goal this week to memorize my favorite piece.
Thank you for the article and please excuse me while I have a some practice/listening to do.
Posted on October 14, 2014 at 4:41 AM
Great story; I was a chaperon with the kids Band trip to DisneyLand at a music workshop; long story short: the kids play with a guest conductor as soundtrack to a Disney movie; the "better" the group plays, the more movie scenes they play. One sweet girl, as they were sightreading the score said, "But how does it go"? Needless to say, they only one soundtrack done!
From marjory lange
Posted on October 14, 2014 at 11:34 AM
Laurie, good article. I wonder if this is an issue more for purely classically-trained musicians? the folk/traditional players learn almost exclusively BY listening; in fact, one website on Irish music says you should not learn tunes by reading them, but only by listening because the notes are only a small part of the music.

As one who learned to sing/play almost exclusively by reading notes on a page, I appreciate my lack--where others have trouble reading, I still sometimes have difficulty translating what I hear into my own fingers because my brain 'sees' music more readily. The songs I learned by memory before I could read music are the ones most deeply imbedded in me, but that's partly because everything I learned that young is.

From Douglas Locke
Posted on October 14, 2014 at 11:36 AM
I agree! It is a big world of listening for students today. For example, one can simply search YouTube and find a historic archive recording of Pablo de Sarasate himself playing his Ziguenerwiesen. It is amazing, like time travel. Not to mention the availability of live streaming of concerts all over the world. What great learning resources are out there for musicians of all ages. But, this also means we teachers must renew efforts to work on note reading in lessons, it is becoming quite rare that students cannot locate recordings and they can "cheat" to avoid having to actually read and study the notation.
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on October 14, 2014 at 11:50 AM
There is an old saying in traditional apprenticeships: "Monkey listen; monkey see; monkey do".
From John Rokos
Posted on October 14, 2014 at 12:52 PM
We only have to read the discussions on getting into music schools to realize the enormous difference the availability of recordings to listen to have made to standards.
Posted on October 14, 2014 at 2:35 PM
RE: "studying the notation"

Consider that the only reason that that "notation" exists is because there weren't any recordings in 1870, or 1780 etc!

Are violinists to be Copyists or Artists? Are violinists to be Academic Interpreters or Artistic Innovators?

Is Excellence judged by Accuracy of Duplication or by Beauty and Persuasion?

And do Gentlemen must needs be competent horsemen?

From Paul Deck
Posted on October 14, 2014 at 4:53 PM
It's really just kind of hard to imagine trying to learn new pieces but not listening to them too. When all is said and done, why do we play the violin at all? Because we love music, and presumably we love listening to it just as we love making it.
From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on October 14, 2014 at 5:21 PM
I've always been able to play by ear, and I listen to music a lot while learning it. It helps me memorize a piece and figure out how to play it. In fact, sometimes (in the shower, for instance) I'll find myself zoning out because I'm playing back the piece in my head and working out fingering.

At this stage, if I go back and read the score, I can fill in the little details I may have missed or gotten wrong. Reading and listening, when taken together, give the most comprehensive way of learning a piece.

I not only play in a local orchestra, but regularly attend bluegrass jams. Many bluegrass musicians - some quite accomplished - can't read music at all. As the joke goes:

Q: How do you stop a classical musician from playing?
A: Take away his sheet music.
Q: How do you stop a bluegrasser from playing?
A: Put sheet music in front of him.

Being able to learn from both reading and listening gives me the best of both worlds.

From Andrei Pricope
Posted on October 14, 2014 at 5:57 PM
Listening is NEVER a crutch, especially in music, the ART OF SOUND, where listening to oneself and others, IS the most important skill!

But, relying exclusively on listening without (first) properly comprehending the text, reading its many important clues, no matter how basic (notes, rhythms, dynamics, bowings and fingerings, tempi) and then referring to the source for deeper awareness and understanding is the real crutch, in my opinion. That's where inaccuracies develop and get assimilated: made up stuff and bad habits ushering in frustration and disappointment.

This topic ties beautifully to the recent post on note-reading fluidity, the all-too-common way of teaching and learning, eg, "D3" = the note G on the D string (as opposed to saying, thinking, teaching and learning G3 is the note G played with the 3rd finger on the D string). This is a prime example of building wrong, confusing and detrimental mental models of what the music says, how its building blocks are related, and what/how to play (to say nothing of inadequate future readiness for sight-reading, ensemble playing, or flexibility of learning related instruments...).

What can be worse than experimenting with fingerings and not knowing what NOTE you play because you're too used to the real crutch of thinking in fingerings! One must know first WHAT (note) to play and then know HOW (fingering, string, position) to play... How can notes, intervals, keys, modulation, harmony and counterpoint, score-reading and analysis make ANY sense when one is brain-washed from the beginning into thinking in terms of body mechanics (fingerings) rather than the rudiments of music, playing an instrument vs. making music?!?

Drives me crazy when I get transfer students that can "play" fingerings and bowings like one-trick circus bears but have NO clue WHAT note and rhythm/bowing pattern they're supposed to be playing, no basic understanding of the essential building blocks of music and no awareness of what the text in front of them actually says... They're the victims of the worst approach - an insult to students' intelligence, the worst disservice from a music teacher, and the REAL CRUTCH, long term...

So, yes, ALWAYS listening, but having a clear mental picture of what the music says...

From Jim Hastings
Posted on October 14, 2014 at 10:44 PM
I've found both listening and reading, typically in that order, essential. I came to violin from an elementary piano background; but even though I could already read music, I first played by ear on a half-sized fiddle before I had a teacher -- simple tunes that I already knew and found appealing during listening sessions.

Philippe Quint's experience with the Tchaikovsky VC reminds me of my first experiences in attempting portions of the Brahms VC. Like Philippe, I was in my mid-teens. I imitated by ear portions of the first movement. A few years later, when I had the sheet music and was actually studying the piece, I realized right away that my mind hadn't registered all I had heard on recordings. For instance, what I had heard as a series of double stops, quite early in the movement, the printed page revealed to be triple stops.

The lesson I drew from this: Listen -- but get the score, too. No substitute for knowing the score.

Posted on October 15, 2014 at 9:02 AM
Great article. Thanks. Also, thanks for sharing the interesting neuro-science behind it all. I sing in a choir, so presumably the same principles apply? Great to see such a fascinating and genuine debate evolving around this subject.
From Paul Hann
Posted on October 15, 2014 at 11:51 PM
An excellent article that is so true!
When I learnt I usually just followed what my teacher taught me. His /her particular way of playing, but at that time I never really thought too much about listening to music as a means to improvement or learning a particular piece.
Then I reached a stage where it seemed the sensible thing to do , but I always tried to listen to as many interpretations as possible to avoid aping any particular style.
As a teacher I always ask my students to listen carefully to what they are doing and listen to as much music as possible.

Much can be gained if we all use those wonderful things called ears!!

From Popi stavrinidou
Posted on October 18, 2014 at 8:20 AM
Hi,I absolutetly agree to your thoughts..
Just a bref comment ..:I wonder how the music students dont ..spent enough of their time to listen...
For me ,if they love really music this should be something natural above all...They should be thursty of listening to inspirational Interpretations,isn'it?!!
And Also watching...this,personnaly,allows me to see bow place,lenght,speed,up-down bows!And I change in my playing if it does not work..

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