Why You Should Study Music Backwards
So much great music, so little time... Learning music can be time consuming. But not all strategies are equal. This particular approach has been my secret weapon for learning new music for years, ever since I found out about it.
The trick? Start at the end and work your way to the beginning of the song. Studying backwards like this has a few advantages. You'll:
- Save time
- Have more fun and stay more motivated
- Know the beginning, middle and end of the piece equally well (not just the start of the piece)
Forwards vs. Backwards
You may be thinking: why would it even matter where I start? Indulge me and my geeky calculations for a minute. Let’s go through two strategies and see what happens.
- Strategy 1: you start at the beginning and work towards the end.
- Strategy 2: you start at the end and work your way to the start.
To compare these strategies, think of a piece music and divide it into a few parts: A, B, C, D, E and F. One part is whatever chunk of music is small enough for you to focus on. It can be just one note, a chord, or a group of notes or chords.
Next, let's assume you need to try playing a part three times before you get it right. So what would your practice session look like?
As you can see, there are some interesting differences. Let’s run through three of the most important benefits of the backwards strategy.
1. It’s more Efficient
The first thing to notice is that you’ve played far fewer parts in the backwards version. In the start-at-the-start approach you play 63 parts, versus only 33 in the backwards strategy. In other words, you could be learning a piece almost twice as fast, with half the effort.
So what exactly causes this huge difference? Well, in the start-at-the-start strategy, you're wasting a lot of time by repeating parts you've already mastered, before practicing a new part.
But in the backwards version you’re always starting with the least familiar part. And you only play the parts you already know, when you’ve succeeded at playing the new part. That new part is like a gatekeeper. It only allows you to repeat parts when you’ve gotten that newest and hardest part right.
2. You practice all the parts equally
Ever had a piece where you knew the beginning really well, but your memory and mastery of the piece seemed to get worse and worse as you got further into the song? That happens A LOT. This annoying phenomenon is caused because you've practiced some parts more than others. Your attention is distributed unevenly among the piece. Take a look at how you’ve spent your time in the usual 'forwards' strategy.
In this start-at-the-start version, you’ve played part A fifteen times more than part F. That means you can play the first part in your sleep, but you've only played the last part correct once (because you only get it right on the third try). It also means the piece gets harder and harder as you progress towards the end.
By contrast, in the backwards version the difference between part A and part F is only five extra tries. So you’ll have practiced the final part just a couple times more, but overall the differences are small. Your preparation will be much more even. The result: you'll no longer be dreading that 'difficult' second half of a piece.
3. It’s more fun and motivating
As we’ve seen, in the start-at-the-start version, you practice the beginning of a piece more than the end. So when you play the whole piece, it gets harder and harder as you move further into the song. But with the backwards strategy, things get easier and easier as you go along. It’s like rolling down hill.
This is insanely motivating, because you get the kick of finishing the piece when you get a new part right. It's like a little 'reward' you get every time you master a new section of the song.
But when you study from the start to to the end, every time you get a new part right, you’re met with something you don’t know and you have to stop in the middle of the piece. I suspect this is the reason you often end up repeating the parts you already know a bunch of times, instead of focusing on the new part that you actually need to practice. You want to feel that flow of going through the piece. You want to make music.
This desire is fulfilled in the backwards strategy, because you automatically switch between the fun of playing music and the hard work of studying. Between playing the whole thing and mastering a new part.
Only one way to find out...
All of this might sound a bit theoretical. All I can say is: take a solo, chord progression or something else that you're working on and see how this backwards strategy works for you. Sure, it's more efficient and effective, but what matters most in the end is your experience. If you like this approach, it's a great way to learn more music in less time. So give it a shot!