Theory or Technique in Music (Which to Learn First?)

Brain or Fingers First?

Before undertaking a task, you’d normally want to have a cognitive framework first. In driving, you definitely need to know the rules of the road and the mechanisms of the car before hitting the road. In building a guitar, you’d want to know which woods work, what each type of glue does, and so on. However, in music-making, the process isn’t always so clear. Whether you start your music learning journey with a theory textbook or immediately playing on your instrument differs from genre to genre, culture to culture, and one teaching methodology to the next.

Let’s take a little tour to discover two contrasting learning methods, and find what works best for you.

A Holistic Approach to Learning

You may be surprised to learn that in many musical cultures such as Balinese gamelan and numerous African traditions, music is learnt almost entirely by immersion and absorption, with virtually no theoretical instruction given. Students simply sit at the feet of their masters, both literally and figuratively, watching and listening closely to music played at full complexity and speed for hours on end. The music is never slowed down or broken down into its component parts for the student. This is called the holistic learning approach.

While this may seem ineffective or even painful for the student, over time these fast and complex movements become internalized. Essentially, the student learns through osmosis, absorbing and internalizing the musical techniques, structures, and patterns without even realizing how he or she has done it.

An Atomistic Approach to Learning

On the flipside, an atomistic approach to learning is one where the music is broken down into small, individual components and taught to the student in isolation. Later on, these separate components are fused together to form the musical whole.

Much of Western and institutionalized music education is atomistic in nature - you have classes in rhythm, melody, harmony, form, and various studio classes where a multitude of techniques are broken down and slowly taught to the student.

In atomistic learning environments, it is common for lessons to be structured with the theoretical component first. Students sit in for a lecture on harmony before being made to play pieces of music utilizing the harmonic structures taught.

This all seems to make logical sense, and seems to be the most effective and progressive learning and teaching methodology. However, if this were so, why is it that many musical cultures that practice holistic learning have so many brilliant musicians for over generations?

Holistic vs Atomistic

A good way parallel to learning music is in how individuals first learn reading. Initially, people believed in the ABC-method, where students first learn the letters of the alphabet, followed by phrases, and then sentences. However, later studies have shown that people read by looking at large groups of words, not letters or individual words. In essence, we read by looking at the big picture and in understanding the entire context of sentences.

Our brains do not always function in a logical and progressive manner. Hence in holistic learning environments we take in everything at the same time - rhythm, melody, form, context, values, expression, and even theory, on a subconscious level. And at the same, we understand the music-making activity as a holistic process, not as disjointed components. This leads to many benefits of holistic over atomistic approaches, where students can better conceptualize and articulate the music seamlessly as a coherent whole.

However, I also acknowledge that a barrage of seemingly incomprehensible visual and aural information can be frustrating, fatiguing, and discouraging. Sometimes it makes sense to just slow things down and talk about it first.

So, Theory or Technique First?

In summary, my recommendation is to use a combination of both approaches to learning. My process for both teaching and learning new material looks like this:

Technique first - Just play, copy, and imitate. Let your fingers move first before your brain even has a chance to process things.

Theory second - Once you’re able to physically execute the motion to a considerable extent, then delve into a cognitive understanding of what you are doing. Dissect and break down its individual components, analyze them, and piece them back together. This will concretise your understanding of the musical whole.

Next, repeat the process, continue developing technique blindly, and thereafter make sense of it through an atomistic analysis.

So, what’s your process in learning music? Do you begin with your brain or fingers? Textbook or instrument? Theory or technique? Let’s share our music learning approaches with one another. I look forward to furthering our dialogue in the comments section below!

By Neil Chan


The ideas and contents of this post are inspired by the book 'Facing The Music' by Huib Schippers.