Learning an instrument is not easy, and there aren’t many tips that reap instant results. However, what I’m about to share will make a huge difference to your progress.
So often, learners dive straight into the playing without any preparation. Mistakes happen because they have so much to think about, such as reading the notes, finding the finger combinations, counting the rhythms, making a good sound, etc. These mistakes then become more and more challenging to put right later.
You can get ahead in your practice and learn so much by annotating your music.
Why is annotating important?
The purpose of annotating your music is to help you get ahead in your practice. You’ll learn so much by writing things on your music, so keep reading and discover why music analysis is a must.
Here are 7 reasons why music score analysis helps
And let’s face it; if you are learning to play an instrument, you’ll know that any step that makes learning those notes easier is always welcome.
1. Helps the brain encode music
Studies have shown that writing things down helps you remember things better. When you write things down, you increase your brain’s encoding process. You can learn more about current research in this article published by Forbes here.
By highlighting and annotating certain aspects of your music notation, using different colours, shapes, and brief reminders, you’ll help your brain and memory digest the information, making it easier to achieve more accuracy when you begin practising the notes.
2. Helps you familiarise the notes, pattern and rhythms before you attempt to practice them.
So often, learners dive straight in and start practising the notes without even looking through the music. In contrast, professional musicians spend a considerable amount of time studying their scores and working out what they need to focus on in their practice sessions.
When adding annotating marks to your music, you want to highlight anything that will help your brain process information.
In doing so, you’ll bring something to your attention before you practice. Hence, when you arrive at that point in the music, you are much less likely to make errors. It makes what you are learning more accessible and speeds up the whole process. So who wouldn’t want to do that?
3. It improves your accuracy when practising
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has missed an accidental that reoccurs within a bar or played an F natural instead of an F sharp.
Unfortunately, those initial errors are often hard to eliminate because the brain forms a neural pathway which can’t be deleted. When you play the correct note on your second attempt, another pathway is formed, but it doesn’t override the previous one. Hence when choosing the right pathway to follow at a later date, there’s still a chance that the brain will choose what I like to call the error pathway. The analysis of music before practice helps you avoid making these frustrating errors.
4. Raises your awareness and heightens your concentration
Whilst we all like to think that we are fully focused when we practice, the reality is we often aren’t. The modern world is full of distractions, and while we can facilitate an action such as playing our instruments, our thoughts can be elsewhere. You’ve probably experienced playing a piece, only to find you’ve got lost on the page.
5. It makes what you are learning more accessible and speeds up the whole process
When we look at a piece of music for the first time, rarely do we notice the compositional devices that a composer has used. Learners, in particular, don’t see the connections between the musical theory they know or the scales that they’ve previously practised. Hence it takes longer to learn.
When you can identify patterns within the music, you can draw from previous knowledge, which speeds up the process.
6. Enables you to practise more mindfully.
We all have strengths and weaknesses, and if you can identify the challenges within the music ahead of your practice session, you can give more focus to those areas.
For example, on piano, there may be a section where the melody is in the left hand, so practising some hand independence exercises may be beneficial. On wind or brass instruments, there may be certain intervals that are difficult to execute with good tonal control, or the fingerwork may be awkward in a particular bar.
Identifying any such challenges before you practice will help you be more mindful, and you can create solutions before any problems arise.
7. helps structure your practice sessions
It’s human nature to gravitate towards the easier things in life. We all love to play those bars that we’ve already accomplished, but it’s the phrases that we can’t play that we should be paying attention to.
At the start of your practice, your focus and concentration are at their highest, and therefore it’s always best to start with the more challenging sections first. You can also use your annotating marks to create or find suitable warm-up exercises.
Interested in learning more about smart practice tips that work?
Play Music Better is packed with practical methods to help make your practice time more effective and efficient.
Tips on annotating Music
Learners often think that practice has to involve playing their instruments physically. But I want to reassure you that you can make significant progress without playing. In fact, thinking more and playing less will most likely reap better results.
Take your time when reading and annotating your music scores.
It’s a good idea if you are new to this method to make a copy of the music first. That way, if you make mistakes, it doesn’t matter. Keep your annotations neat by carefully checking things before you commit to marking them with a highlighter pen. The idea is to bring things to your attention quickly, so quick scribblings are less effective.
Use a colour scheme
You may find it helpful to use particular colours to help you identify things across all your music scores. Here’s a suggestion from one of my Learn Music Together members Sandy.
Avoid over analysing everything.
It’s tempting to try and scrutinise every note within the music, particularly when doing chord analysis. Sometimes the harmony is applied across the bar, and the composer uses notes that are not within that chord to colour the melody. Hence trying to analyse the music vertically isn’t always helpful.
The easiest method is to use a selection of highlighter pens. You can use different colours to mark up various elements, such as accidentals, phrases, and performance directions.
You can also use the same colours to identify sections or fragments of music that repeat.
If you are worried about making mistakes, consider using highlighter tape, which is both removable and reusable.
You can also use annotating tools in numerous computer software programs, such as Canva.
How to analyse music
You may be thinking about what to look for when annotating your score, so here are a few suggestions. It’s worth noting that classical music analysis is easier for beginners as composers often use music forms and structures within their compositions.
If you’re a beginner, your music theory may be limited, so start with some simple things. As you progress musically, your markings will become more in-depth.
Highlight the key signature and any accidentals
One of the most common errors I see from students is forgetting the key signature when they practise. You can avoid making this mistake by highlighting all the sharps, flats, and necessary accidentals on the score.
Now, I can hear some people saying, well, that’s cheating. I should be able to remember them, or that’s not going to help my sight-reading. However, it’s simply not true. Highlighting sharps and flats doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to remember them in the future if you’re sight-reading a piece. It is completely the opposite; it makes you much more mindful.
You will become accustomed to checking the key signature and looking for accidentals in the music.
Missing accidentals which last for the whole bar is another common error amongst learners. In my 20+ years of teaching, I’ve never had a student struggle with remembering key signatures further down the line because they highlighted them. Lots of professional musicians mark up their music prior to rehearsals. So, while they might not circle everything, they’ll always put in any accidentals that they’re likely to miss. So don’t be afraid to take out a highlighter pen and get colouring in!
Mark on any repetition within the music
Within most music, there are bars, phrases and motifs that repeat. Inexperienced learners often don’t identify these.
When you start at the beginning of the piece and work your way down, you don’t notice which sections of the music are repeated. Hence, you waste time working through bars that you’ve already practised.
By highlighting anything that is the same, it cuts down your workload. Plus, you’ll be engaging the cognitive side of the brain, which will help you memorise the music in the future. As you progress along your musical journey, you’ll discover that composers often use musical forms and melodic devices to compose.
Mark on any scale patterns
It’s common to practice scales in your warm-up, but I’m always surprised by how many learners will practice patterns that are unrelated to the piece that they are learning. Why spend time practising G major if your music is in Bb major?
Most music is composed using scale patterns. However, these patterns are often incomplete, which makes them harder to identify. They could be notes from arpeggios that are not in order, fragments of scales, common chord patterns or a motif.
Look closely through your music, as the scale patterns might not begin on the tonic note (the first note). Highlight and label any patterns that you can find.
Playing with rhythmical precision will transform your music, but getting to that stage isn’t easy. Writing the counts on your piece will ensure that you are thinking about the timing from day one. A bar of crotchets (quarter notes) for a beginner can be complex, so don’t underestimate the value of putting the beats on the score.
When it comes to complicated subdivisions, in the early stages of your practise, I would suggest putting vertical lines where the main beats fall, and, subdivide the bar into smaller divisions. Those vertical lines will help you align the beats with a metronome.
Learners often find compound time signatures more challenging than simple ones, so if you need help check out this post.
Beginner books tend to write on all the necessary fingering, but this becomes less so as you progress. Think about where you are likely to make a mistake if you don’t remember to stretch a finger, for example, on the piano or cross your thumb under at the right time. Resist the temptation to play the piece when you are doing this, as you don’t want to make mistakes. If need be, play the notes as long notes to help you work out the best fingering combinations. Then make a note on your music.
Have you got a copy of my 10 Tips that will help you learn more music accurately in less time? If not, grab yours here.
If you play a wind or brass instrument, I recommend marking on the music where you will breathe. Sing through the phrases, and listen to a recording to get some ideas. Don’t tell yourself you can’t sing, have a go; your goal is to work out the most musical place to take a breath.
String players should consider adding bowing marks. Putting such markings in place will help you achieve more consistency in your practice and encourage you to be more mindful of the actions that you need to take.
If you are a beginner, you may not know what phrasing means, but think of it as a musical sentence. Phrases are often the same length and begin in a similar way. More often than not, they are two or four bars in length.
You can learn more about Phrasing in music here
When analysing your music, start by comparing bars 1 and 5 to see if there are any similarities. If not, try bars 1 and 3. More advanced players should be competent enough to mark on the phrases, but you can find more detail in chapter 18, if you need a helping hand.
Considerations for More Advanced Players
There are so many things that you could make notes about before you begin learning a new piece. Here are a few ideas:
Consider the 7 Elements of Music and ask yourself questions as in the examples below.
Form – Does the music follow a structure, such as Sonata form? If so, can you mark on the exposition, the development section and the recapitulation?
Harmony – Can you make a note of any keys the piece modulates to or goes through? If you are playing or singing a song, is there a bridge passage or a key change for any of the verses?
Melody – Can write down your musical thoughts and intentions. What are you trying to communicate through the music, and are you conveying the character that the composer intended?
Timbre – How much vibrato or rubato will you deploy? Are there any pitch bends that you will add?
Texture-What should the textural balance of the phrase be? Is there any motif that you need to bring to the fore?
Dynamics– Do you need to add other dynamic shades and widen the tonal palette?
The benefits of annotating
Whatever level you are working at, analysing the music will help you tie together musical theory and how that works in practice. Don’t worry if you can’t write all elements of music that I have mentioned on your score. Even writing, just one of these things, will help you make better progress.
When you can identify patterns such as arpeggios or chords and make notes about your musical intentions, it makes learning so much easier. Knowing where the phrases start and end means you’ll play with more musicality from day one. Marking all the sharps/ flats and accidentals before you practice means you’re much less likely to play a wrong note. You will also benefit from listening to the piece. So find a good recording to listen to regularly.
I’m sure if you’ve got to the end of this post, you can see the importance of annotating your music. If not, here’s a quick recap.
Marking up your score allows you to make progress quicker with minimal effort. Failing to analyse your music will likely lead to errors in pitch, rhythm, fingering and error pathways (more on those to come) which are hard to correct.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether analysing your music has helped you achieve more accuracy and better progress when practising. So please do leave a comment below.