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The three stages of learning a piece of music

Rick Rogers Published: May 10, 2013

To many people, the initials SAS are synonymous with the Scandinavian air carrier. Musicians, however, tend to view those letters as a shorthand for “synthesis, analysis, synthesis.” It’s one of many learning styles used in the pedagogy of music. With this approach, a performer follows a logical progression of study that will ultimately lead to mastery and musical independence.

The first stage – synthesis – describes a performer’s initial exposure to a new work. Often referred to as sight-reading, this process provides an overview of a new composition, with clues about its musical period, style and complexity. This stage may also involve a comparison of the musical score with a recording, which allows the performer to grasp the work’s scope and architectural design. The novice may be tempted to make a determination about the work’s value at this point but it’s far too premature to make such claims.

From there, the real work begins: analysis. Details about melody, harmony, rhythm, form, style and mood are subject to scrutiny at this stage. Depending on the work’s complexity and length, as well as the performer’s degree of musicianship, this process can take weeks, months or even years to realize. One often hears tales of professional musicians who put off performing a work for a period of years because of the overwhelming responsibility involved.

Young concert violinists rarely program the Beethoven violin concerto, for example. Their concerns rarely have to do with technique but rather the ability to convey a compelling performance of a beloved masterwork. Knowing their performance will be judged against the high standards set by celebrated musicians of the past makes their task even more daunting.

The cycle finally ends much as it began. After a significant period devoted to study, this final stage of synthesis results in a much greater understanding of the work’s technical and musical demands. And though the final stage brings the process full circle, the study of music is ongoing. It’s not uncommon for musicians to devote entire careers to the exploration of challenging repertoire: the contrapuntal works of Bach, the late sonatas of Beethoven or the intricate works of Berg and Webern.

Like actors who return to a favorite role throughout their careers, musicians know they will be asked to perform the repertoire’s great masterworks again and again. Yet, each time a performer revisits such a work, there exists an opportunity to further illuminate its beauties and probe its mysteries. When that happens, performer and listener benefit equally from the process.