Learning Music: A Beginner's Guide

Score study

Hi all! Sophie Urquhart here, your Communications Assistant for BSR. Like other members of the BSR administrative team, I’m also a singer, albeit a young one, and today I want to use this platform to discuss the very important topic of how to learn music efficiently.

A lot of the preliminary work of studying voice is figuring out good habits that will help you in the future, and a big part of this is making sure you can learn a large volume of music deeply but also quickly. That's where this blog post comes in.

Most of this information will be obvious to seasoned, professional singers, but I think this blog post will be especially helpful to young singers and people who, like me, haven’t completed a formal degree in voice performance and therefore didn't get this info in school. Luckily, for people who haven’t had this sort of education there are lots of resources out there and it is never too late (or too early!) to develop good music-learning habits.

Special thanks to the entire faculty at the Boston Conservatory Opera Intensive in Valencia and my former voice teacher Deborah Selig. I didn't have an organized method for learning music until I got to work with these wonderful teachers.

I also want to mention that while this advice is geared specifically towards the learning of an aria or art song, much of it applies to the learning of all sorts of music.

So let’s get into it.

An error I have consistently made in the past is jumping into a piece and trying to just learn it all at once, which leads to shaky and sloppy knowledge of the piece and inevitable mistakes. Therefore I have learned to divide up the learning of a piece into three preliminary steps.

Step 1 - Rhythm

I like to start here, since a) rhythm is the thing I personally struggle with the most, b) I’ve been told this is an area in which directors and conductors look for absolute precision above all else, and c) it’s helpful to have rhythm down before introducing text and music study. When learning rhythms:

  • Mark up the score indicating where the measure beats fall in your line
  • Use a metronome and speak aloud on a syllable like "ta" rather than trying to add in the text right away
  • Conduct yourself while learning - especially helpful if there are frequent time signature changes
  • Learn backwards and measure-by-measure when learning long, melismatic runs

Step 2 - Text

  • If the text is in a foreign language to you, write out the IPA. If you don't know IPA, write out the text phonetically in a way that works for you.
  • Then write out a translation into your native language
  • Recite the text aloud in your native language a few times so you can get a feel for the meaning of the text
  • Then recite the text aloud in its written language, out of time, as if it were a monologue. One error I have made here is I end up reciting it in “robot voice” because I'm so focused on making the right sounds, rather than trying to feel the natural linguistic emphases in the language. Singers have to be able to sound natural in any language, so try to recite it naturally and fluidly, with correct syllable emphases, etc. This is especially critical for recitative which needs to sound conversational.
  • Lastly, add in rhythm and speak the text in rhythm aloud.
  • Keep in mind this isn't a one-off process. This should be done regularly over the course of days when you are in your preliminary learning phase, and then revisited throughout your time working with a piece to keep your knowledge of the flow of the text fresh.

Step 3 - Music

  • Do not learn the tune by ear by simply listening to a recording! Learning by ear will be detrimental later on, as it a) means you won't really know the music, but will just know how it sounds when someone else sings it and be able to mimic that, and b) means you will adopt someone else’s interpretation without having the chance to develop your own.
  • Keep in mind it’s so often the entrances that we miss as singers, so learn the instrumental cues before the start of a vocal phrase.
  • Learn the entire accompaniment thoroughly so there are no surprises the first time you work with a pianist.
  • Divide the piece into large sections, then phrases. Use color and don't be afraid to mark up your score for this!
    • Start with the main sections of the piece, often differentiated by big shifts in dynamics, tempo, time signature, or mood
    • Then chunk these larger sections by phrase
    • If there are long, melismatic phrases, learn measure by measure. Again, it's helpful to learn runs backwards
    • Dividing up the piece in this way is a good idea because it a) makes learning a piece less intimidating, b) helps you understand the construction of the piece, c) aids in creating clear acting choices, and d) helps makes the process of memorization quicker and easier.

I’m not going to talk about building a character and making acting choices in this post, as that topic deserves its own blog post! But this is a critical part of the music learning process. An error I have consistently made in the past is adding in acting choices and dealing with the emotional journey of a character in a piece after I have learned the music, but these two aspects of the piece need to be learned concurrently.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief intro to a huge topic. Never stop trying to gather information on how to up your game, and that counts for every area of singing and music-making. To help with this, I’d like to encourage anyone reading this to leave a comment with any other advice they have on this topic, so we can create a little collaborative database of music-learning tips!

Thanks for reading and happy music-learning!


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