“Can we do some real music now?” – Practice and the pursuit of perfection.


There is a story about a man who had heard great things of the pianist and composer Rachmaninoff, and off the back of this reputation went to visit him at his home. There he was shown into a waiting room adjoining the music room and asked to wait a little while, as Rachmaninoff was practising. The man was astonished to hear very little from the adjoining room, but occasionally one or two random notes being struck with great pauses in between. As for ‘practice’, he couldn’t hear any. This went on for a long while, and the man grew increasingly confused and irritated. Eventually Rachmaninoff emerged, greeted his guest and excused himself for keeping his visitor waiting so long. His feathers still ruffled, the visitor quipped, “Are you really the great Rachmaninoff? They told me you were practising.” Rachmaninoff responded with a wry smile, and sat down and played a spectacular work of his own for the pleasure of his guest. Embarrassed, the visitor asked Rachmaninoff again what he had been doing before their interview, to which the composer returned, “If I don’t know where the notes are, how do you expect me to play?”

We all know the tired adage, “Practice makes perfect”, and often greet it with grumbling acceptance without asking what either ‘practice’ or ‘perfect’ might look like. For a start, one of the enigmas of music is that it can never uncontestably be described as ‘perfect’. Every performance of it is slightly different, and ‘perfect’ to the ears of one is not necessarily ‘perfect’ to the ears of another. It is hardly surprising that it is almost equally common to hear among musicians, “If practice makes perfect and nothing’s ever perfect, why practise?” Yet practice remains, less controversially, the greatest single component of a musician’s life and development. Musicians in the Western Classical tradition and its derivatives certainly spend far more time practising than they do in performance, whether amateur or professional, and the same is true in majority of what may be described loosely as comparable musical traditions around the world. But what do musicians do when they practise? And why do they do it? Most will tell you that they loathe it, especially young musicians who are just learning. Practice can be so thankless, so frustrating, and so boring.

The question of what practice is, and why it is useful, first seriously struck me when I started teaching. Over the years I have had a fair number of young students (some not so young), and would say that out of a hypothetical ten, about five of them will be there only because their parents want them to be, two will be studious and keen, and three will want to play, but not learn. By this, I mean that they want to be able to sit down and play without, as Rachmaninoff neatly put it, knowing where the notes are. They do not want to practise.

I can fully understand why students, particularly those just starting out, do not want to practise. The first year is probably the dullest of all, since before you can even think to play anything (at least by reading Western musical notation), you have to learn where the notes are and practise finding them. You have to practise pressing down keys whilst keeping your hand in the right shape or moving around strings in the right way, and all other manner of joyless things whose relationship to music is rarely apparent to a beginner.  Even at a more advanced stage, ‘practice’ is not necessarily practising how to play a particular piece. I was tickled when a six-year-old, after ten minutes of practising her scales with me asked with a thoroughly deflated sigh, “Can we do some real music now?” However I always remember what she said and it has given me much food for thought.

Neuroscientists have also researched a great deal into the phenomenon of practice from the point of view of seeking to understand how human beings learn in the first place, and how practice plays a part in neurological learning processes. At base, the current understanding of how practice works builds upon the “Hebbian theory”, which understands the benefits of practice in terms of relationships in electrical activity in the brain. When the brain learns something a connection is strengthened between two neurons as neuron A is stimulated, fires, and causes activity in neuron B. That is, activity in neuron A stimulates and facilitates activity in neuron B. According to Hebbian theory, when neuron A stimulates neuron B repeatedly the connection between them is strengthened such that A’s efficiency in producing the sympathetic stimulation in B is increased. In this way practice increases the probability of accurate reproduction of an intended muscular movement as the corresponding synaptic connection in the brain becomes stronger through repetition.

It is quite easy to see how this explanation of why practice works would be instructive as an account of functional, even mechanical forms of practice, such as the value of playing scales over and over again. However one comes to realise that after finding the notes and practising mechanistic physical movements, music practice spiders out in a panoply of different directions, taking on creative and experimental forms of its own. Indeed this may be why musicians have so long attracted the attention of neuroscience researchers seeking to study the phenomena of learning, practice, and the effects of repeated exposure to given stimuli on the workings and structure of the human brain.

For a start, an apparently distilled or reductionist Hebbian learning theory doesn’t seem to explain how musicians operating within a particular musical culture, tradition, or genre learn to hear and understand that music in a particular and idiomatic way. It is common to hear, among musicians and non-musicians alike, that a particular person has a “very good ear”, or conversely a “tin ear”, suggesting that they have either a naturally good, or naturally non-existent, ability to perceive, appreciate and reproduce music. However ethnomusicologists have long noted that what passes for musicality in one style or genre does not transfer automatically to another, across different ideas about what passes for a musical ‘unit’ or different harmonic languages. Within a Western context alone, consider the difference between a jazz musician’s understanding and use of harmony and compositional devices and those of a more traditionally trained Western classical musician. We can further complicate these considerations by remembering that some musical talents hinge upon performance given completely without practice or prior rehearsal, Sight-reading, improvisation, and ‘jamming’ provide but a few examples. Improvisation and jamming, moreover, are skills that many virtuosic classical musicians will tell you that they simply cannot do. This suggests that the ability to spontaneously produce music is not as spontaneous as it might appear. These things are learned, or at best cultivated. Contrary to popular assumption, they are never totally innate.

Studies of the development of ‘musicality’, as perception and responsiveness to sound stimuli, have contributed to more developed neuroscientific theories. Building on Hebbian theory, it is now believed that sensory experience leads to a genuine increase in sensitivity, even in things that are ‘hard wired’, like visual processing. As for understanding how it is possible to practice at not practising, it has been suggested that Hebbian learning may also provide the basis for activating higher-level cells in response to certain combinations of learned stimuli. Thus practice may increase a person’s ability to focus on learned ‘important’ aspects of a kind of stimulus – perhaps, the culturally ‘important’ aspects of harmony, such as the relationship between the tonic and the dominant,[1] for example.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thus, ironically, improvising turns out to be a skill that requires a great deal of practice. It is only after years of doing it again and again and again that one can become truly skilled at learning what particular shapes and kinds of chord will sounds like, predicting how they will sound after the one you are (momentarily) playing, and develop melody ideas in relation to what is going on around them.  Musicians have to practice the ability to ‘hear’ the quality of different notes within a chord, or to pitch intervals off a tuning fork, and only after a great deal of experience can conductors accurately identify the mistakes they hear during an orchestral rehearsal. Also, musicians have to be taught how to practice these skills, but sadly it seems that this area of musical education is sadly lacking.

Teaching, I find, turns out to be in large part about teaching students how to practise. In the beginning it may be about teaching them how to sit correctly at the piano or how to hold an instrument properly. It them progresses to teaching them how to pay attention to whether they are keeping a steady beat, and how to correct if they find they are not. Later on teachers provide techniques for practising, for getting particular movements into the brain. This gradual accumulation of techniques and knowing when to use them form the artillery by which the student can become an independent, self-critical, reflexive musician.

Practice therefore entails much more than mechanistic repetition. If one were to play a piece over and over again all that could hope to be achieved would be the ability to play that piece in the same way over and over again – although we might wonder how one could even get that far without first practising where the notes are. In any case, what I hope my six-year-old student is coming to understand as she approaches her Grade 2 is that there is much more to practise than that. Practice includes the sensitivity to detect what could be isolated and worked on within the broader object of repetition, and deploying the correct techniques to effectively wire it into your brain. Practice seeks after not only perfection of a given muscular repetition, but pushes towards the gradual development of increased sensitivity to musical stimuli and creative ideas about how to respond to them. Indeed, on closer inspection one comes to realise that jazz musicians, talented sight-readers and those who are apparently blessed with a “good ear” don’t actually lack practice – they simply practise differently, or more widely, to those who sit and learn to play one particular piece. They practise skills, sensitivity to music around them, and the ability to predict harmony in a particular way. They practise at not practising as it were, and as such they reveal that the end result of practice is not always the pursuit of perfection. Practice never will make ‘perfect’ – but practice might just make the musician.


[1] These are the first and fifth degree of the scale respectively as used in Western Classical music. Considered to be the two most important, they have a privileged place in the structure of Western tonal harmony and are understood to bear a very specific and salient relationship to one another.

The author expresses her grateful thanks to Daniel Worrall for his explanations of the current neuroscientific approach to understanding practice.



Anita Datta is an Organist and Musician who graduated in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. Now pursuing a Masters of Research at SOAS, her interests include feminism, gender and sexuality, violence, intimacy and ethnomusicology.



The column: Sound world

Sound is all around us, and together with music and its related forms has immense potential to move and engage people, to communicate, to insinuate, and to affect. Sound World explores some of the technical, historical, emotional and philosophical dimensions of ‘music’ both familiar and strange.

Anita Datta is an Organist and Musician who graduated in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. She has also completed a Masters of Research at SOAS and her interests include feminism, gender and sexuality, violence, intimacy and ethnomusicology.