Why you need musical analysis

In this article we’ll break down why you need musical analysis. The term “musical analysis” might spark off a few negative connotations in your mind. Like eating your vegetables, you know it’s good for you but you’d rather play through your sweet repertoire. But I want to share with you my love of analysis, how it makes your musical journey more enjoyable, and how it will speed up performance prep.

You are better than you think…

You are musical, and your musical instinct is strong. But something is holding you back, getting in the way of your intuition. It’s your fingers. They are plotting against you.

To my students here in New York I often say “your fingers are dumb”. Don’t let them make all the decisions for you. Just because a score gives you a fingering for a passage doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t think about why those fingers have been chosen. Maybe you can find a better solution?

Likewise when it comes to a musical interpretation, phrasing and tempo can be hijacked by your fingers if you are not careful. Slowing down because the passage is difficult? We sometimes try to get away with calling that “expressive playing.” But in reality it is our fingers making musical decisions. Your fingers are dumb, don’t listen to them. Your musical intuition is there and you need to allow it to sing.

First socks, then shoes

Have you ever seen a masterclass where the teacher seems just to point out markings on the score?

We are always in such a rush to get our fingers around a piece of music that we lose sight of what the music is actually supposed to express. Trying to memorize, conquering difficult passages, getting it up to performance speed, these are all goals that can set your interpretation in stone before you have made any musical decisions!

By sitting down with the music early on, and taking the time to analyze it, to understand it, you will be in a better position to practice it and you will know what techniques need to serve the music.

“In the heart from the beginning”

– John Williams

john-williams Guitarist

Taking time to save time

For any given piece of repertoire you might dedicate 100 hours to learning it and after focusing on the mechanical execution for about 20 of those hours you spend the remaining 80 trying to put the”music” back in. This includes undoing poor fingering choices that don’t serve the music, and re-invigorating passages that have been treated like exercises. Not the most effective use of your time.

Starting out by understanding the music will save you time in the long run, and it will most likely produce a more musical result.

On saving time: Ben Verdery

Ben Verdery Guitar


Technique Traps

Don’t get me wrong, I love technique and I have written several classical guitar technique books. It is important, however, to be aware of the traps we can fall into when practicing technique. The biggest trap is that we spend too much time on technique and not enough on the music. Here is how that can happen…

Technique is quantifiable

Music is, after all, quite an elusive language and the process of learning can often be hard to map. Technique, on the other hand, is very easy to chunk into bits. You can play scales for 20 minutes, you can do arpeggios in 3 octaves, and you can practice slurs until your neighbors bang on the wall. Practicing in chunks gives a great sense of satisfaction and can really boost our feeling of progress, and technique suits this “chunking”technique very well.

Goals can be set and achieved

Setting technique goals is not only a great way to reach new levels of facility but it also makes us feel good by offering the sense of completion. Getting those scales 3 notches faster on the metronome, or “nailing” that hard passage in tempo can become a bit of an obsession for us as guitarists. Just be careful not to lose sight of the larger musical goal.

Technique can be ranked

Along with being quantifiable, it can be compared to others. Can you run 100 meters faster than her? Can you play a three octave scale at 120?

For some of us having an extrinsic source of motivation like a little bit of friendly competition can be motivating but it doesn’t have much to do with the music.

You don’t have to use your brain

I love buying stationary. It makes me feel organized and hopeful for all the great things I will do with it. Getting a technique book, or being told a particular exercise by a teacher can seem like a golden key.

“If I just do what this book says, my music will be better!”

Technique books tell you what to do, so you don’t have to think for yourself. You are trusting the author to take you down a sure path of improvement without anything more than mechanical input on your end.

Real musical advancement happens when you discover something and the process of analysis is a process of discovery. You are searching for connections and understanding, and when the penny drops its wonderful.

“I feel there are many things that need to be discovered, not told”

– David Russell

David Russell Guitarist


The Garden of Earthly Delights

Lastly, I just want to say, I love it.

I love exploring pieces of repertoire with my students. No longer are we talking about what finger goes where but we are discovering things on the page that we didn’t notice just a moment before.

Making connections between notes, seeing and hearing voices, and identifying phrases deepen the relationship we have with a piece of music and can bring great pleasure to the learning process.

For this reason alone I am an advocate of musical analysis, but there are more benefits and delights to be had…

The take home point

CGC-guitar-smlDevelop a strong musical idea first, then use your technique to bring the idea to life.



If you would like to develop your analysis skills Classical Guitar Corner Membership gives you access to two full theory courses, three musicianship courses and numerous repertoire lessons which delve into musical analysis. Find out more about membership here.