Why you need musical analysis

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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 is good for you but you would much rather play through your sweet repertoire.

In this article I want to share with you my love of analysis, how it makes your musical journey more enjoyable and how it will speed up the path to performance.

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. Its 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.

2016-10-24T00:19:50+00:00 32 Comments

About the Author:

Profile photo of Simon
A lover of music and a passionate educator, Simon Powis has a doctorate from Yale University in Classical Guitar Performance and continues to perform internationally. Simon leads a global community of musicians to hone their craft and share it with others.


  1. Paul Laveurt September 6, 2015 at 4:19 pm - Reply

    I am an annual subscriber to the Practice Pass following on from my level I studies with CGC, if you haven’t joined I certainly would recommend it. I have definitely been guilty of too much technical focus and recently I noticed I was procrastinating when it came to practice. which is just not like me.I listened to the David Russell podcast in full and he reminded me to make sure I enjoy playing the guitar, I had allowed it to become too much like technical hard work and forgot to have fun. Going forward it is technical practice in the morning and repertoire and fun in the afternoons and evening, time allowing.

    This article is so liberating, I’m an older person and sometimes need to use different fingering to minimise overstretching, analysing also extends the amount of time I can be with my music (mitigating repetition injuries) which will help me develop a deeper understanding of my music.

    Many thanks Simon for the insight.


  2. Bernard Masse September 6, 2015 at 4:34 pm - Reply

    Thank you Simon!
    You just put in words what I was feeling about musical interpretation in the process of learning. Your comments makes me understand more clearly what needs to be done when learning a new piece.

    • Profile photo of Simon
      Simon September 6, 2015 at 7:31 pm - Reply

      Fantastic, Bernard.
      I am glad it resonated with you. I think it is a good reminder to have every now and then.
      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Peter Lauzier September 6, 2015 at 6:11 pm - Reply

    Dear Simon: I took a little time to read your post on the learning process. As a former teacher I encouraged my students to be self-reliant, to not depend on me as their teacher to provide ready answers to their musical problems. I would lead them to a solution through a series of questions, in a manner that was used by Socrates.With respect to guitar fingering, I realized early on not to depend too heavily on the fingering of other guitarists, which often were based on their unusual hand conformations or idiocyncratic choices.Before changing fingerings, however, I would try to understand the underlying reasons for a particular fingering before making any changes. I also believe that technique should serve the needs of the music and is not and end in itself.Peter

    • Profile photo of Simon
      Simon September 6, 2015 at 7:32 pm - Reply

      Hi Peter,
      Great to hear from you again and it sounds like you and I are on the same page when it comes to teaching. Music can serve so many other disciplines with this kind of approach. It is very empowering.

      Thank you.

  4. Russell Walsh September 6, 2015 at 8:44 pm - Reply

    Simon, thanks for your e-mail on musical analysis, it has opened up for a me a new way to approach music. I am just about ready to complete my level one studies. I am not as proficient as I’d like be. I have reviewed the lessons twice and don’t know if I should push on to level two, subscribe to Practice Pass or stay with level one. What is your advise?

    Recently I viewed the video on Barrios and the piece Berta Rojas played with orchestra. Although the piece was quite lively the precision and emotion for which it was played almost brought me to tears. I was awe. Thank you for this.

  5. Brian Cullen September 7, 2015 at 5:16 am - Reply

    Iv’e been there too, so wound up in technique and achieving difficult passages that I forgot to interpret the music. When learning “Jongo” by Bellinati I performed it t a master class for Slava Grigoryan and he straightaway pointed out expressive elements I was just playing right over the top off.

    I think too its important to develop your own ideas because some of the older approaches particularly in left hand fingering are outdated in my view (research into period practise indicates that many approaches to fingerings have been incorrect musically).
    Its a fantastic topic you’ve brought up Simon.

  6. John September 7, 2015 at 5:41 am - Reply

    Interesting post; I have recently expanded this approach to study, primarily guided by my teacher. During one lesson he noticed that I was reading the fingerings instead of the music. His solution? Now with every new piece he makes me white out all fingering and string notations. Basically anything that is there for guitar reasons (bar markings, string notations, and fingerings). He was made to do the same thing in his conservatory studies. I’m an intermediate level player and thought my understanding of music notation and musicality was pretty good – I was surprised at how much harder it is to play a new piece of music with no markings. The other thing it did was spark lots of higher level discussion with my teacher. For example ideas like trying to keep an important melody line on one string if possible, or if not where to shift strings to maintain the most continuity. The other thing of course is it forces me to answer fingering choices for my self. Which often sparks more discussion on the hows and whys of what works.

    If you’ve not tried this – I highly recommend it – you may be surprised at how dependent you’ve become on another guitarists idea of how to play a piece.

  7. Bob Vasquez September 7, 2015 at 7:33 am - Reply

    Everyone’s fingers are different such that “one fingering for all” doesn’t always work. I have short fingers and often have to adjust those long reaches. On occasion this means using different strings or open strings which does alter the music but, then, the music has already been altered by the researcher, transcriber, arranger, editor, publisher, performer and, again, by a new publisher, arranger, editor, performer and so forth. Not many play from an urtext.

  8. JP September 7, 2015 at 2:47 pm - Reply

    Great advice to follow and remember – take time (BV) to discover (DR) for the appropriate technique (JW).

  9. Profile photo of
    Joe Bazan September 7, 2015 at 10:00 pm - Reply

    A quote from John Williams:

    “I often notice students preoccupied with fingerings and not notes, much less sounds, and yet at the same time finding it difficult to immediately locate C sharp on the 4th string, say. Of course, if students do see me as Mr. Technique, then that can also reflect negatively on me too, because Mr. Technique isn’t usually also Mr. Music! But in the last five years or six years, there has been a very great acceleration in the awareness of some very basic musical facts by guitarists, and that’s a topic I would like to talk more about because so much is changing for the better. ”

    Mr Technique isn’t usually Mr Music. That’s a very grounding point.

  10. Profile photo of Richard Macha
    Richard Macha September 8, 2015 at 5:43 am - Reply

    Does anyone actually know of someone who has great technical facility, but is not “musical?” Sometimes I just wonder if we become sheep, echoing well worn advice that doesn’t hold up to modest scrutiny. When my teacher stresses phrasing, dynamics, and color choice, it is in the context of me still struggling to physically play the piece, or my nerves interfering with execution of parts that are for some infuriating reason, easier in the practice room.

    For the upcoming Guitoberfest I am looking forward to the Bach prelude. I have been working on it for about 2 months. There are a couple of spots giving me problems. I listen to cellists, I have read musical analysis, but until I overcome the mechanical challenge I won’t be able to realize the music the way I want.

    • Profile photo of John Van Dyck
      John Van Dyck September 8, 2015 at 7:00 am - Reply

      I know exactly what you mean Richard. It is great for those with wonderful techincal ability to talk at length about the line and flow and phrasing of the piece and I am sure this is something we are going to explore more in Guitoberfest. Part of me feels the piece can only be truly shaped after the techical problems are solved and for some of us that might mean many months of patient work. I guess the point is not to forget the music while the technique is under way? :-)

      • Profile photo of Richard Macha
        Richard Macha September 8, 2015 at 6:32 pm - Reply

        I think you got it quite right there. I still need work at dynamic control, and if I’m practicing a piece with a dynamic shape I’m striving for, then technique is being developed to serve the music.

    • Profile photo of Simon
      Simon September 8, 2015 at 6:55 pm - Reply

      Hi Richard,

      Thanks for a great comment and observation. To clarify, I don’t think I would ever class anyone as un-musical but I can tell you from my own experience that without a thoughtful approach an individual piece can be imbued with a technical mindset.

      I worked on the scales from the Chaconne by Bach for months, endlessly trying to get them sounding clean and fast. In the end the scale section arrived and sounded like flamenco guitar! I can tell you it has taken a long time to overwrite the thousands of repetitions I taught my fingers, and I still sometimes go into auto pilot.

      It could be a section, a piece, or even a period of time in our musical lives that are affected but they are all marked by a bull at a gate approach to “conquering/mastering” a passage.

      To be sure, and I need to be more clear on this, technique and musicality blend together and are not individual things and I agree that technical limitations can hinder our rendition, but it will never hinder our ideas or imagination.

      We filmed the guest teacher lessons yesterday and there is a wonderful mix of musical and technical advice.

      Thanks again for the comment.


  11. Lou Arnold September 8, 2015 at 1:27 pm - Reply

    This a huge topic and it comes to mind that becoming able to make one’s own informed artistic decisions is essential. I believe John Williams mentioned that and Simon certainly encourages students to learn as much about music as possible. I think it’s really important to read books by pianists and other instrumentalists who have taken the time to record their thoughts and experiences regarding interpretation, sound production and technique. Let’s remember that singing what we play is hugely important and comes up often. Thanks to Simon for keeping us focused on the music! I have told young students that their fingers are like a young soccer team – they are full of enthusiasm and desperately in need of a coach. They need to be the coach and give their fingers clear and loving direction.

  12. Peter Lauzier September 8, 2015 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    Dear Simon: just reviewing comments to your original postings again. Another way of saying what I said in my comment is that as a teacher I strove to guide my students to be their own teachers by encouraging self-reliance and trusting their own developing musical insights.In other words, I was attempting to develop each student’s capacity to become his or her own teacher because most of my students saw me once a week for one-half hour and the rest of the week they were on their own. I saw my role as the teacher to be the perpetual student. And by student I don’t mean just music. My training as a visual artist,writer, photographer, combined with my wide reading interests, gave me a large reservoir to draw upon when explaining a specific difficulty in the music to one of my students.But in the final analysis, music was not my task as a teacher. It, instead, was to see each student as an individual whose love of music may have initially brought him or her to me but whose overall development as a sensitive, caring, curious, and empathetic human being was ultimately my principle concern. The reality is and I would suspect, still is, that very few of my students would become professional musicians. But through their study of music, I believe their lives would be enhanced and consequently, more gratifying than if they never had studied at all. The skills that they developed under my tutelage, I sincerely believe, positively affected all those other areas of their lives that faced them on a daily basis.My caring for them as people first was my motivating principle. May we all experience and abide in the peace and love that is ALL THAT IS. Peter

  13. Michael Kozaczek March 16, 2016 at 2:17 am - Reply

    I really have to take most of my guitar teachers to task. After studying theory and technique, I can only come to two conclusions. These people were either ignorant (the less likely), or dishonest. Trying to teach ANY instrument, without a solid foundation in ear training AND theory, is nonsense. Their approach leaves out the essence of being a complete a musician. There are many online resources that will circumvent this lazy approach to “teaching”. Parents, do not shortchange your children! Do not let these charlatans take your money, and deprive your kids.

  14. David Santandrea March 16, 2016 at 10:07 am - Reply

    can the guitar world get anymore polluted….

  15. Robert April 26, 2016 at 2:02 am - Reply

    Sometimes you only come to “understand the music” by playing it!

  16. Donna Zitzelberger May 1, 2016 at 12:42 am - Reply

    I teach children (little ones ukulele and older ones guitar). The very little ones are such a joy to watch – they seem to know all this stuff of enjoying the music and feeling the story of the music. They sing and play their little hearts out and are blissfully unaware of the worries about technique. Soon enough the technique comes along and it all comes together. Perhaps we are born with this knowledge, but it gets lost in us as we become concerned about (even obsessed with) technique?

  17. Ryan May 17, 2016 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    I taught myself how to play the instrument, but lessons provided can provoke new thoughts and expressions never envisioned. The passion and love of the music provided my motivation and through experiencing other musicians show their own expression provided a shared enthusiasm and a desire to improve my own. Understanding music theory is complex, and I did learn the basics and some advanced lessons (for saxophone). Unfortunately music transcribed for guitar seems more complex because of the options in fingering and tone. It can be overwhelming and each player must recognize their own strengths and weaknesses regarding fingering and tone. Love all of the insight that you provide on your site and wanted to say that you have helped me to grow exponentially.
    Cheers Simon!

  18. Peter Argondizza June 5, 2016 at 10:07 am - Reply

    iI was struck by the observations regarding buying stationary, technique books (and the like) and how we fool ourself into thinking all will be “just right” if we buy the answers instead of finding them from within ourselves. Years ago I found that when transcribing or arranging pieces for the guitar, real musical decisions were made from the beginning of the process and, by analysing at this level, I was engaged at every level. Has anyone else experienced the same thing? I found also experience intensive musical involvement when collaborating with composers, commissioning works and, ultimately, premiering new music. Has anyone else experienced this same involvement in arranging or learning unknown works? How useful is it and can it be channeled into creative teaching?

  19. Profile photo of Gino
    Gino August 3, 2016 at 12:26 am - Reply

    I think it is not surprising that we all put a lot of work in our technique. After all, technique is the mean by which one translates its musicality, expression, conception… Without a good technique, no matter how beautiful the music is in your head, it will not get out in the same form. And the other way around is of course also true, if there is no conception, feeling, signing in one’s head, an amazing technique will not have much substance to translate. So every aspects along the way that can affect the end result is important, from the music sheet to the sound getting out to the ears in the audience. Also, it is certainly desirable to encourage a student to question what seems to be established and to search for their own answers. But having a mentor or a master to explain its own conceptions or approaches can also be a formidable learning experience, especially to someone that is questioning everything and that is searching for its own musical personality. Cheers!

  20. W. Don Seaborg August 12, 2016 at 6:04 pm - Reply

    I have a different perspective from many posters here. With regret I now look back on several decades of focus on playing with musicality. I thought that was good (and still do). In fact, I was a more than a little bit arrogant regarding many musicians I knew who had good technique, but l backed musicality. Only now, later in life, I realize that mastering technique is necessary to allow me to express what I hear inside my head on my instrument. I am thankful to have found a place where I can learn, or relearn in some cases, technique that allows me to deliver musicality.

    So I guess, as in most things in life, the key is in the balance. I must exercise discipline to learn technique so as to be able to express the musicality I want. But I must not forget that the technique is just a tool for me to use, and not let it become my master.

  21. Arlene H. Brooks September 22, 2016 at 3:29 pm - Reply

    As a recent subscriber to Classical Guitar Corner, I have spent my first three weeks “unlearning” most of what multiple books, on-line lessons and even a “real” teacher has presented. I’ve been “trying to learn” for a very long time and what I’ve covered so far in this course, and especially reading this post on Musical Analysis, supports my choice that “Hey, at last …. I’ve got what I need to work with.”

    I’ve always thought “music” is another language but a “specialty language” in that it main-lines to emotion. I love the pieces that I hear that touch memories, moods and periods. And I want to make the “music” myself. So ………

    I am training my hands slowly. I don’t agree they are “dumb” – they just “don’t know” yet. As a surgeon,
    my hands “know” a surgery and there is a dialogue between “command central” and what the “troops” are
    doing during every procedure. There’s no time to “explain” when in action. It takes initial thought then …..
    proper practice.

    Repertoire …. not that I have one yet because I’ve gone back to really look at the first pieces I learned. Directed
    to “Play this first measure” with no thought or focus on musical analysis left me thinking “How am I going to
    remember all this when I can’t even read music well?” Now I’m looking at a piece in its entirety, then measure
    by measure looking for patterns, repeats, modifications – and what a difference!

    And finally, bottom line is “What is this music trying to “say”? Is it something I want or need to hear and is it
    something I want to make mine? Well, I’m going to analyze it ………. then slowly work with it ……… and make
    …… my music.

    Thank you for the direction at the beginning of the journey.

  22. Profile photo of Dave Belcher
    Dave Belcher September 22, 2016 at 11:49 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the note, Arlene! Yes: making your music and capturing the emotion of those “moods, memories and periods” is indeed what it’s all about in the end so I’m glad to hear you working out how to keep that the main thing. All the best to you along the journey. Let us know how we can help along the way.


    Dave B (CGC team)

  23. David Haven October 9, 2016 at 2:43 pm - Reply

    Doctor Powis, I remember one podcast that I think was with Fred Hand. He made a comment that resonated with me and I had never thought of it like that before. The comment was ” The goal is not to play the guitar but to play music” I thought to myself, that is what it’s all about. The guitar is just the medium used to deliver the music. keep up the wonderful work that you’re doing! David

  24. Profile photo of Will Kelley
    Will Kelley February 3, 2017 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    I have never though about musical analysis. This is something new to me in learning to play. I have been working on level 1 (NC105) and Technique. I just sit down and start practicing without thinking about the music or the rhythm.

    Thank you,


  25. Tony B February 4, 2017 at 1:30 pm - Reply

    One of the things I have ‘learned’ since looking at this website is that music is not just a bunch of notes on a piece of paper, and once you can play the notes, you can say “I can now play this.” If that’s what music is, then we could all play brilliantly and it would all sound the same. Why is one musician ‘better’ than the other? I must admit that my initial thoughts are “I will learn this piece all the way through. Then I will go back to the beginning and learn how to play it ‘musically'”. Now, from what I have read here it seems that is the wrong way to do it. However, I would take issue. The people that say this is wrong are top guitarists and musicians. When one is struggling even finding where the notes are on the guitar, I would argue there simply isn’t the knowledge at that point to exceed and develop at that particular moment some wonderful musicality. I wonder whether John Williams really never even struggled in his early years? Didn’t even he ever think “Sod it, if I can get to the end, I’ll go back and work on making this sound a bit better.”? I read somewhere that he got annoyed when learners asked him about how they should file their nails, or what shape they should be etc. Well, this is what learners want to know! Yes, after many years you develop things in your own ways; but being told something by an expert is exactly what we are seeking, and for some, what is being paid for in hard earned cash. It’s only after someone has reached a certain level and has some solid foundations that we can develop our own ideas and methods. If we didn’t need to be told anything, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. Probably for most people here, they are never going to be the greatest guitarists in the world. If I could play the guitar and sound ‘like’ someone else who was thought to be a ‘good’ guitarist, I would be perfectly happy!

  26. Robert February 8, 2017 at 2:38 am - Reply

    Thanks Simon and Dave
    The opportunitys to learn “music through the guitar as my instrument again ” has been realized in this site, CGC.
    Now alot older and wiser,I know that it does not matter who you are the problems we all experience in trying to master the guitar happen to everyone. Simon made a great comment when asked about nails, he said” yes of course you can play without nails” he doesn’t try to push a view on you, he understands that not everyone can grow or want nails. This site through its lessons, videos, podcasts and forum is top notch for providing a student the tools to master the guitar.
    I am grateful to have found this site,
    Thanks Simon and Dave and the wonderful forum members

    • Profile photo of Dave Belcher
      Dave Belcher February 9, 2017 at 12:14 am - Reply

      Thanks, Robert! We’re glad you found the site too.


      Dave B (CGC team)

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