Practical Musical Analysis: First Steps in Learning New Music

What do you do when you first pick up a new piece of music?

If you’ve decided to learn a piece, what are the first steps you take? How do you learn it?

Most guitarists jump right in, playing through the notes over and over. But the “sight-read it to death” method rarely leads to beautiful playing or a secure recall.

If we become more observant on the front end, we can learn music more quickly, memorize more securely, and enjoy more of the music.

Table of Contents

What is Musical Analysis?

When we “analyze” our music, we seek to understand how it’s put together. We look for recognizable patterns.

In formal musical analysis, this can get extremely in-depth and detailed. Each note is explained.

Analysis for All Ability Levels

But we don’t have to have college degrees in music to benefit from musical analysis.

Even if we’re at the beginning stages of learning guitar, we can make the most of everything we currently know.

When we analyse music, we gather as much information as we can. As time goes on, we’re able to gather more and more information. We understand more of how the music is put together.

But even from day one, we can look at our pieces with the intention to understand it better.

Why Analyze Music?

When we understand how something is put together, we can avoid problems and recognize shortcuts. When we know how something works, we can appreciate it on many different levels.

Simplify Your Work

When we seek to understand how a piece of music is put together, we begin to recognize patterns. We chunk information together. We organize it in our minds.

By taking a page full of notes and condensing it to a few basic ideas, we simplify the music.

This enables us to practice more effectively and bring the piece to a higher performance level.

Boost Your Memory

Understanding the “nuts and bolts” of the music also aids in memory.

Each note develops a context and set of relationships to other notes.

We have 4 main types of memory when learning music.

  1. Auditory memory is what the piece sounds like. We may also remember verbal cues or instructions.
  2. Kinesthetic memory (aka “muscle memory) is what the piece feels like to play – physically and emotionally.
  3. Visual memory is what the notes look like on the page, and how our hands look on the guitar. We can also associate imagery with specific parts of the music.
  4. And lastly, we have theoretical memory. This is our understanding of how the piece is constructed (music theory).

For instance, when we realize that we’re playing a “C” chord, or part of a certain scale, we’re using our theoretical memory. We’re recognizing the music theory used to compose the piece.

Taking a few moments to build our visual and theoretical memories can speed up the learning process. We can memorize part or all of the music. And this memory often happens without even trying.

Beginning Analysis for Guitar Pieces

When we decide to learn a piece of music, we take on a new project. We start a new relationship with that piece of music.

The first step is to take a general survey of the territory.

The first step (once we’ve decided to learn the piece in earnest), should be to take a general survey of the territory.

The Goal is Chunks

As we look over our new score (the sheet music), our goal should be to create chunks of information. We want to bring the notes into some sort of order in our minds.

This will happen on multiple levels. We’ll notice all we can from the large down to the small details.

Recognize What You Already Know

We can always learn more about music theory and how music is put together. But when we’re learning a new piece, it’s quickest and easiest to start with what we already know.

And even if we’ve never looked at musical notation before, we can still recognize patterns, note density, broad sections, and more.

As we learn the piece, we will also likely recognize chord shapes, or familiar notes and scale patterns. In this way, musical analysis is an ongoing practice (not just a step at the beginning).

The Basics of Musical Analysis

To get started, we can look at the defining features of the music.

Time Signature

  • How many beats are in each measure?
  • How will we count the rhythms?
  • Is there a certain “feel” that comes with the time signature? (for example, 6/8 often feels like a jig.)


  • What are the sharps and flats that persist through the tune?
  • Is this a key we’re familiar with?
  • What other tunes have we played in this key?
  • What are the notes/frets we’ll use in this key?
  • Which notes/frets will we avoid?

Tempo (speed)

  • How fast is this tune?
  • Given the smallest note values (8ths or 16ths), do we have the ability to play up to this speed?
  • Or will we need to develop new skills to meet the speed challenge?


  • How long is the piece?
  • How many measures? How many minutes? Are there clear sections (notated by a double bar-line or repeat sign)?
  • How long are these sections?


  • Are there repeats or navigation symbols (such as D.C. or D. S.)?
  • Where do these point back to?
  • What is the form?


  • Glancing over the music, are some sections obvious finger-picking (arpeggio) patterns?
  • Are there parts with single-note melodies?
  • Are there chunk or strummed chords?
  • Are there any obvious changes in rhythm or note frequency (note values)?


  • What is the highest note of the piece?
  • What’s the lowest note?
  • Is there a position (such as the open position) where most of the action happens?


  • Do I recognize any chord shapes?
  • Are there groups of notes that form portions of chords I know?
  • Do I recognize any slash chords?

Right-Hand Patterns

  • Are there any repeated patterns in the right hand?
  • What are they?
  • Where does it change?
  • What happens at the transitions between patterns?

Repeated Material

  • Do I recognize any repeated material?
  • How many times does it come back?
  • Is it exactly the same, or slightly different?
  • How is it different?
  • Are there repeated rhythms with different notes?
  • Are there repeated groups of notes with different rhythms?

How to Use What You Find

Job number one is to take note (no pun intended) of all that we can. The goal is get familiar with the music.

Bit by bit, we become more familiar with each note, bar, section, and the whole piece.

We can use what we know to memorize, practice effectivly, and speed up our learning.

Memorize in Chunks

When learning a new piece, always have the intention to memorize it.

Even if you don’t really mean to memorize it, still intend to (or pretend you want to memorize it). This will bring more attention and brain-power to the task.

When memorizing, go bit by bit, and memorize in chunks.

For instance, in a given small practice-section, we may memorize:

  • The order of chords
  • The right-hand patterns
  • The number of repetitions
  • The rhythm
  • The swells and fades, or general volume
  • The position on the guitar
  • And anything else we notice

All these are chunks of information that work together to create the music. When we memorize them separately the work is easier, and our memory is more reliable.

Define Landmarks

Create a mental map of the music. Know the main transition points. Define the landmarks.

A landmark could be the return of the main theme, a high point in the music, or a technical challenge.

The more landmarks we create, the more vivid the piece becomes in our memory.

Later, in performance, these landmarks, as well as all our understanding of the music, help us to keep our place and stay on track (even with nerves or distraction).

Plan Your Work

Knowing what we’re in store for, we can plan our practice for the best results.

If we know that we need extra speed, we can add more speed training to our technique practice.

If there are especially tricky or confusing spots in the tune, we can learn those first, giving them the most time to sink in.

If some spots are much easier than others, we can spend our practice time on the parts that need the most work.

Instead of starting at the beginning and working through from start to finish, we can focus our energy on the parts that need it most. This shortens the overall time it takes to learn the piece.

Learn More Quickly Using Analysis

Memorizing, planning our work, and defining landmarks in our music all help us to learn more quickly.

We can become laser-focused in our practice. We can avoid many of the bad habits and wrong learning (practiced mistakes) that come with haphazard practice.

Just as a little forethought and preparation can make a vacation or holiday much more enjoyable, thought and preparation can make our practices and music that much more enjoyable as well.

The main thing is that we start where we are, and do what we can, with curiosity and patience.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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