— 2014 — Jun 20

Back-to-Front Learning

by Anton Schwartz

The next time you’re learning a new piece of music, try this approach:

Learn the last part first. Then learn the second-to-last part and play the two in sequence. Keep adding on parts, each time adding the part that comes immediately before what you’ve already learned. When you reach the first phrase and learn it, you’re done.

Consider this simple example—a beginning student learning to play the opening phrase of the song “Anthropology”:

Anthropology phrase

They go about this by first mastering each of these shorter phrases, in sequence:

stage 1
stage 2
stage 3
stage 4

Finally they add the pickup note to complete the original phrase.

A more advanced player working a longer piece might add several measures at each new stage, rather than a couple notes.

This back-to-front method is used for teaching and learning skills in a wide array of domains, from teaching language skills and athletic skills to animal training. It is commonly referred to as back-chaining.

In contrast, the conventional method would have the student learn the beginning of the piece first and rehearse longer and longer segments, each starting at the beginning, until they have learned the whole piece.

Here is a diagram of how back-chaining proceeds…


… in comparison to the more standard method…

Conventional Learning

So why practice back-to-front?

Have a look at some advantages:

Back-to-FrontConventional (Forward) Sequence
At each stage we play the new part first, thus giving it our freshest attention. Sensible.At each stage we play the new portion last, giving our freshest attention to the first part of the piece, which we have played more than any other. Boring.
By starting with the new part each time, it is easy to concentrate on learning it with proper technique.
Develops good habits.
Except for the beginning of the piece, each new section is practiced immediately following the previous one, which may leave our hands in a suboptimal starting position.
Can encourage bad habits.
Each time, the first part we play, being the newest, is the one we are most likely to botch. If we make a mistake at the beginning, we can start right over. Efficient.At each stage, we start with the most familiar phrases and progress to phrases we have rehearsed less and less. This makes us most likely to make an error at the end. At this point we can either start from the beginning (very inefficient) or we have to disrupt the flow and start somewhere shortly before our error point (not great either).
As we play through each stage, after starting with the brand new material, we come to material that is more and more familiar. It becomes very likely that we’ll complete to the end without a mistake.
As we play through each step, we start with the easiest stuff and then come to material we know less and less well. At every point the riskiest material is still ahead and we wonder whether we’re going to play it right.
At each step we get to reach the conclusion of the original piece.
At each step, we end at an arbitrary place, with no natural feeling of accomplishment. Unsettling.
Practicing music back-to-front is more effective and less stressful. #BetterLearning Click To Tweet

Don’t just take my word. Give it a try and tell us all what you think!

6 Responses

  1. Nate says:

    I’ve been suggesting this for years to students and friends. Your list of advantages is right on point. Most salient is that a player enters territory that he/she has more familiarity with and can gain confidence when in performance, as opposed to playing with the anxiety of moving towards the dreaded “difficult part” which almost always occurs well into a musical composition. Traditionally, a player gets more tense as she/he nears “that bar.” Back to front eliminates the anxiety, the enemy of a good sound.


  2. […] (By the way, along similar lines I recommend this great blog post on back-to-front learning by Anton Schwarz.) […]

  3. […] Anton Schwartz’s post about back-to front learning makes such sense!  http://antonjazz.com/2014/06/back-to-front-learning/ […]

  4. I’m introducing this to my students and we love the results. I blogged about it and linked back to this post. Thank a lot, Anton!

  5. While reading your post, I couldn’t stop thinking that this is exactly the way my eighteen-month-old boy seems to be learning to speak. He’s been trying to repeat the words he hears from us. At first he only pronounced the last bit of the words. More and more he is adding the previous syllable to each one he already knows. Kinda amazing to witness, actually.

    I guess this is a very natural way of learning that somehow we tend to forget.

    Thanks for reminding us!

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