Practicing Music and Learning a Language: Similarities and Differences

It's crazy how similar learning music and a language can be.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

I’m coming up on one year of consistently practicing both my musical instrument and Spanish on a daily basis.

Like so many people, I took a couple years of Spanish back in high school, but I’ve basically forgotten all of it.

Perhaps unlike so many people, I have dedicated a ton of my life to practicing the double bass, my instrument. I got my bachelors and masters degrees in bass performance back in the 1990s, and I’ve spent over 20 years making a living performing and teaching on the bass.

A dirty little secret that I’m sure I share with a lot of other people out there:

Over the years, my practicing had dwindled to a few minutes a week at most.

I was in “maintenance mode,” just practicing the bare amount of music needed for anything that was coming up.

I was maintaining, but not progressing.

Practicing Music Regularly

About a year ago, I discovered the music practicing app Modacity.

I’m not sure if this was solely a result of using the app, but I noticed some things changing in my practicing. I was:

  1. Doing it more consistently.
  2. Enjoying it more.
  3. For the first time in what seemed like forever, I was making progress.

Modacity seemed to be just the thing I needed for getting back into a regular practice habit.

It was also a great way to plan my practicing ahead of time so that I didn’t have to eat up my valuable minutes with the instrument thinking about what I wanted to be working on.

Planning my practicing in Modacity

This meant that I didn’t have to think about specifically what I’d be practicing when I sat down at the instrument.

I was able to just start and go.

Measuring My Progress

I also like the objective feedback that I get from the app.

The app shows me how many days I’ve practiced in a row, and keeping my “practice streak” going has become a point of pride for me.

The app encourages me to record myself, with a big ‘record’ button right in the middle of the app interface.

Even though I could have been recording myself anyway using other devices or apps, that big button right in front of me as I practice makes me more likely to push it and record myself.

It also makes it easy for me to listen back to past recordings and hear my playing improve over time.

Everything I do gets recorded in the app, so I can look back at:

  • my overall progress
  • how many days I’ve gotten in a row
  • the amount of time I’ve practiced each piece
  • what I worked on for each piece
  • all the recordings I’ve done for each piece
  • my goals for each piece and my progress toward achieving those goals

The app has also made me think about how I’m practicing.

I began to break down various components of my practice in a more granular fashion.

I started to think more consciously about different ways of practicing a particular passage, like:

  1. Slow with a drone pitch
  2. Practicing in rhythms
  3. Metronome acceleration
  4. Small chunks at tempo
  5. Body awareness scan
  6. Focus on specific technical aspect
  7. Deliberate practice
  8. Visualization
  9. Audio recording
  10. Video recording
  11. Practicing in front of a mirror

Practicing Spanish Regularly

Not too long after starting to practice bass regularly, I decided that I was sick and tired of not being able to speak anything but English.

I keep finding myself in situations where I am the only native English speaker, and I am all too aware of situations where everyone is speaking English just to include me in the conversation.

It goes without saying…

Learning a language is a challenge.

I think that’s why I held off for so long on even attempting to get better.

Now, I completely realize the major challenge of learning any language, especially when not being immersed in the language and culture on a daily basis.

Still, I knew that if I put consistent time in on learning a language like I was doing with bass practice, I’d make progress. Maybe it would be slow, but I knew that I’d get better over time.

Duolingo: My Language App of Choice

Duolingo has proven to be a great language companion for me. After a meager attempt at trying to learn a few words of Italian for a past vacation, I knew the app.

This was also right around the time that Duolingo built out a more robust app on the iPad, and I found myself committing to at least one Spanish lesson a day.

This Duolingo screen greets me every morning.

I’ve passed 250 consecutive days of Spanish practice so far.

I practice a minimum of one Spanish lesson a day. Often, however, I practice more an hour or more:

  • On the bus.
  • In the laundry room.
  • In the very early morning hours while my wife is still asleep.

Can I speak Spanish yet?

Nope… but I’m getting closer.

I finally gathered the courage to start putting in my burrito orders in Spanish, and my wife, who speaks Spanish, continues to be impressed with my growing vocabulary.

Similarities Between Language and Music Practice

I now find myself in front of my iPad practicing Spanish, and then also in front of my iPad later in the day practicing bass. My mind can’t help but draw parallels between the learning processes of both of these activities.

Every day, I notice how similar the process of developing my skills on the bass and getting better at Spanish.

Some days, it feels like such a struggle to even do one lesson on Duolingo or boot up Modacity and pull the bass out for five minutes.

Other days, I look up and an hour has passed without me even noticing it.

It feels so good when I get in the groove and feel the cumulative gains, and it can be so hard to “reboot” after a period of low activity.

The daily ups and downs, and challenges with memory retention for both, especially after a period of doing it less consistently.

Learn More

There’s a lot of research out there on both musical and language learning.

Here are some of my favorite recent reads on the topic:

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