HomeForumsProgress ReviewLearning Curves (part 2). "How long does it take?"

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    In a previous thread, I graphically charted my data for how much practice time it took me to learn a challenging song to a level good enough to perform it live (guitar parts only). For that song, I played the song live so it was somewhat accurate. The graph attempted to answer the question, “How long does it take me to learn a song?” or “How much time do I need to spend practicing this per day?” and the answer was, approximately 1600-1800 minutes of practice in total, or approximately averaging 30 minutes of hard practice per practice day over 9 weeks. I guess guitarists and musicians don’t like graphs, it wasn’t received well here and wasn’t received well by my bandmates or band instructor. But anyways I’ve continued this and here is a new graph for a new challenging song, and here it is.

    In this song I am doing both guitar and vocals so the challenge is harder and it is taking me a while. It turns out the answer to “How much practice time is needed to learn this song?” might be about 1600-1800 minutes. Coincidence? I chose to cover this song specifically because I thought it would be not so challenging (I’m not learning the solo either) but it’s turned out to be really tougher than expected with the high vocals and arpeggios.

    Basically the graph shows that I started learning the 122 BPM song at about 60 BPM, spending some “marathon sessions” of 1.5-2 hrs up front, and slowly improved BPM over time until getting to the normal 100% of tempo, meanwhile accumulating practice time. It also shows that I wasn’t practicing the song every day (trading off the other stuff I was practicing too)… and it took from Jul 2017 until Nov 2017 to get up to final tempo. It’s an open question whether or not attempting to cram 4 hrs of practice per day for one song will have good long term results or not. Cramming only seems to be effective or appropriate for certain things. Not sure if practicing this song every day would make progress faster or not. During this time I’ve been practicing lots of different songs vs. practicing just a few songs. The song parts of this song are easy to remember so it isn’t a memory challenge (which is different compared to learning a solo), the problem is mainly the technique of picking, fretting, and vocal coordination that are the tricky aspects. In general I tried to keep a single day of practice on this one song at about 15-20 mins.


    I graphed a third song too (one that I posted here recently as guitar + solo + vocal cover). Unfortunately technical problems with Open Office trashed my spreadsheet of that graph of the 3rd song. The answer however was, approximately 1200 minutes of total practice time. Originally I thought that song would be much easier because the BPM is slower but again the vocal pitch turned out to be really challenging and some aspects of the playing coordination too.

    Based on these three graphs I’m going to make an assumption. I consider many songs to learn and often skip them if they are too difficult. Hard rock songs are fast and the vocals are tough. Solos take me forever to learn. Even songs which seem easy on the surface, turn out to have hidden challenges (such as the rhythm, etc). Learning a song that is “slightly above” or challenging for my current skill level (even as my skill level improves) seems to mean spending approximately 1500 to 2000 minutes of practice time until being able to perform the song live. That is somewhere between 30 – 40 hours of work in total to be comfortable playing the song in front of others. Sure it can be performed before then, but probably with some flubs, with vocals that means things like “omg how’s the 2nd verse go again?” anxiety freezeup, or with a solo that might mean forgetting measures of the solo or completely losing place, or totally forgetting an entire song part due to nervousness, which just does not seem productive at all and quite frankly that really sucks so it’s best avoided.. by spending more time practicing first. Another alternative is playing the song live at a much slower tempo, but I had bad audience reactions to that, and I don’t like it either myself (ex. the sound guy telling me, “it’s supposed to be a rock song, you need to rock it out”… duh, that basically requires higher playing speed).

    Whether or not these concepts or practice times apply to anyone else I don’t know. From hanging out at open mic nights and seeing a mix of performance-readiness in other players, I see that I am not the only one who faces these challenges of hitting the proper mix of practice time, song difficulty, and appropriate song tempo.

    When I was leading teams in a cubicle environment, I had spreadsheets charting project work and people assigned to particular tasks on the projects. After several projects I was able to conclude that a particular person would take a certain number of days to complete a specific task and another person assigned the same task would take 1.5x that amount of time, and another person would take 4x that amount of time, I personally would take 2x that amount of time, etc. Everyone had their unique work rates due to their skill levels, learning rates for new tasks, and, lets just call it “natural talent”. Through various refinement the estimates were very, very accurate. The point was never to compare others in terms of their personal value. The numbers were used for making tricky tradeoffs in complex resource decisions and basically deciding what challenges were appropriate at a particular time. How does it apply to music? Well if a bandmate says “Let’s add this song to the setlist” then there’s not much time to decide whether or not to say “Yes, OK I can do that” or “No, that’s too hard” or “Yes okay but it will take me at least a few weeks to get it down, if we can invest that time for this song, then let’s go for it”. Or if I have a few days free for myself and I want to learn an AC/DC song and have to choose, “OK which AC/DC song will I be able to actually get down within a week and feel happy about it and be able to play it after that 1 week. Or should I forget about AC/DC and learn another Tom Petty song instead”. That’s the tradeoff of opportunity cost.

    The real root of the questions “How long does it take? Is this song easy enough for me to play?” which are not addressed anywhere in the thousands of internet posts about “finding easy songs” (aka finding a song appropriate to a current skill level) actually seems to be:

    “What makes songs hard?”

    which is a topic for another day.

    In a very old thread somewhere, as a beginner, I remember mentioning that it took approx 20 hours for me to learn one of the exercises from Monster Power Chords (only 30 seconds long) to a level where I felt comfortable posting the mp3 (and the result still wasnt very good). It shouldn’t take me anywhere near that long today (I hope!). At the time I definitely didn’t expect it to take 4 days of long work to get finalized what I thought was a simple and cool riffage exercise. And anyway, with the number of wannabe guitarists who completely give up playing out of frustration, the question “How long will this take?” seems like it should get more of a complete look. For the non-naturals anyways. Naturals won’t have any concern for that.

    The previous graph from the original thread is below.

    As a picture is worth a thousand words, here is the chart.


    That’s a chart of my progress log for a single song (+ it’s solo) to date. The cumulative time is underestimated which means I probably spent more time than shown here.

    I'm an intermediate student of Metal Method. I play seitannic heavy metal. All Kale Seitan! The glutens will be eaten with relish!
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    1. Superblonde-2017-Guitar-Progress-Spreadsheet-20171217-Classic-Rock-Song.jpg

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