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Hierarchy of Learning

Updated: Nov 23, 2021

Rhodes’ Hierarchy of Learning

Triangles - The Most Legitimate Geometric Shape

Just as we have Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or the Food Pyramid, so too is there a conceptual model of learning music rooted between 3 lines. With music, learning the notes simply isn’t enough, the real test of musicianship comes in the finer details. That is what we will be investigating throughout this article.

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Rhodes' Hierarchy of Learning


While seemingly basic, the first step is indeed learning the notes for the song / piece you are working on. Get used to navigating the notes on your instrument. On a particularly difficult piece, I will actually dismiss the rhythm completely and will play it multiple different ways. The focus is on my finger dexterity, embouchure (if used), and the finer mechanics on my instrument.


Now that we have the notes down and I can physically hit every note with confidence, I turn my attention to the rhythm. Really break down into digestible sections and work your way through. If you come across a really difficult section, remember 16th notes can be simplified into 8th notes, and so on.. You can always simplify a rhythm, then work it back up. Always incorporate time in your practice to listen to a recording of the piece, this is a crucial factor in learning!! If you can't sing it, you can't play it. Finally, slow and steady will benefit you the most. It is easier to learn slow but correctly than zoom through and have to go back undoing habits / mistakes ( look out for your future self ).

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Taking It Off The Page

Style & Accents

8th Notes played in Concert Band will not sound the same as 8th Notes in a Jazz Ensemble. This is where the "feel" of a piece comes from. Now that we, and quite literally, have the black & white of the piece, we can focus on the elements that pull it off the page and into the heart. Again, LISTEN TO THE RECORDINGS. Ask yourself:

  1. What notes in the rhythm are being emphasized (accented)?

  2. Which beats does the drummer accent?

  3. Where is the space?

  4. Do I need to join in this space or fill it?


Truth be told, 80% of musicians if they get this far, stop here. That is because it sounds pretty darn close to the original, and for most non-musicians, is good enough. Nuances have to deal with those minutely OCD details that can leave you spending 10-Minutes alone on how you pick a single note in a musical phrase. Working on Nuances looks something like this:

  • Where am I picking in relation to my Guitar Pickups?

  • Where is my tongue hitting the reed for this note?

  • Am I sliding into this note, playing legato, or bending?

  • Do I incorporate a vibrato? How fast / slow?

In other words, this is where your Playing takes on its Voice, its dialect. We all have a unique style in the way we speak to one another; this Voice is yours, and is what truly sets you apart from any other musician on your instrument. Discovering your voice and refining it will leave your sound instantly recognizable, because it takes your own personality and fuses it with your playing.

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