We had an interesting question from a member over at Musical U this week. Guitarist Liam asked:
I have read that you need 10,000 hours to achieve musical (or any kind of) excellence.
However I have never seen a listing of what you should practice?
So how should a musician be spending their 10,000 hours? It’s a great question.
You’ll find many experts each with a different opinion, and many institutions offering their courses for musicians. How can you know which to choose, and is there any “right” answer to the question?
We’ll get into this in a moment – but first we have to address a common misunderstanding about The 10,000 Hour Rule…
Are 10,000 hours even necessary?
Misunderstanding The 10,000 Hour Rule
The “10,000 Hour Rule” was coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. It’s a catchy and inspiring idea and one which has really entered mainstream culture.
The problem is that people mis-remember it, or hear it wrong from a friend in the first place.
You will hear “it takes 10,000 hours to become really good at something”.
But that’s not true, and it’s not what Gladwell claimed.
The clue to this confusion is right there in the name of the book: Outliers. Gladwell wasn’t talking about becoming good at something, or even excellent. He was talking about becoming world class. The chess Grand Masters. Olympic athletes. Internationally-touring concert pianists.
For most of the musicians who mention this rule to me, their aspirations are to become “an excellent musician”. Someone who can jam easily and confidently with friends, perform in concerts, maybe even make a living playing music.
All of these can be achieved long before that 10,000 hour mark.
The Value of 10,000 Hours
Despite this point of confusion, there are some truly valuable things we can all take away from the 10,000 Hour Rule.
1. You need to practice carefully.
That means spending your time on the right things and practicing in the right way.
This was a significant point Gladwell was making, and the idea of deliberate practice has been studied and identified as the key to making fast progress in learning new skills. The First 20 Hours and Talent Is Over-Rated both go into more detail on this subject.
2. “Talent” is mostly a myth.
The true greats have put in the time. While the 10,000 hour number can seem intimidating, there’s also something deeply reassuring about knowing that becoming great really is just a matter of hard (and smart) work.
On the days when you’re feeling under-motivated or wondering if you really have what it takes, it helps to remember that the most important thing is just to keep putting in those hours in a deliberate way and following your plan.
3. It’s going to be a long journey.
It just sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Ten thousand isn’t a number we use every day.
It works out to about 4-5 years of practising 6 hours every day, or a decade of more realistic practice hours.
And even if you can become great long before that “world class” mark of 10,000 hours, in a world of quick fixes and everybody wanting shortcuts, it’s good to be reminded that things which are worthwhile in life take time. In fact, that’s what the word “worthwhile” means.
4. You’ll get there.
The elegant conclusion which comes out naturally from the previous two points is this: put in the time and spend it wisely, and you will reach your goal.
You don’t need to rely on luck, or talent, or a gift from the gods. The 10,000 Hour Rule reassures us that we can reach even quite incredible goals when we set out to learn any new skill, including becoming more musical.
The Dangers of 10,000 Hours
So there is a lot of value in the 10,000 Hour Rule, even if it’s often misinterpreted. But there are a few big dangers lurking there too and it’s important to be aware of these.
1. Success Comes Sooner
The first is what we touched on above: that the rule is frequently misunderstood and people worry that it’s going to take a decade to reach their goal. Particularly if music is a hobby for you, it can take a long time of evening and weekends to reach that target of 10,000!
If you’ve been inspired by the 10,000 Hour Rule and then suddenly felt intimidated by the scale of it, ask yourself the simple question:
Do I plan to become the best in the world at this?
If the answer is “no”, then relax! The 10,000 Hour Rule does not apply.
You can certainly still take from it the positive points listed above to inspire and guide your music training. But you don’t need to worry about hitting that 10,000 mark.
Becoming a great musician – meaning one who has mastered their instrument, can play freely and confidently, perform in front of others and impress them, create their own music, and so on – this can come long before the 10,000 hour mark. Exactly how long will depend on your prior experience in music and the details of your goal.
But rest assured, Gladwell’s 10,000 is not the target you need to hit.
2. A Straight Line to Success?
The other danger lurking in the 10,000 Hour Rule is that it paints a picture of a straight line. Just racking up the hours seems like you just take one step after another, one hour after another, until you reach your goal.
That’s what provides some of the reassurance and inspiration we talked about above, so it’s not all bad.
But it is risky. Because real progress in learning a skill, especially in the wild and wonderful world of music, never follows a straight line.
You will hit hurdles. You will encounter setbacks. You will inevitably discover that some things you thought would be easy prove hard and other things you expected to be a challenge turn out to be a breeze. However carefully you construct your training plan, you must be prepared to adjust it along the way if you’re to have any hope of reaching your goal.
Success doesn’t come in straight lines, and it’s vital that you set your own expectations to allow for that. Anticipate those twists and turns, so that you won’t be discouraged or frustrated when they come, and you can keep on working through your hours towards your goal.
3. “Spend 10,000 Hours!” But How?
The final danger lurking in the 10,000 Hour Rule follows on from this point that success rarely comes in straight lines: if the path is going to take twists and turns, how do you find that route?
Or to put it simply, coming back to the second part of the question we started with:
How should you spend your 10,000 hours?
The research says that deliberate practice is key. To put it briefly, that means thinking carefully about what you spend time practising, and giving it your full attention.
It’s the difference between spending 30 minutes just playing through your pieces one after another versus playing each piece once, identifying the tricky spots and then drilling on those spots until you really unravel and overcome the difficulties they posed. It’s the kind of practice that makes your brain hurt, but it’s the kind of practice that makes you better.
So the short answer is: spend your 10,000 hours doing deliberate practice. But Liam was really asking about the bigger picture. Not “how should I spend each practice session?” but “what should I be practising?”
This is the missing piece for many people who want to follow the 10,000 Hour Rule.
One recommendation I would have here is to consider following Josh Kaufman’s approach described in his book The First 20 Hours:
I used this approach to learn slap bass guitar and found it very effective. 20 hours can go a long way if you spend them wisely!
Tim Ferriss’ framework for rapid skill acquisition in The Four-Hour Chef is also very relevant:
The key point in both of these approaches is to begin by analysing the skill you want to acquire, to try to identify the crucial parts to it, and which areas should be your top priority to practice.
Those are both useful general frameworks.
But let’s talk music.
How Musicians Should Spend Their 10,000 Hours
First, a disclaimer: I’m not going to give you a step-by-step detailed course to follow. As we’ve discussed before on this site, there can be no one-size-fits-all solution for music learning and anybody who tells you otherwise is doing you a disservice.
Exactly the right plan for your 10,000 Hours will depend on many factors, including your current background in music, the instrument you play, the genres of music you love, the particular goals you have for your musical life, the learning style you prefer, and so on. And as we talked about already, it’s going to have to be a dynamic plan, changing along the way to suit your progress.
With that said, I do have one strong recommendation for anybody who sets out to “become a great musician”. There are some commonalities to what people mean by that and so there are core areas that everybody should include in their training.
If you include all three of these core areas and improve in each, you will become a well-rounded and confident musician, capable of the kinds of performance and creativity that you see the “greats” demonstrate.
Certainly there are many other areas which could be mentioned here and which you will want to consider during your 10,000 hour journey. But focus on continually improving these three and you won’t go wrong.
In no particular order, the three areas to include in your 10,000 hours of music practice are:
Area 1: Your Instrument
This is perhaps the most obvious area to practice, and indeed many aspiring musicians make the mistake of focusing exclusively on instrument mastery.
There’s something simple and satisfying about instrument practice. Don’t get me wrong, the skills involved can get very complex. But every time it’s about moving your body more accurately and reliably to make the instrument do what you want it to. Humans are good at learning physical skills and we understand the process quite well. There are obvious and often immediate rewards to practising your instrument.
It’s also the most prominent skill we see in great musicians. You watch their fingers fly over the keyboard or their mouth open to sing a beautiful phrase, and it’s easy to think that mastering their instrument was what made them a great musician.
It’s a well-established route, meaning you won’t lack for teachers or good instructional material or a set of standards to progress through. And for most musicians it will ultimately be the main way you express your musicality, so you don’t want your inner skills to be hidden by fumbling fingers on your instrument.
So you should certainly focus on instrument practice. But as we’ll see, it’s just one of the three vital areas. If you focus exclusively on your instrument you become a musical robot: good at passing exams, but probably full of self-doubt and uncertainty whenever you have to step beyond the repertoire of pieces you’ve carefully practiced.
Area 2: Music Theory
I can sense that a lot of people reading this just felt their chest tighten or their teeth start grinding together.
Music theory is not a popular topic, and like Area 3 we’ll discuss below, it suffers from a bad name and a bad reputation.
It doesn’t sound exciting, it doesn’t sound powerful. It sounds dry, boring, and, well, theoretical.
As a result, many musicians avoid studying it, thinking they’ll just get by. Music theory is optional, or just for classical musicians, or just for university students.
But as any great musician would tell you, avoiding music theory means avoiding understanding music. And when you put it like that, suddenly music theory doesn’t seem so optional, does it?
If you never learn the theory, you’ll never understand why one note follows another. Why some sound great and others sound terrible. You won’t be confident to improvise or write your own music because the next note you play could always be a bad choice. And it even limits your instrument skills, like being able to read traditional notation quickly and easily, or communicate with other musicians.
I’ll be honest: taught in the traditional way, music theory can be utterly boring, full of symbols and rules, and seemingly totally divorced from the amazingness of music itself.
But it doesn’t have to be like that!
“Learning music theory” fundamentally just means “learning how music works”. It’s the key to being fearlessly confident in a wide variety of musical activities, and if taught in the right way it can be fun and fascinating.
Have I convinced you to give it another try? If so, DaveConservatoire is a great place to start.
Area 3: Ear Training
This will come as no surprise to regular visitors to this site, but the third area to include is ear training. That means “anything you do to improve your musical ear”.
Ear training is what brings theory to life and gives you freedom on your instrument.
Unfortunately most musicians neglect it, because either it’s never been explained to them how ear training can let them learn the seemingly natural skills of music like playing by ear, improvising and writing songs – or because they tried it using a traditional theory-based approach and it seemed hard, boring, and unrelated to music.
It suffers from the same problems as music theory: boring name, and a tradition of teaching it badly.
But modern ear training can be just as fun and exciting as music itself, not least because of the results it delivers in your musical life.
How To Spend Your 10,000 Hours
To become a confident, versatile and impressive musicians you must include all three of the areas above in your music practice.
To succeed with this, the key is to connect the three. Don’t treat them like three separate skills to learn in isolation. Every time you practice something new in one area, try to connect it up with the other two. This can require some imagination, or having the right kind of modern training resources.