A Look Backstage at the Makings of a Musician: Developing Musical Expertise

We all have musicians we admire and music students will often aspire to reach the level of their idols. What stands between a novice’s squeaky rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Itzhak Perlman’s note-perfect performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto? In music, not everyone who picks up an instrument will become a professional. With this in mind, what distinguishes those who achieve musical expertise? Susan Hallam, Professor of Education and Music Psychology at the Institute of Education, University of London, has been a leading researcher in the field of music education. Her research interests include the development of musical expertise, particularly the behaviours and attitudes of young musicians when practicing their instrument.

Becoming an expert in a particular domain is not necessarily as elusive as we think. Many of us are already experts in skills such as driving a car, reading, or riding a bike. Being an expert in a specific domain offers great advantages over novices, such as being able to quickly see meaningful patterns, foresee problems and identify appropriate solutions, and monitor their own progress. Experts can also execute skills automatically, which novices have to think through step-by-step (Chi, 2006). An expert musician can identify a series of notes as an ascending major scale, select an appropriate fingering and perform the action without thinking. A novice on the other hand would need to approach the phrase one note at a time.

Professor Hallam’s early research (Hallam, 1998) supported the notion that the length of time spent learning a musical skill was important in development of expertise. Many researchers (e.g. Sosniak, 1990) have attempted to quantify the amount of time it takes to become an expert in a particular skill. The current estimate (Ericsson et al., 1993) is 10,000 hours, which equates to roughly 10 years of practice, although this will vary depending on the individual. However, this number does not tell us exactly what goes on during that time practicing – a commonly overlooked, but crucial factor in determining level of achievement.

To investigate what goes on in practice, a subsequent study looked at the differences between how novices and professional musicians spent their practice time (Hallam, 1995). Novices were recorded practicing a short piece for 10 minutes and both novices and professionals were interviewed about their practicing and performance preparation. This revealed many important differences in the way novices and experts practice. Professionals showed a high degree of understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses and were able to tailor their practice to suit this. In approaching a new piece, they would review the music, identify tricky passages, and employ a range of strategies to work through these. In contrast, novices tended to practice by playing through the piece, often in ways that had no correspondence to the phrasing or musical structure of a piece such as practicing one line at a time. If they made a mistake, novices tended to stop playing and return to the beginning without correcting the error, meaning they frequently failed to reach the end of the piece. There were also differences within novices; advanced beginners (ABRSM grade 5+) were more likely to engage in slow practice and were more able to identify difficult passages, an ability which none of the novices showed. This suggested that as level of expertise increased, practice became more goal-oriented and structured, as illustrated in the accompanying graph.


Use of effective and systematic practice strategies, including slow and repeated practice on sections where mistakes had been made, increased on average as students progressed though each ABRSM grade level. The decline between grades 1-3 may be accounted for by the continued use of ineffective practice habits that were not appropriate as difficulty of repertoire increased.

Building on this work, Professor Hallam surveyed over 3,000 musicians from ABRSM preliminary level to grade 8 in order to assess the development of these skills across different levels of expertise (Hallam, 2012).  Results showed that use of recordings and metronomes during practice (an indicator of monitoring one’s own progress) increased with grade level, while ineffective practice strategies decreased. These factors were also predictive of the mark students attained in their grade exams (which Professor Hallam defined as the ‘quality’ of expertise); students who engaged in goal-oriented, effective and structured practice, as well as those who enjoyed practice, attained the highest marks. In addition, students who excelled in performance skills (as rated by their teacher) scored highly on their grade exams.

Having uncovered some important associations between level of expertise and quality of practice, Professor Hallam’s more recent (currently unpublished) research has looked at motivation. A large survey revealed some interesting relationships between factors that motivate students and the level of their achievement. Interestingly, students whose parents frequently reminded them to practice actually engaged in less practice (Hallam, 2013). In contrast, there was a positive relationship between students’ ABRSM grade and how important musical activities were to their social life, how much belief they had in their own musical ability, and how much they enjoyed performing, practicing, and lessons. As students’ grades increased, so did their assertion of their own musical identity. This was characterised by more active involvement in musical activities such as concert-going, playing their instrument with others, and relying less on family and friends for support and encouragement.

Undoubtedly these findings are important for musicians, educators, parents and researchers alike. They suggest that the development of musical expertise is multi-faceted, with efficient practice strategies as well as students’ attitudes and motivation playing important roles. For expert musicians, the aphorism “practice makes perfect” comes with a caveat: It is not only the amount of practice that matters, but also the effectiveness of that practice.

Written by: Karen Chow, Joe Mooney, Suzanne Ross


Chi, M. T. (2006). Two approaches to the study of experts’ characteristics. The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance, 21-30.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.

Hallam, S. (1995). Professional musicians’ orientations to practice: Implications for teaching. British Journal of Music Education, 12(1), 3-19.

Hallam, S. (1998). The predictors of achievement and dropout in instrumental tuition. Psychology of Music, 26(2), 116-132.

Hallam, S., Rinta, T., Varvarigou, M., Creech, A., Papageorgi, I., Gomes, T., & Lanipekun, J. (2012). The development of practising strategies in young people. Psychology of Music, 40(5), 652-680.

Sosniak, L. A., & Perlman, C. L. (1990). Secondary education by the book. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 22(5), 427-442.

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