How long does it take to learn to play a song on the guitar? How long before the can play a song I know? When a parent signs their child up for music lessons one of their first questions is “how long does it take to learn something recognizable?” Unfortunately, this is another one of those questions that can be really hard to answer. I used to joke that I have been playing for over 40 years and I still feel like I have a lot to learn but the bigger question is what do you consider ‘playing something I recognize’?
In the first few months of studying your child will usually progress very quickly moving through simple exercises to simple songs. This time is a lot of fun and it is not uncommon for students to progress through a song a week. Often times if a student starts in September with the beginning of the school year they will find themselves playing carols by Christmas time. The songs are typically simplified versions but most teachers and method books typically work to get students playing recognizable songs and melodies as quickly as possible.
This has some obvious advantages; by helping students build confidence and enthusiasm for their instrument and encouraging them to develop positive practice habits. It also has the disadvantage of creating an unrealistic expectation that a student can or should learn a new song every week. It’s not uncommon for students to feel challenged in the second half of the first year because some songs may take two weeks or more before they can move forward. While this is perfectly normal sometimes this is the first point when students get discouraged.
The second and third year of lessons students will start playing more challenging songs. Your child may progress into the introductory levels of the Royal Conservatory or they may begin to look at “big note” versions of pop and contemporary songs. The great news is at this point they should be playing songs and melodies that you recognize. This is a fun time for both you and your child because you should be able to pick song together, find songs you both like and you should be able to find the music in a “big note” book.
By year four or five, your child should be fully entrenched in their music. Playing songs from the Royal Conservatory repertoire or now picking songs from the easy piano selection off the pop music book rack. Students may be playing solo transcriptions of jazz songs or reading from a jazz fake book and they should start to be able to apply their theory knowledge with improvisation or song analysis. The best part is that by this stage students can start jamming with other musicians or playing along with their friends or family members at home.
After about the fifth year of playing students will have the skills, abilities, and knowledge to challenge themselves with “real” songs. They should be able to look at the piano/vocal/guitar versions of pop songs or the standard score to some of their favorite pieces. Of course, these students are still developing so they will regularly find material that is just simply too advanced or ideas and concepts that they are not yet ready to apply but they should be well on their way.
As teachers and musicians, we can and often do make songs easier for our students. In the transcription world, a standard score is simplified to become the “easy” version, simplified again to become “big note” and simplified again for the “5 finger” version of the original piece. In this way, even a relative beginner can find songs that they are able to play and songs that they recognize when they peruse the book selection. However, it does take time to develop the skills and abilities your child will need in order to play the score as the artist or composer intended it to be played. It also depends on the complexity of the original piece because a very complex song might be overwhelming even after it has been simplified.
The question of “how long until they play something recognizable” is really more of a question of what do you mean by “play something recognizable?” As teachers, we try to work fast so students are playing songs from their favorite artists as quickly as possible. Hopefully, within a few months your child should be able to grab their instrument and play something you know. But if we are looking to play a piece the way it was recorded or in a way that the composer intended this could take many many years. Developing as a musician can take a very long time but it is not unrealistic for your child to be playing a melody you know in just a few short lessons.