Learning piano, theory and practice (also: conceptual documentation)

I’ve now finished the “Pre-Advanced I” course in the Simply Piano app—but I felt like that particular course was too easy, which is to say I felt like it came too late in the sequence. (Whereas the last two or three courses that I did were hard enough to be right at the edge of my ability to get through them.)

The entire Pre-Advanced I course is focused on sixteenth notes and key signatures. To me, those seem like really basic things—though that may just be because I’ve been familiar with them since I was a kid.

I guess the app didn’t even cover scales in different keys until a few courses ago, in Intermediate IV. But that also seems a little late in the sequence to me.

I think that despite everything I love about this app, the designers and I have a basic disagreement about theory.

The app is very focused on teaching by way of well-known pieces of music—it teaches a little bit of new notation, or a new hand position, or a new chord, or a new technique, and then has you learn that new thing by learning to play a piece of famous or popular music that (in their arrangement of the piece) uses it. And that’s great in many ways—it’s super practical, it helps make the learning fun, in some cases it helps you learn because you already know how the music is supposed to sound. (There are a lot of new-to-me songs here, but also a lot that I had heard and liked before.)

But they leave out all the theoretical scaffolding that would give the practical stuff something to build on. They never mention intervals. They never mention time signatures. They don’t mention key signatures (or 16th notes) until the 28th course of a 32-course sequence (two years into my using the app). They mention the phrase “chord progression” at one point, in passing, but they don’t really explain why particular chords would be part of a particular progression.

So there’s a whole lot of “we’ll help you learn to do this” but very little of “we’ll help you understand why to do this.”

I’m sure that for lots of people, the why would just be a distraction. But for me, it’s an important piece. I already knew some of it going into the app, but there’s other stuff that I need to learn on my own.

I’m seeing a connection here with tech writing. We’ve been focusing a lot lately on showing readers how to do stuff (“task-based documentation”), and in most cases I think that’s the right approach; most of the time, when someone comes to the documentation, what they want is an answer to a specific question, usually along the lines of “how do I do this thing that I want to do?”

But we’ve therefore been de-emphasizing conceptual documentation. And even though most of the time most readers don’t want conceptual documentation and won’t read it if it’s offered to them, I still worry that we’re underserving the readers who do want to learn the underpinnings—how things work, why they work that way, etc.

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