Music – Thoughts on SRSing

Something I’ve been wanting to try for a long time, but never got round to, was trying to SRS music to play on an instrument – as opposed to SRSing songs to sing, which works just fine.  I still haven’t got round to it, but here are some ideas…

SRSing

SRSs are useful because they allow us to revise information we already know far more efficiently than if we were left to the scheduling.  They are best suited to small bits of information – for example, names of capital cities, or example sentences of a language we’re learning.

The main limitation of SRSing for languages though is that, by definition, you can only look at fragments of conversations or text.  It is a skill in itself to follow through an entire TV show or book – or even just a conversation or passage.

Music therefore poses something of a problem – typically, we want to learn complete pieces, which unaltered are unsuited to an SRS.  Even scales take up to 30 seconds to go through (depending on how many times you’re practicing it and how many octaves you’re running through) – this is longer than the ideal time for an SRS card.

The question then is, can we break up pieces of music such that we can productively use an SRS to review them?  I’d say tentatively… yes, although questions need to be asked of whether a scheduling algorithm designed for thought-memory is transferable to muscle memory.  As far as I’m aware, this has not yet been tested.

Possibilities

Good music teachers will tell their students to work on difficult bars of music in isolation.  Once learnt, an individual bar should lend itself well to SRSing, since it’s short.  Building up complex phrases of music progressively should optimise the student’s ability to maintain their ability in what they’ve learnt.

Scales should be quite easy to SRS too – a card could just say “F# Major, three octaves, 240bpm” for example.  I used to (and probably still should) have a deck of cards with each scale written on it – each practice session I’d shuffle them and run through all major and minor scales one by one.  An SRS could easily be adapted to allow this.  Guitar chords could work in a similar way.  You wouldn’t be creating question-answer pairs either – the “question” would be to play a piece of music – this is an opportunity for redesigning the SRS specifically for musicians.

Clearly it would not be so effective for professional musicians who practice for 40+ hours per week – their livelihood depends on them being able to accurately assess what they need to practice, and so they’re good at it.  It would probably be most appropriate for people who practice for a few hours each week (like me), who aren’t so good at identifying the most important things to go through each session.

Limitations

One problem would be in determining what each card should test – after all, the most effective SRS cards only test one thing at a time (e.g. pronunciation/vocab recognition/grammar comprehension etc.).  You’d need to note on each card “tone” or “tempo” to know what was the focus of the card – clearly this would take extra time in creating the cards.

Another problem would be knowing where to position the machine displaying the SRS.  You’d have to put a laptop or iPhone on top of your piano, or balance it somewhere high up enough to be visible to a standing flautist or saxophonist – potentially dangerous for the electronics.  You’d further have to keep tapping a key or screen to tell the SRS when to move on.

The biggest difficulty though would be getting sheet music into Anki in the first place.  This would require some new programming.  Anki is integrated with LaTeX, and so it could also be integrated with Lilypond (open sauce notation software that works like TeX – it compiles sheet music from a text-based file), so that the user could easily and quickly create cards.  I’ve tried importing .jpgs from scans of sheet music into Anki, but it’s a prohibitively long process and produces slightly unattractive results.

To overcome the problem of marrying computers and instruments, you could perhaps have the SRS compile a sheet of things to practice each day, which you could print out.  You tell it after your complete practice whether or not you finished everything to your own satisfaction, noting any sections that were particularly difficult (equivalent to marking a card as “hard”).

Conclusion

If the process of adding cards could be reduced to less 30 seconds per card, it might be worthwhile to SRS music for instrumentalists – otherwise though, the time optimisation of practicing would be offset by the initial time investment in setting up the SRS in the first place.  Also, the scheduling algorithms would probably need revision – this is probably the work of several PhDs.

If anyone’s tried SRSing music already, do share – if not, 1) have you considered it, and 2) how would you try it?

– E

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2 thoughts on “Music – Thoughts on SRSing

  1. Very interesting post! I’ve been thinking along similar lines lately, how to integrate SRS into my classical guitar practice.

    I suspect that using SRS for technical skill is probably a lost cause. What I was planning to use it for was strictly memory. Break the piece down into bars at first, or sections, as needed. The notes don’t have to be on the card, just the piece and location within it. Then once the piece is fully memorized transfer it to a deck of finished pieces, where the intervals would gradually stretch to months.

    Have you read Chang’s piano practise book? sounds like you might have. http://www.pianofundamentals.com/

    • I think that’s probably most practical; the only slight problem then is locating the relevant bit of music to practice each time. Maybe making photocopies and filing them sensibly would be a solution to that?

      I hadn’t seen Chang’s book before now, but I’m very glad you mentioned it; I’ll be giving that a thorough read at the weekend. It’s heartening to see someone try to optimise music study using maths. I hadn’t realised nerve and muscle cells grow after practicing either, but that’s a convincing explanation for why practice is usually easier the next day.

      Thanks a lot!

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