The Floor-Ceiling Model of Skill Acquisition

Is your music practice building true fluency, or is it just training muscle memory?

When we think about how to get better at a musical instrument — or any skill-based activity — the natural strategy that comes to mind is repetition. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until you’ve finally mastered it.

This is the tried-and-true method, and is absolutely correct. As a matter of fact, that’s the whole definition of practice — “performing an activity repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency.”

But we need to be careful with how we approach our practice sessions. If you spend all of your time practicing specific pieces, you will eventually master those songs but you won’t necessarily have gotten better at playing music in general. Effectively, all you’ve done is train yourself to regurgitate an exact sequence of notes, without any variation. An impressive feat, to be sure, but it hasn’t increased your musical fluency at all.

Learning a musical instrument of course requires maintenance and repetition, but we have to be careful that we don’t practice old things so much that we forget to work on new things. If you only ever practice the same things, you never really grow or improve. It would be like attempting to become fluent in English by memorizing a Shakespeare monologue, and nothing else.

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Practice vs. Learning

Brad Harrison, a composer and educator who runs an excellent music education YouTube channel, insightfully describes the difference between practice and learning. Practice is trying to get better at things you already basically know how to do. By contrast, learning is the acquisition of new knowledge or skills, and the process of becoming familiar with new material. For example, playing through a piece of music for the first time would fall under “learning,” but each repetition after that would fall under “practice.” Both steps are important, but they are focused on very different goals. Regardless of where you are in your music learning journey, it’s essential that you maintain a healthy balance between practice time and learning time.

By making a habit of learning new things, you’ll develop the meta-skill of learning how to learn. This will make you a better musician and will even help you play old repertoire better. You’ll realize that every new challenge is just a puzzle to be unlocked and understood, and you’ll have the confidence to tackle that puzzle.

If you only play the same songs over and over again, you won’t grow or improve. You’ll either get bored and quit, or you’ll get stuck when confronted with a new challenge because you only know how to do what you already know how to do. Even when you do finally master a new song, the satisfaction of learning it will eventually fade away and you’ll feel stuck again. True musical fluency is the ability to quickly learn and master whatever you want, without needing to practice it for weeks or months on end.

The Floor and Ceiling of Competency

This brings me to an idea that I’ve been formulating over the past several years of working with music students. I think that the way we normally think about the concept of one’s skill level in a certain field needs to be expanded.

Imagine that a person’s skill level can be visualized as a vertical range, with a floor and a ceiling. The ceiling represents the level of music that a person could play well, given an indefinite (but not infinite) amount of time to practice. This could be represented by the hardest piece you’ve ever performed at a recital or competition, for example.

Alternatively, the floor represents the level of music a person could play well (not necessarily perfect, but certainly passable) on the first time they ever see it. This activity is what we call sight reading — reading on sight without any prior preparation. This could be represented by the average piece that you could find sheet music for and play today, without much practice.

A list of different pieces of music repertoire that fall on a spectrum of difficulty, some in the “easily playable” zone, some in the “possible with practice” zone, and some in the “too difficult” zone.
An example of where different songs may fall in a person’s floor-ceiling range.

Any piece of music that’s below the floor of your skill level is well within your ability to play without any practice. Any piece of music that falls somewhere between your floor and your ceiling can be reasonably mastered through dedicated practice — the closer it is to your ceiling, the longer it will take. The amount of time it would take to learn a piece in this range roughly equates to the amount of time it would take to work your way from the floor up to the difficulty level of the piece in question.

Most people spend the majority of their practice time endeavoring to raise their ceiling, tackling ever harder and harder songs that take them weeks, months, or even years to learn properly. This seems like a fine endeavor, at first glance. Ideally, by raising the ceiling of one’s ability, the floor would also rise by the same amount.

An adjusted image of the same repertoire pieces on the difficulty spectrum, now with a raised floor and ceiling.
Floor and ceiling both moving upwards at the same rate. “Minuet in G” is now within your wheelhouse, while “Fantaisie-Impromptu” is now within reach after months of practice.

Unfortunately, this isn’t what actually happens. A person’s “floor level” is much more difficult to raise than their “ceiling level”, and it doesn’t happen automatically just by practicing more ceiling-level material. As a result, most music students don’t spend nearly enough time working on raising their floor.

The result is that a person’s ceiling moves up at a much faster rate than their floor, creating a wider and wider gap between them. This means that as they start working on more challenging material, each new song they attempt to learn will take longer and longer to master. This happens to everyone — it’s perfectly natural!

A graph of how a person’s “ceiling level” and “floor level” increase over time as they get better. The ceiling level trend line moves up much faster than the floor level trend line.
Over time, the gap gets wider and wider. If you continue working on repertoire pieces at the top of your range, you will find that you start getting stuck for longer and longer.

Pretty soon, practice sessions have transformed from a fun learning opportunity into a constant source of frustration and stress that takes up all of their time. Students very quickly find themselves too far outside their comfort zone, without the necessary skills to learn increasingly advanced material in a natural, stress-free way.

This is because a musician’s floor level is actually a far more accurate barometer of overall musical competency than mastery of a song that has been meticulously practiced over and over again for months. In other words, a person’s floor level represents their degree of true musical fluency.

A musician’s “ceiling level” is mostly accessible through intense practice and muscle memory, whereas their “floor level” is easily accessible at any time, without preparation.
If you were in a foreign country and didn’t speak the language, would you rather be confined to a small selection of phrases from a guidebook, or be able to adapt to any spontaneous conversation that arises?

Music lessons often focus on the ceiling of someone’s playing ability, but all professional standards for working musicians place much greater emphasis on a minimum floor threshold of musicianship. It doesn’t matter how good you are after weeks or months of practice — it matters how good you are right now, at a moment’s notice.

So it’s important that you take some time to work on pushing your floor up, even though it might seem like the musical material you’re practicing is dropping way down in complexity as a result. It doesn’t mean you’ve gotten worse, it just means that you’re focusing on a part of your musicianship that you don’t normally focus on!

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Achieving Musical Fluency

So how does one actually raise the floor of their skill level then? Here are some specific areas of focus that are most helpful in improving overall musical fluency.

  1. Sight Reading
    Sight reading is the cornerstone of elevating your floor. It’s the ability to play a piece of music on the first try, without prior practice. Dedicate time regularly to sight read different pieces, varying in styles and difficulty. This sharpens your adaptability, reinforcing the fundamental skill of playing music fluently from the very first encounter.
  2. Technique Exercises
    Technique exercises might not be as glamorous as performing a complex piece, but they are the building blocks of musical proficiency. Focus on scales, arpeggios, and finger exercises. These not only enhance your technical skills but also contribute significantly to your floor level. A strong technical foundation ensures that you can handle a broader range of musical challenges.
  3. Music Theory
    Music theory is often neglected, but it serves as a compass in your musical journey. Understand the relationships between notes, chords, and progressions. It provides a roadmap, allowing you to navigate unfamiliar musical territories effortlessly. The more intimately you understand the language of music, the more confident and fluent you become.
  4. Ear Training
    Cultivate your ability to listen critically and reproduce what you hear. Ear training is fundamental to musical fluency as it enhances your capacity to recognize tones, intervals, and harmonies. Start with simple exercises like identifying intervals and progress to more complex tasks. This skill not only raises your floor level but also opens doors to improvisation and playing by ear.
  5. Diversity of Repertoire
    Instead of getting stuck in the loop of practicing the same songs repeatedly, diversify your repertoire. Explore different genres, time periods, and difficulty levels. The more varied your musical vocabulary, the more adaptable you become. This approach aligns with the idea that every new challenge is a puzzle to unlock and understand.

These five areas are what I call the fundamental “food groups” of musicianship. I’ll be going into more depth about each of these in future posts.

Building a well-rounded practice routine is important, and methods with which to do so are well-documented. That being said, it is much harder to be intentional about raising one’s floor level than you might expect.

MuseFlow: Raising the Floor

At MuseFlow, we’re building solutions to this very problem. The app guides users through a continuous sequence of sight reading exercises, increasing complexity by one skill at a time. By constantly playing new material that they’ve never seen before, MuseFlow users have a unique opportunity to hone their ability to read and play music fluently.

In this way, our curriculum ensures a balanced approach between practice and learning. It guides you through a variety of musical challenges, preventing you from getting stuck repeating the same pieces over and over again. This diversity cultivates a well-rounded skill set, and raises the overall floor of your musical ability.

While our main focus is currently on sight reading training, we have lots of exciting new features coming later this year, including technique, music theory, and ear training exercises, as well as a repertoire library and practice assistant. Stay tuned for more updates about all that and more, coming soon!

If you’re looking for a practice tool to help you improve your musical skills, and haven’t been able to find a system that truly delivers the results you’re looking for, consider trying out MuseFlow. Just head on over to to sign up for our web app and start your 2-week free trial today.

It’s time to break free from the frustrations of repetitive practice and finally achieve the level of musical fluency you’ve been striving for. Happy playing!

Related Posts
Can I Teach Myself to Play the Piano with AI?

Some people might be skeptical if they could teach themselves how to play piano with AI. MuseFlow makes it easy for you by having artificial intelligence and machine learning serve the process of learning in two unique ways - music generation AI, and pattern recognition machine learning. It does the work for you to make learning a lot more fun, effective, and efficient. It does this by incorporating AI into the core of its pedagogy. The folks over at MuseFlow are making efforts to improve their algorithms every single day. Let’s take a deeper dive into this, and how artificial intelligence and machine learning are improving the way we learn piano.

Try MuseFlow today. It's free for 7 days!

Music Generation AI

There are few music apps out there that have generative AI imbedded within them. MuseFlow’s approach to learning involves giving you music you’ve never seen before, that never repeats, and is at your level of skill. You can choose from a myriad of levels on the level roadmap. Unit one starts with just one note, three rhythms, and two hands, and ends with two octaves (14 notes), four rhythms, and two hands. But how does MuseFlow give you music that never repeats? Surely that would be impossible with the amount of music that would need to be written!

MuseFlow's level roadmap to show that you can choose where to start given your experience level. All this in service of learning how to play piano with AI.
You choose where to start. With MuseFlow’s roadmap, you can find music that’s at your skill level and dive right in there without having to start from a specific spot in the curriculum.

The team over at MuseFlow is constantly improving its music generation artificial intelligence  algorithm so that it gives you the best quality sheet music as a constant stream until you pass the level. By using generative AI for sheet music, MuseFlow’s team sets the parameters for each level, then unleashes the artificial intelligence to start generating music for you to play!

A pic of music being generated by MuseFlow's AI. This is what you would play!
Music continues to flow until you get 95% accuracy for four lines of music. At that point, you pass the level!

MuseFlow’s team is constantly training the AI with what they call, “Phrase Tinder”. If a phrase of music passes the rigorous tests of it sounding good enough to play and is exercising the new skill of a certain level, they swipe right. If a phrase is not good enough to play or isn’t useful, they swipe left. This method of training allows the computer to understand what is good and what is bad so it can create new and original pieces that fit within the guidelines of the curriculum, and are fun to play!

A banner that says "learn piano, find your flow." with a link to signup for MuseFlow to learn piano!

Pattern Recognition AI & Machine Learning

As you play, MuseFlow can see what you’re playing in relation to the music that’s on the screen. If you’re consistently messing up a note or rhythm, or even a series of notes or series of rhythms, it will gently give you more phrases of music that have those patterns in them. It can even recognize the intersection of rhythms and notes! It does this all in the background so your flow isn’t interrupted. You as the student wont even know it’s going on.

An image of a young woman sitting at a piano with MuseFlow in front of her and she's smiling using MuseFlow's AL to learn how to play piano.
As you play, MuseFlow is listening to you and adjusting the music to suit your needs. You wont even know it’s happening!

This teaching method enables MuseFlow to monitor each micro-skill you learn, such as individual notes and rhythms, along with their various combinations. MuseFlow adjusts the music and increases exposure if it detects that your proficiency in any specific micro-skill is lower than the others. Once you effortlessly and unconsciously bring that micro-skill up to standard with the rest, MuseFlow reduces its exposure back down to parity with the other micro-skills it is tracking.

One of MuseFlow's readouts that show your progress as you learn to play the piano using MuseFlow's artificial intelligence. It shows the current level you're on, how much time you practiced this week in minutes, and how long it took you to play each level this week.
Soon, you’ll even be able to see a readout of your practice sessions! How long you played each level, and what micro-skills are needing work. But again, you won’t have to choose which to work on. MuseFlow knows and will adjust with that info in mind.


Unlike traditional music education environments and methods, the folks at MuseFlow, Inc. are committed to creating a safe, reliable space for you to learn and grow without the outside pressures of  anyone looking over your shoulder. As students, we need to feel like we can fail without any judgment. MuseFlow inspires you to learn, motivates you to learn, all with artificial intelligence and machine learning as assistants in the background, listening and adjusting the sheet music to suit your needs without any judgement. MuseFlow answers the question “can I teach myself how to play piano with AI” with a resounding YES! With its pattern recognition algorithms and music generation, MuseFlow’s AI is set to revolutionize music education for the better, and become the forerunner in the industry as the best new way to learn piano.

Check out MuseFlow for yourself for FREE!

Flow State
Is There A Fun Way To Learn Piano?

Let’s explore what it means to find the joy in learning a new instrument, and ask ourselves is there a fun way to learn piano? We’ll talk about what it looks like to have fun while you learn an instrument, and explore some options to enhance the process for any student.

If you’re interested in trying out our piano education app for yourself, please visit and try MuseFlow for free! Otherwise, continue reading to find out what it’s all about.

What is Flow State?

Flow state is a radical idea coined by the Sociologist and Author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s that groove you get into where you're doing a task and you lose track of time. The task is usually just a bit of a challenge, but not too challenging that you feel overwhelmed by the task; just hard enough to keep you moving forward and easy enough to know you’re doing well. A lot of professional athletes and musicians find flow in their work, but we at MuseFlow believe we can also tap into it during the learning process. Even for beginners!

MuseFlow's level roadmap showing the different states of the levels - complete, in progress, and not started. This type of open world learning allows you to drop into flow state as quickly as possible.s
MuseFlow meets you where you’re at, and lets you try out every level to find the perfect Goldilocks level for you - not too easy, not too hard.
Start you free trial today! Click here to get MuseFlow for 7 days.

What is Gamification?

Gamification is the application of game-like elements to anything from teaching and learning, to motivating yourself to to the dishes. The old world way of adding game-like elements to an activity involves points and score cards, badges and stars. At MuseFlow, we’ve changed it up a bit by making the entire activity of learning how to play piano a game; not with superficial stars and badges, but by making each new rhythm and note you learn a level that you need to pass.

Notes on screen show the different states of the notes - green, red and yellow. The accuracy displayed on screen is 96%, and the tempo is 72bpm, the goal tempo of the lesson. This is the UI for the lesson page in MuseFlow.
MuseFlow is a game in itself. Every note you play counts towards your overall score. Red is 0, yellow is 1/2 a point, and green is 1 point.

Once you’ve completed 4 phrases at 95% accuracy at the goal tempo of the level, you pass that level! And are moved onto the next.

A modal on top of the lesson page says "Level Complete!" with a button that says "next level" and another one that says "back to roadmap"
Each level is composed of tiers. Once you pass a tier, you move onto the next. So on and so forth until you complete the level!

This creates an entirely new and fun way to learn piano; not with superficial badges and stars, but by having gamification at the core of the entire method.

What is Immersive Design?

Not a lot of people think about this, but design is incredibly important in making the learning process a success. A stark, boring, bright environment, we’ve found, is not the optimal setting to learn music. Because of that, we’ve made our interface beautiful.

We care deeply about the experience our users go through while exploring and learning with MuseFlow. Thus, we’ve made it a tenant of ours to make everything in MuseFlow as beautiful as possible.

A young, hip, woman sits on a piano bench in front of her piano with a tablet where the music usually rest. On the tablet is the UI for MuseFlow. She's about to start practicing.
Our colors, icons, and user experience are all carefully curated to balance ease on the eyes and simplicity, with engaging content. We aren’t flashy! The journey is supposed to inside of your head, not on the page.
Click here to start your 7-day free trial! MuseFlow can help you learn piano with gamification and through sight reading,

What Is Sight Reading?

Sight reading is the act of reading music at first sight. There are two thresholds in music education - one is what you can play without any practice, the other is what you can play with an indefinite amount of practice. We call the first one the “floor” of your ability, and the second one the “ceiling” of your ability.

A simple graphic that says "ceiling = muscle memory" and "floor = true fluency"
Sight reading is the floor of your music ability. That is what we consider to be true musical fluency.

Too many teachers and music education methods focus on the ceiling of a student's ability. We at MuseFlow, instead, think a more fun way to learn piano is by focusing on the floor of a student's ability during lessons. Increasing a student's sight reading skill gets them to perfecting the musicality of songs (the fun part of playing songs) faster, instead of spending hours and hours on the technique of simply being able to play the song. That gets boring quickly. It gets frustrating, and students drop out of music lessons because of it.

About 50% of music students drop out of music activities by the time they turn 17. We aim to make that number much smaller.

There hasn’t ever been a way to generate an infinite amount of music at your level of playing… until now. We at MuseFlow have invented a way to give you music you’ve never seen before, that never repeats, and is at your level. The music continues to generate until you get 4 phrases of music at 95% accuracy. At that point, you’ve successfully mastered that new skill!

Sight reading is the key here. We’re teaching through sight reading, instead of teaching through songs. After you’ve mastered that new skill through sight reading, you then can apply that skill to songs that get unlocked in your repertoire section inside of MuseFlow.

Conclusion: Why MuseFlow?

These are the reasons why MuseFlow is quickly becoming the most fun way to learn piano. Its inventive way of blending sight reading, flow state, gamification, and immersive design allows students to find the joy of learning an instrument better than ever before. With our new approach to music education, we can revolutionize the music education industry for the better.

Try it out for free at We can’t wait to hear your feedback as we make music education available and engaging to all students!

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