Creating Music

Opening the door to creative musical expression

Choosing your pathway to musical expression

Posted by Pamela Szalay on August 9, 2010

There are many ways music can be learned: through books, through imitation, and by ear, all with or without a teacher. A successful musician might start off using any one of these approaches but at some point, teacher guidance and focused study plays an important role for most students. Before selecting a teacher, it can be useful to know about some of the approaches they may use.

There are essentially three approaches:

  • Traditional – book based, with emphasis on reading music.
  • Rote – visually-based, with emphasis on copying.
  • Ear-training – sound-based, with emphasis on developing musicality

Teachers may use a combination of these as well. Although I have my own preferences, overall I recommend finding a teacher that recognizes your strengths and is willing to work with them.

More on each method:

A traditional method will provide a foundation in music notation and theory: many teachers prefer this route . It is a text-based learning method, using a written system of symbols that must be interpreted. Learning to interpret musical notation takes years, and there is no guarantee that knowledge of music will make you a good performer of music. But this approach does provide a clear way to communicate and record progress.

  • Pros: Students will understand standard musical terms and notation, be able to talk about music easily with others
  • Cons: Students may be bored playing simple, unfamiliar songs; they may be unable to perform without a book

Learning by rote is a fast way to move toward actually playing, especially with songs that are familiar. This method is greatly preferred by children, who often watch their friends or siblings play a song so many times that they figure it out for themselves. You-tube videos are also a primary source for kids who want to learn particular songs. Kids will carefully observe the placement of the performer’s hands on the keyboard, often watching over and over, and then mimic with great accuracy songs that would be very difficult to read out of a book. Having a patient teachers provides an extra advantage for getting tips on proper fingering and rhythm.

  • Pros: Students learn more difficult songs they really enjoy playing before they are even able to read music.
  • Cons: Students don’t always play with understanding and they may not be able to transfer what they learned to other songs.

Learning by ear is what happens when the student figures out the notes to a song purely by sound, with no visual model (such as a friend to play it for them first). The student perceives different pitches and then finds them on the instrument, playing the notes in the order he hears them and according to the rhythmic pattern he discerns. It is a slower process at first, but a very intimate one. Students who learn this way tend to know why they are playing certain keys on the keyboard and eventually become very quick absorbers of new songs. Like the rote- learners, music is always memorized. But the advantage for ear-players is that if a song is forgotten it is easily relearned.

  • Pros: Students able to learn many songs and play fluidly
  • Cons: Student may resist learning to read music

Each of these methods will allow students to express themselves musically, although some are better suited for  certain applications.

  • If you want to play in orchestra, you need to read music.
  • If you play in a garage band, no music books are necessary but a good ear is very helpful.
  • If you play in three piece jazz band, you may be glancing at pages of a fakebook that contain only words and chords—the best players will have a strong foundation in music theory.
  • If you play solo, you can pretty much do whatever you want!

As a teacher, I have used all these approaches at one point or another to prepare my students to express themselves musically. I am not hung up on one method. But I will say that the main ingredient in any musical program, for an adult or a child, is time and attention. To be good, musicians put in years of practice with attention to detail. That’s not bad news, though, because learning music can be a pleasure in itself.

Enjoy your journey!


2 Responses to “Choosing your pathway to musical expression”

  1. rivkachka said

    A great summary of teaching approaches! Do you have any suggestions for the student who wants to learn by ear, but selects a song to learn which proves too complicated? Would it be best to then select an easier, yet still desirable song and see if the student is able to pick up the rhythms and notes of that? Also, if a student is slow to pick up a tune by ear, and is becoming frustrated, is it better to keep trying with positive reinforcement, or to try a different method of teaching the song? It’s only recently that I’ve had students who need a less traditional approach (which is what I typically employ), and I still feel unsure of when to push a little and when to let go.

  2. Pam Szalay said

    I may not be able to answer all this in one post, but I will get started at least and perhaps add more to it in the weeks ahead.

    I think you answered your own question, actually: try to help them find a song that they can tackle now, in a reasonable amount of time. I have had a few older teen boys who tackled difficult songs and stuck with the rigorous process of learning phrase by phrase for three months. But generally, I have observed that students fare better when they feel success with a new song a matter of weeks, rather than months.

    Ear training takes time, as you probably know. I mention all the methods of learning in my post above because they can all be mixed and matched. So let’s say the student is great at recognizing fifths: find those spots in the song first and let the student discover them, perhaps by listening to you play the passage slowly. But if the student has a hard time even discerning when pitches ascend or descend, this method will be slow. In this case, rote teaching accompanied by discussion–the sound of different intervals, the shapes of the melody–can provide the basis of a great teachable moment.

    If you know what a student’s musical foundation is, you can build on it and move into ear-training. Make connections whenever you can between what they already know and what you would like them to know. But certainly, if your gut feeling is that they student has reached a saturation point (too much information!!), switch tactics. You don’t have to abandon ear training altogether: just make it a small part of each lesson until you and the student become more confident.

    It is great that are open to non-traditional approaches, and your sensitivity to the needs of your students is very clear.

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