Learning (Music) Modes

There are various ways of practising and performing music, and these are processed in different parts of the brain. Reading music is predominantly a left-hemisphere action. Playing by ear, improvising, playing from memory, and playing in one’s imagination activate more of the right hemisphere. For a well-rounded and more robust musicianship, teachers and learners should consider a balanced whole-brain practice structure.

Essentially, early childhood music education chooses between an emphasis on learning notation and associated theory, or an aural listen-copy approach. My preference is for the latter. Just as we learn to speak before we read and understand grammatical rules, so we should learn music through a ‘sound before notation’ framework. Suzuki called this the ‘mother tongue approach’ because of the parallels to learning language. Some teachers worry when young children play music without notation.

My first piano teacher was quite concerned about my inclination for playing by ear, and she asked my mother to discourage me from doing this at home. This teacher’s well-intentioned concern was that I would have difficulty achieving a level of reading fluency if my preferred medium was playing by ear. As music becomes more difficult, however, notation becomes necessary for progress, and so an appropriate time for its introduction presents itself. If we parallel learning to read notation with language, most children start formal reading around the age of six. One way to introduce notation is to start with the notation of music a child already can perform. Then a teacher should move to pieces the child has not learned to play but knows and finally begin with the notation of unfamiliar repertoire.

Children who learn by ear do not necessarily become poor sight-readers, but they are advantaged in learning to hear and understand music internally. Playing by ear and improvising are fundamental ingredients for developing overall musicianship during the early stages of a child’s musical development. Furthermore an ability to engage in aural learning modes can be attributed to other positive and long-lasting effects. A 1999 study by K.A. Glenn found “students who were taught by ear in the initial stages were more likely to continue learning their instrument and were reported by their teacher to be more motivated and to enjoy their playing more than the other group”. In the next blog, I’ll discuss these learning modes in more detail, starting with reading music.

from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin

“A must read for all music educators” – Robert Adams, Music Educator, New Haven, USA.

“A must buy for every music teacher and music student” – William Bruce, Guildhall School of Music, UK.

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Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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One comment on “Learning (Music) Modes
  1. Janet Alexander says:

    Thanks for your article Michael, I completely agree with the comments you make and have found the same thing in my own teaching practise as far as the concept of “the ear before the eye” is concerned. Janet alexander.

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