Adults vs Children – What’s the Difference?

Teaching adults requires a different approach to teaching children, and in this blog I would like to outline why. The focus here is on the general differences in characteristics between children and adults. Of course, there are always going to be students who are different to the norm, but by understanding the generalisations, we can use this knowledge to approach teaching from the student’s perspective. On top of these, you also have to consider each student’s background and experiences, but that will be addressed in a future blog.

If we look to psychological development of certain ages, children between the ages of 5-10 are more defined by their chronological factors than any individual peculiarities that shine through. Of course, each child is an individual, but their growth patterns can be determined by their ages. Adults are no longer governed by this, as they have reached maturity, and thus, their individuality becomes prevalent.

As children, students can learn technique after the basic reading and ear training has been achieved, and this is due to the fact that muscular control develops at the same rate as their cognitive pace. The early stages of playing are aided by relaxed and spontaneous motions, and as they are not generally very self-conscious, this helps them jump straight into trying things out. Adults, on the other hand, are very self-conscious when first trying new skills, and also naturally hold more tension in their movements. This is because generally, adults have not learnt a new physical skill since they were young. Adults, however, gain greater muscle control quicker, and therefore, technical skills can be introduced straight away.

Children are using their imagination constantly, and have greater access to the ‘sub-conscious’. They also learn through experiencing, meaning new concepts must first be seen, heard, and tried, before fully understanding. Adults are rational, logical, and objective, and thrive on precise explanations. This makes them more apt to study theory away from the instrument. They also have larger attention spans than children, and more endurance for one activity. Children need changes of focus often to keep their interest on the task at hand.

Adults come to learn a musical instrument because they want to. They feel rewarded by progress itself, and are motivated by their own development. Children, on the other hand, need extrinsic motivators such as stickers, the enticement of playing a game afterwards, and the like. They may wish to be taking lessons, but they also may be there because their parents want them to be. They can only focus on the immediate or short-term goals, whereas adults are capable of working towards short, medium, and long-term goals, and understand their importance.

Children have a greater capacity for musical memory in the truest form of the concept – they can listen, try, and memorise, without any logical explanations to guide them. Adults use intellectual cues, such as patterns in the music, chord progressions, etc, to give them stepping stones to memorisation. While both children and adults hear and feel and can learn to appreciate the emotional side of music, adults also enjoy and comprehend the intellectual side to music.

The table below summarises the different character traits of children and adults:

Characteristics of Children Characteristics of Adults
Chronological Factors are dominant Individual Peculiarities are Prevelant
Relaxed and Spontaneous motions Hold more tension in movements
Muscular control develops slowly Quick muscular control
Imaginative and access ‘subconscious life’ Rational, objective and logical
Learn through experiencing Precise explanations
Constructive elements must relate to playing More willing to study theoretical subjects
Impressionable and uncritical Need justifications and explanations
Curious Self-limiting to ‘comfort zone’
Less self-conscious and inhibited Can be very self-conscious
Dependent on their environment Self-disciplined
Driven by short-term goals Short, medium and long-term goals
Driven by extrinsic motivations Driven by intrinsic motivations
Shorter attention spans More endurance
Capacity for greater musical memory Need intellectual aids to help memory
Emotional connections to music Also need to know intellectual side

How we use this knowledge to enrich our teaching and help our students utilise their strengths and learn in the quickest way possible is a topic that I will be covering in a future blog. I am very interested in the psychology behind learning and teaching, and I hope to share some of my findings with you in future blogs.

About the Author

Leah Coutts is a private piano teacher in Brisbane, Australia. She completed her Bachelor of Music Studies with First Class Honours in June 2010. She is a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society. Having completed all grades in Electric Organ and moving onto pipe organ at university, under the internationally acclaimed Christopher Wrench’s direction, Leah is now completing the Asso... [Read more]


  1. Omnia

    great information, but i would like to know if it would be easy to learn music on 23 years old and could she be a professional one day?

  2. Jennifer Thomas

    This was very interesting.I have always found it more difficult to teach adults or teenagers (who are beginners), but never could really pinpoint the reason why. Your info on the muscular and cognitive development were very interesting and helpful. Thank you!

  3. Andrea Lane Gardner

    Great article – I find my adult students are incredibly critical of themselves and get very frustrated if something is not perfect right away. I’m looking for tips that will help my adult students be less harsh on themselves. I always give them a range of repertoire that includes something easy and gratifying and something more difficult and long-term.

  4. Barbara Cobham

    Good article. Personally, I enjoy teaching adult vocal students because they don’t expect too much. Sometimes my teens think they will be the next Canadian Idol. As an adult piano student, I can sure relate to being too hard on myself!

  5. steve lord

    Yes . .great post! My adult students are FAR too critical of their actions because they been taught that “you must get this right in a short amunt of time” whether it be from work, balancing a check book, or whatever. I invite them to make big mistakes! Sometimes, that eases them up and they can’t make the mistake they expected. A good book on this is called the Inner Game Of Music. All of my adult students have benefited from this book.
    Again, thanks for the post!