Teaching Tips

Tips for teaching music

teaching music

The latest scientific research about mind vs body has huge implications for music teachers.  We are constantly working with the “body” to train our students’ ears and muscles to produce music.  Meanwhile, we continually work with the “mind” to manage egos, mental blocks, learning styles, and the basic disconnect between playing music and verbally describing it.

The bottom line in the new science is that there is no mind versus body.  The mind/body split, which has taken center stage in Western civilization for the past 2500 years, appears to be bogus.  Research now speaks of “embodied intelligence”.  The complex bodily systems are engineered to function and communicate so well with each other — electrically, chemically and physically, with whole-body signals taking place at a rate of about ten times per second — that the brain really functions more as a mediator and coordinator than as some kind of executive director.  One book likened the brain to being director of the choir, rather than the pilot of a machine.

I’d recommend the book I’m reading to anyone interested in this groundbreaking research.  It’s called Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than It Thinks, by Guy Claxton.

One reason I’m excited about this book is that I’ve subscribed to its conclusions for some time now — I think my first Music Teachers Helper blog post relating to this way of thinking dates to 2008.  It is thrilling to see science support these ideas with detailed research, as described in Claxton’s very readable book.

You can read a few of my past posts* on this subject here in the Music Teachers Helper blog — especially Reversing the Learning Process.  In that post I suggest that while many people presume the brain tells the fingers what to do, and the ears decide if we got it right, the actual process is the reverse — the ears are in charge, and learn very quickly what is wanted; the muscles try to please the ears by testing and rehearsing their movements; and the brain takes notes on what has happened in order to provide help organizing and replicating it next time.

Science says next to nothing directly about the effect of “embodied intelligence” on music, and that’s not only true of Claxton’s book but also in many other areas of research, including work in linguistics and dyslexia.  I can’t explain this disconnect, but whatever the cause, it does free us musicians to explore the meaning and impact of this research on our field.

The research calls into question any teaching of a musical instrument that places music theory as its top priority.  Consider that perhaps the names of notes, chords, harmonic progressions, keys, and musical syntax are all ways of organizing and deeping our awareness of what we hear and play, and should be presented after listening and trying the music, not before.  Perhaps the physical relationships of half steps, whole steps, the “microballistics” of hitting a note are all more important than, or at least take precedence over, memorizing theoretical concepts.  Theory and practice are both important but what really comes first for the student?  That’s the question for a music teacher to consider.

Maybe a student should experience a G scale and arpeggio before being required to recite the names of the notes in the scale or its key signature.  The theory can then be presented as an exciting way of understanding what the ears and fingers are already experiencing.  Maybe our method books would be better off placing the section on musical notation and theory later on, after some physical work has already been done, rather than at the beginning of the book as if these technical details were the foundation of what is to follow.

The whole concept of what is right and wrong — what a mistake is — in playing music can change as a result of this research.  If you tell a student to play a C# and they don’t, is it really because they didn’t hear you or ignored you?  Or is the concept of a “C#” not as immediate to them as, say, the physical proximity of one finger to another, or the sound of the C# in relation to the surrounding notes?  Maybe the verbal description “C#” is lower down the pathway of perception than these other factors, and perhaps there’s a way to teach with a more immediate impact.  At minimum, allowing for this could be good cause for more patience and perception on the part of teachers as they try to figure out how students are feeling and thinking.

There is a large body of research on the subject but I’ll just mention one detail here.  There is a part of the brain called “Broca’s Area” which appears to control the syntax of language.  When it is damaged, people can still speak but cannot connect words fluently.  For example, instead of saying “the porpoise jumped in the ocean,” they might only be able to say “porpoise…ocean.”  Interestingly, there is a mention in the research that the same effect happens in the sequencing of music.

My question, however, is:  if a person with damage to that part of their brain can play or sing elements of music but have trouble sequencing them, what unit is being sequenced?  Nonmusicians might presume that the patient is having trouble sequencing notes — but the words “porpoise…ocean” are not single notes in a musician’s mind.  “Porpoise” could be written as a sixteenth followed by dotted eighth, and “ocean” could be a quarter note followed by an eighth note.  In other words, the basic units of music are not individual notes but relationships between notes.  The sequencing of music would then take place, not from note to note, but from one group of notes to another, or on a larger scale, from phrase to phrase.  Teaching someone to read a measure at a time would then prove to be an artificial and nonmusical way of learning the music, since often the last note of a measure is a pickup belonging to the next measure, much the way the word “guitar” could be written using an eighth note at the end of one measure leading to a quarter note at the beginning of the next.

I find the latest scientific research to be amazing food for thought in relation to music.  Teaching music particularly calls upon the science of learning and intelligence. In fact, since music is built on integrating physicality, emotion and thought into one act, the new science of “embodied intelligence” suggests to me that the playing or singing of music is one of the purest of human expressions.  It is up to us to find the best way to communicate that to our students.

*other related posts:  Beyond the Control Barrier, Mapify and Tonalize, Mind Over Muscle, Verbalizing the Work of the Ears, Muscularizing Music

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Teaching adults music is both rewarding and challenging!


I enjoy teaching adults. During the course of their lesson, our conversations together are very stimulating. The stories they relate from their own life experiences are a great source of enrichment and entertainment. Over the weeks and months, we form good friendships together. From a practical point of view, teaching adults can also help to strengthen our teaching businesses. Adults can often come later in the evening when it’s too late for younger pupils, or if they are retired or work shifts, they might be able to come in the daytime.

One thing I like about adults is their high level of motivation. They seem to fall into either one of two categories. Those who started having lessons as children but stopped for one reason or another. And those who simply never had the chance earlier in life. Either way, they have probably wanted to take up lessons for quite a considerable time and are therefore incredibly determined.


Adults often tell me that they don’t think they can make very quick progress because they are [···]

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