A Skeptics’ Guide to Music Education

I’ve been a private music teacher for 15 years, and during these past few months, I’ve been making my entire living as such.  Having such a suddenly-high volume of students from all ages has provided me with a fascinating cross section of learning curves, challenges and advantages that a given student has.  I’ve written before about learning music, but I’d like to re-visit the topic, since in the past 4 months I put in more teaching-hours than I have in the previous 10 years.

Why can we learn music at all?
We did not evolve to play music.  Music is an epiphenomenon resulting from many different incidental evolutionary adaptations. The human body developed many abilities that translate well to music, in addition to fine-motor control, we have: a sense of rhythm to detect the sounds of the beating feet of predators, the ability to distinguish tones to distinguish cries of help and potential prey, as well as a complex array of “higher” brain functions, like pattern recognition, hand-eye-coordination, memory, improvisation,  foresight, mathematics, abstract thought and language.  Music was not selected for, but rather it’s because we happen to have all these other abilities, that we also have David Bowie.

Pictured: 35,000 years of evolution, perfected.

The Language of Music?
There is a common misconception that music is itself a language, when it is more accurate to say that music has a language.  This should also not be confused with music notation, which, although the musical forms themselves may vary, the actual notation itself is fairly standardized, even among disparate cultures (to a point).  Musical forms generally fall not within genres (blues, folk, rock, polka etc…), but within modes (phrygian, ionian, dorian etc…).  Most westerners have heard the diatonic mode (It’s the one that goes do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do), and researchers are discovering the surprising and seeming universality of the pentatonic mode:

Back in June, archeologists announced the discovery of a 35,000 year-old bone flute that could closely re-produce most of the tones that a modern 5-hole flute can. This ancient bone flute, like most modern analogs, played the pentatonic mode, and music-neurologists are just starting to uncover this deeper significance of this fascinatingly universal mode.

But music itself is not a language.  Language conveys clear, unambiguous messages (or tries to): “I am hungry”, “That tiger will eat you” and “Dane Cook is not funny”.  While musicians from different cultures can make music together (I’ve had the great pleasure of playing music with people that don’t speak a word of english), they won’t be able to use their music to organize a social structure, build a shelter, or avoid being eaten by that same tiger, because though the modes themselves may be universal, there is no underlying message.  The music itself communicates very little, if anything, and exists entirely for its own purposes.

We evolved to learn language at an early age.  The part of our brain that is responsible for learning language is most active at the young years, and tends to drop off drastically once a language is learned. This is why a) Kids can learn languages easily, and b) Adults have such a miserable time of it.  However, since music is only partly related to language, we should explore if there are any age requirements for learning music from a cold-start (with no prior musical experience….and no: being a fan of ‘all music’ doesn’t count).

Is it too late to learn music?
Never.  I teach students as young as 5, and as old as 45.  The different challenges that these age groups face is fascinating, and I think I’ve got a good handle on this topic now.  For the sake of this conversation, I’ll divide music students into three categories: kids (aged 5-11), teenagers, (12-20), and adults (21 and up).

Kids have an astounding difficulty with focusing.  My suspicion is that since their brains are still growing at such an astounding rate, they’re too busy taking in all manner of information to be bothered to play a simple G-scale.  I’ve found that the way to get kids to learn music is to make it fun (which sounds so insipidly obvious that I won’t waste any time elaborating further, except to say that I get kids to play songs they like), and through endless repetition.  Since memory is so tied to repetition, kids need to re-do the same songs, chords, scales over and over and over again.  I’ve found that though some of my students can play a particular Beatles song, they have forgotten to play the g-scale that they mastered 3 months prior, so the crucial part of the process is a constant going-back-to-basics, so as to ensure that the foundation remains solid.

Teens have the understanding that if you want to get good at something, you need to do more than just the stuff you like, and they will generally put the time into a song/scale/set of chords that they may be bored-stupid with.  I find that the rate that a teenager learns at is astoundingly fast, and I often have to re-design my lesson-plans to keep them on their learning curve, lest they plateau out.  Teenagers, unlike kids, generally know when they make mistakes, and they tend to let those mistakes get to them, causing the student to get frustrated because after 5 tries, they keep playing the Dm, as opposed to the Bb.  Teenagers are generally the most obedient students too…they have a healthy sense of deference to the teacher, while still not treating the teacher like a parent (as kids are sometimes wont to do)

Adults can generally learn an instrument the fastest of these three groups, but adults also over-think the entire process.  In their drive for musical perfection, an adult will reduce every tone, every beat, every pattern down to its base-elements and build the piece up one at a time. However, in the process, they may end up not being able to play a thing because they’re so focused on the minutiae that they forget they’re supposed to be learning, and mistakes are okay!  Adults are wonderful at knowing what a mistake sounds like, and strive to correct their mistakes.  However, adults have terrible memories when it comes to learning music….my suspicion is that they have lives to worry about, and not being able to play a drum solo takes a back seat to “my kid needs to go to the doctor’s office”.

The one common thread to all these age groups, is that a student from an individual group is just as likely to forget that the teacher makes it sound easy because he’s been playing music his whole life.  Music is a LOT of practice, and maybe, just maybe, it takes more work than mastering Free Bird on Expert in Guitar Hero 2.

The difference?  My guitar has SIX colour-coded buttons!

Can someone learn rhythm?  What about someone who is tone-deaf?
Yes and no, respectively.  You may have heard that someone you know “has no rhythm” (maybe it’s you!).  That person just doesn’t know how to count properly. I’m being serious here….Any person can learn a sense of rhythm with a proper education of a downbeat, upbeat, and backbeat.  Once learned, no one needs to dance like Elaine from Seinfeld.

Tone deafness is, I’m afraid, a little more serious. Tone deafness is a hearing impairment that is not physiological (the little hairs in the ear responsible for detecting different frequencies function just fine),  but neurological.  A tone-deaf person is generally born without the ability to distinguish tones, or loses the ability due to brain damage.  It’s worth pointing out that the inability to distinguish pitch is restricted to tonal music…a tone-deaf person is still able to distinguish pitch changes in normal human speech and animal vocalizations, such as a house-cat.  If you’re tone deaf, there’s not much I can do for you, sorry.

What’s Next?
I’m always learning new things about how to be a better music teacher, and if I learn anything that might be of particular interest to skeptics, I’ll be sure to post that information here (or at my personal blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic, where I occasionally get to tackle music education and robots).  I’m currently reading some fascinating literature on the neurology of music, so no doubt I’ll learn a great deal from that source which I can then use towards teaching music.

I hope this post was somewhat informative.  If you’ve always wanted to go out and try to learn the guitar but figured you were too old to start, I can say according to my hotshot professional opinion, that you will never be too old to start learning music, and there is no reason you can’t start today.

Move to Niagara though, if you want me to teach you.  I accept payment in money.

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  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.