You know the feeling that someone else is learning something quicker than you are? I know for me it was easy to compare with my peers and think I was a slow learner. But there were also times when I made quick progress. And it was hugely helpful to realise that the way I learn is simply different.
Definition: A learning style is the way someone best processes and learns information.
Some musicians are aural learners and are quick to latch onto the sounds of the music as they hear it. For these, playing by ear comes easily. I have come across many musicians who are very competent at reading music but don’t know how to play by ear, and vice versa.
Try this example: On a piano keyboard find the 2 black notes near the middle. The white note between these 2 black notes is D. Put your right hand thumb on D and give the fingers next to it all a white note to sit on next to each other. The index finger on the next white note to D and so on. Now listen to this example and see if you can copy the sounds you hear. If you find this tricky, try singing along with it or break it into 2 parts. Listen for patterns and repeated notes. Keep listening and playing until you know you match what you hear.
Some others are visual learners and are quicker to learn to play a piece of music as they read it. Note reading is understanding the graphic way the sounds are represented, so for such musicians this may be their preferred way to learn. See how you go reading this 5 finger melody without looking at your hands. Your right hand thumb needs to be on D right next to middle C for the first note. The rhythm is the same as the audio sample but the notes make up a different melody. Note that your little finger will be the highest note on the stave. Once you start playing see if you can keep going without looking down.
Still others are kinesthetic learners, finding that the positions of hands and movements of fingers make patterns that they can quickly establish. For example, in teaching finger numbers we use a hand shape exercise: Thumb is number 1, index finger number two and so on. They wiggle each finger in turn against its opposite. Then I ask “Which finger was the hardest one to wiggle by itself?” Usually they say the 4th finger. From this we learn that the 4th finger is going to be the least independent at first and will need some help with that.
[For those who include reading words as a category separate from visual learning, we also try to incorporate song lyrics that reflect aspects of what is being taught musically. For example “Drawing two lines down and then two across them may look like a hash tag but in music it’s a sharp.”]
Whilst tending towards one of these, most of us have varying degrees of each of these learning styles. Every individual brings their particular combination of learning styles with them to learning any instrument.
At Accent Music School we use:
- a whole range of visual patterns – both through reading music and by the way the fingers shape the piece on the piano
- our ears to tell us when the notes sound wrong, so we can correct them
- written music, in which we do not look at the piano keys because our fingers have been trained through touch to know how far to stretch for a chord pattern or a particular interval
- words which reflect the music, teach an aspect of it, or sometimes are just fun.
A few observations
In the early stages it is good to use a range of learning styles and in the process find out what works best. The pupil will be less likely to give up if at least part of what they are learning clicks with them through using a learning style that suits them. It may be the piece they learn by ear, for example, that keeps them happy as they also work on the note reading skills.
I have come to realise that I am quite visual in my learning and often connect the patterns I hear with how they visually look on the piano. I took longer to grasp the skill of reading compared with others in my family, but was quicker than most of my peers. Bottom line: I was learning through using a combination of styles.
It can often be helpful to think how we best process things as individuals, but it is a mistake to only focus on one style without pushing through on other styles, just because we are not so good at them. On the other hand, being good at one skill often helps one want to push through in other areas. I consider it an asset to be able to pick up something by ear as well as to be able to read notes on a page. Over time the process blurs, so it is not one or the other but both/and.
Have a think about how you process and learn at your instrument. What do you need to work on so that you can feel like a more versatile musician? Let me know if there is an aspect you need more help with.
4 thoughts on “How do I Learn Best? – Learning Styles and Music Lessons”
Fiona T says:
This is so helpful and encouraging! As a child I had piano lessons but unfortunately I didn”t connect with the teacher, so I only managed lessons for about 2 years. I had a great ear though (as do our kids), and loved playing songs I heard. If I had learned with this mixed approach I would have stuck with my lessons – pleasure from playing something by ear while also learning to read music etc. This validates the different abilities we have. I love this ‘both/and’ approach.
Delwyn McKenzie says:
So grateful to hear this was helpful to you. Your comments are an encouragement to me too and your story is a good reminder for us teachers to be as understanding as we can be to our pupils.
Very interesting and encouraging article on learning styles. I myself am a aural learner and quickly learned to play my instruments that way, along with how to completely analyse, breakdown every part and reconstruct a piece of music or entire audio song recording into a computer music sequencer. This method teaches you more than any sheet music ever could, although not being a great sheet reader I suppose I am not qualified to say this? However one thing I have often been mindful to do, is to look away or switch off the computer screen so I make sure I am listening and fully present in the music, rather than seeing it visually on a screen and being too influenced by that.
Delwyn McKenzie says:
Thank you so much for this comment and for sharing how you clearly use your aural learning style very well.
Clearly one can learn a great deal from aural methods alone and being ‘in’ the music is helpful to really play it the way it should sound. I definitely get your point there and agree. I have also used that skill with music that does not come with the sheet music. However, being able to read music is a great asset when you need to decode more difficult combinations – a Bach fugue for example. You can also get a good idea of fingering that will work best as the melodies come in different parts. But of course hearing it as well will help you get a good understanding of where to bring the main melodies out.
I started learning to read music very early on and struggled with this as the first method used. I improved over time (with the help of a Mother who said with prophetic accuracy that I would thank her for it one day!) and used my ear skills more than I realised in that process. Ironically, I did hear a lot of the music I was learning before I played it, as the house was always full of music pupils. Now as a music teacher and composer I am much more aware of the need to teach and encourage playing by ear too. I also know that I may not have reached the level I am capable of today if I had not had such a solid foundation of learning the skill of reading music. It means I use both my playing by ear skills and reading skills extensively in the variety of musical contexts I find myself. I guess I’ve found that both/and is better than either/or.
Thanks again for your perspective – much appreciated.