How do your students learn?

How does a student learn something, so that it becomes knowledge for life?

We’ve been busily engaged this month putting the finishing stages to the Fun Music Company latest publication called “Printable Music Theory Books” which will be launched on Monday, 1st June.

Leading up to the launch we are really interested in your opinion on the topic of how students learn, particularly relating to theoretical concepts in music.

Over the next couple of days on this page and in our emails I’m going to delve into some really big questions on how students learn, and how as music teachers we can adapt some simple principles to make our teaching more effective, and even fun!

Firstly let’s examine what learning really is….

How often have you read a book on a subject that you weren’t really familiar with, such as computing or science and felt like you were “lost” within a few pages?

I know its happened to me LOTS of times! Particularly when looking through technical manuals for computers or software – the language of it can just completely overwhelm you within moments of starting.

Why does this happen? And how can we avoid that as teachers?… making our students feel totally overwhelmed is such an easy thing to do and often we aren’t even aware of it happening!

When you learn something you take something which is unknown and make it known – its that simple!

That seems quite obvious, but sometimes educators, and definitely authors of publications in music theory forget this.

The best way to do this therefore is take something which is unknown and relate it to something known.

Lets start with an example: Suppose you were an expert in sound equipment and you were trying to explain to someone what a compressor does.

You could say something like:

“A compressor measures all the velocity peak levels of the incoming audio signal and applies a limiting threshold to them, so that the underlying decibel level can be normalized”

Did you get that?

Trying to explain it that way is bound to confuse most… those who know anyway will be ok with this definition, however those who have no idea what a “velocity peak level” or a “limiting threshold” are sure to be totally lost with this method of teaching.

Sadly, this is the way that many books are written these days, making our jobs as teachers way harder than they need to be!

OR… you could say:

You know what a lawnmower does? It cuts off the tall bits of grass so that all the lawn can be at a consistent level. A compressor is just like that for music – it cuts off the loudest bits so that the music can all be at a consistent level.

What we strive to do when we teach is always take something which you don’t know, and move it into the sphere of the known. In this example we took something unknown (a compressor) and related it to something known (a lawnmower).

This is perhaps a silly example, and of course you could say that the lawnmower definition definitely doesn’t give the same level of detail as the original one… however someone who doesn’t know the first thing about compressors is going to really struggle with that definition.

This is what we do to students all the time… particularly in the area of music theory.

So often in popular music you see instrumentalists and musicians who “can’t read music”. Often these can be well known and established “superstars” of music. One who instantly comes to my mind is Paul McCartney… how could someone so established and so talented not really be able to read music?

Its incredibly common – and so often the reason is that Music theory has been taught to them in a way that has caused them to “switch off” and stop trying to learn. They have learned enough to get by with their instrument, and that’s all they really need… so they never bothered to learn any more.

So what caused them to “switch off” to the point that they can’t read a note of music?

My suggestion is that in the majority of cases it is because they have tried to assimilate too many pieces of information at one time, and there was no association with all these different pieces of information to any known concepts… which caused overwhelm and the brain said “no thanks…. I can’t be bothered!”

What do you think? Is there other reasons why musicians don’t gain a level of proficiency in music theory?

How else as music educators can we instil a love and a passion for the theory of music – just as much as the practical components?

What are some of the tips and tricks that you use to make music theory fun and easier to learn?

The more ideas that are shared on this page will help everyone in our family of educators here at the Fun Music Company make their music teaching more relevant and rewarding – so go ahead and fill in the comment box below!



  • By Bryan Elkins Reply

    Good, solid points. I would add …

    Students need to have a reason(s) to care about theory. “The teacher told me to do it,” and “I will get in trouble if I don’t” are much too often the motivators. If the teacher can instead, regularly demonstrate why understanding theory enables him/her to better improvise, compose, sight-read, etc., and show the student that he/she can do the same using baby steps, then the student will learn that theoretical knowledge is not “in addition” to playing an instrument, but indispensable to it. I think that the main problem that students face when facing theory retention is that there is nothing worthwhile to retain in the first place; if the student can learn the same passion for theory that the teacher has for the instrument and music in general, because the teacher has it and consistently conveys it, then retention naturally follows. Unfortunately, I think that most teachers either do not know the theory themselves, or they don’t share with students why it is important because there “isn’t time” in the lesson or because they, themselves, don’t understand its importance or feel passionate about it. Students will learn and retain the things about which their teachers feel strongly.

  • By sue Reply

    I say that it is fun- most believe me because of the books and rewards that I have been using. They like to search for things on the pages that I ask them to find. I even had some of my Y6’s asking if they could do some more theory this week instead of playing the keyboard! I believe it’s how you approach it as a teacher, students at the younger age range are so influenced by what we do as teachers, so there needs to be more of us out there promoting theory to them.

  • By Tracy Reply

    My answer will be very simply put. Repetition is known to be the way we remember. I have always used an example of why my private students shouldn’t try to learn or memorize a whole piece of music all at once. This example is as follows. I ask them if they think they can remember a series of seven numbers and repeat it back to me. Most of the time, they don’t think they will be able to do it. At that point I ask them how many phone numbers they have in their heads. This is when the light bulb goes on! They say, “Oh, I guess I CAN remember seven numbers, because I know my Grandma’s number, my home number, my mom and dad’s cell, my friend…” Then I ask them to repeat the numbers I say, and I rattle off some 20 to 25 numbers slowly, in a row. You can see them roll their eyes and sit back and give up. I tell them that their fingers have a kinetic memory, and some people remember what’s written or heard. When they learn a piece, they should do it in small sections, so that they can then hook the “phone numbers” or sections together in a string. I also had a very good private teacher who reminded me to learn a piece of music as slow as I needed to play it, in order to make no mistakes. He said, “If you keep repeating the piece over and over again and demanding speed of yourself, you’ll trip over the notes and LEARN the WRONG notes!” In my classrooms this past year, I had students who had actual IEP’s (Independent Educational Plans) which called for repetition for different reasons. They needed to hear what I said (some had a hearing issue); they needed to be able to process what they heard (for some, this is a challenge); they might need to see something demonstrated, or hear it done (visual and audio learners), they certainly would learn better (and demonstrate to me that they did understand) if they were given the chance to DO the thing being demonstrated or taught (kinesthetic learner). We all have some amount of visual, audio and kinesthetic learning ability — more or less of one or the other in each of us. We MUST utilize all three reinforcements in our teaching for thorough retention.

    Another aspect I believe we have to keep in mind is the age level and their attention span. We need to make our “to do” list fit the age we’re addressing. Maybe one or two lessons new ideas should be all we offer to kindergarteners. We can have them watch their classmates demonstrate or the concept. With this approach, we apply repetition AND recruit the spirit of competition in a subtle way. We can make the learning into a game, and not tell them why they are doing this or that until after they have enjoyed applying the rhythm or dynamics that are required to PLAY the game! Then we can matter-of-factly and susinctly explain what they have been doing, thus teaching the concept in a roundabout way. My kids always wanted to re-play games. The other suggestion I will share concerns “making music palatable” or as pleasant, fun and memorable as possible. CHOOSE QUALITY TUNES OR PIECES to teach what you need to teach! I have stressed to private students time and time again that while once in a blue moon I may want them to practice a piece or exercise they don’t particularly like, because it is the best thing I know to teach them certain things, there are SO many pieces of music in our world, there is certainly NO reason to cram one down their throats, and take away the enjoyment — the essence of why we partake in music, in order to get something across. I asked them to let me know if they didn’t like a Sonata or Concerto they were going to have to make friends with and get to know backwards and forwards, and possibly even memorize. I would find another. That was MY RESPONSIBILITY. Anything else would be lazy. Though I, as a student did not like contemporary classical, but had to learn SOME of it to round my experience out. Still there is contemporary classical that annoys and disgusts me, and contemporary classical that I can at least respect and find interesting. The latter is what a student should be working on — never the first. The same goes for classroom selections. There were tunes my kids smiled and even laughed about upon hearing. They DELIGHTED in hearing and performing these tunes. Why not use these kinds of songs EXCLUSIVELY? They abound! Humor was a BIG element. I think it is the opener of the mind and ears and the capturer of attention in many cases, almost a universal language that music is. I would recommend using it liberally. The last element I believe that is VERY useful with elementary kids, and possibly with others, is letting them DISCOVER concepts or facts, as if you didn’t even realize they’d encounter them in your lesson. Lead them to their discoveries, but then make a big deal out of them excited child who raises their hand to share what they have noticed or discovered that day! They will pay attention to and remember what their classmates pronounce as truth!! One game I played with success was musical Charades. I would call a volunteer to act out a musical terminology word using their body or an instrument. I told the actor what the word meant, so there was no threat to them to volunteer. The kids had to “discover” the word’s meaning by deciphering the charade. Another thing I read about and used was the spelling out of words by making each letter a note on the staff. I’d write several of these on the board, and soon the kids would ask what they were up on the white board for. Then I’d tell them they were secret code words, but they had to know the note names for the lines and spaces in order to spell the words and figure them out! For each there is a different method that will work; therefore we must be varied in our approach. But we must always try to make it fun, relevant and palatable, as music, more than any other topic is joy.

  • By mary j longinotti Reply

    great site. i’m retiring and will recommend it to our new music teacher.

  • By Karen Van Sickle Reply

    I agree with the things already said. I try to show the relevance of theory in playing piano music or other music. Why are we learning this? Because…..If a student or class can see how it works in “real live” music, not just examples, it makes the learning make sense and not just a bunch of drills. I also agree that a teacher needs to take into account the age of the student to know what and how much to teach.

  • By suzi Reply

    I agree with your points. I teach at a K-5 multi-age elementary with and infant-PreK learning center across the hall. Our community of learners is almost 50% at risk and the rest middle to upper income, and I say that because I think in today’s world we are getting many different kinds of learners from very diverse backgrounds regarding education of any kind. Having said that, I don’t think it matters what the subject is, and even though music is sometimes regarded as an “extra” or “fill-in for planning” on the school arena, we all treat is as an academic as research clearly states it’s relevance when it comes to the brain and learning. What I have come to discover (and am still learning after 25+ years) is that for ANYTHING to be learned and have meaning to a person, no matter the age, it must have a connection to something or as we say it here…”it must have contextual meaning” for it to stick and build upon that which has already been experienced. That’s not to say people don’t learn new things, but it’s sort of like learning to ride a bike or drive a car…you learn how to do it yourself from past experiences of either observing or Music unlike any other subject to my mind is one of the easiest and most fun to relate to people as it’s part of our universe and everyone has some ability in some area of music or another. But for true life long learning to take place, whether it’s music theory, performance standards, creating or whatever…for it to “stick” as someone said, there needs to be a connection. No connection= no or little learning and definately no lasting impression will ever take place it doesn’t matter how many activity or work sheets you do. We as educator’s must try every venue possible to reach our kids, oral, aural, visual, physical, and those kinestetic learners to have optimal success or even minimal.

  • By ted Reply

    I have just put up an online course in jazz theory for vibes players. While the target audience is for advanced students, the teaching methods are rudimentary. First, as you stated in your blog, use an analogy to explain new concepts with something familiar. I tell students that to play jazz they first need to know their scales intimately, just like they know their family members. Your Mother’s name is never something you have to think about, you just know it. Likewise, knowing what the flat 13th note of a B7 chord should be equally automatic.

    Creative exercises or games are always helpful to strengthen new skills. Our minds respond well to interesting and engaging activities, and less well to boring repetitive tasks.

    I also believe that using plenty of multi-media support really helps. Use graphics, audio and video (if possible) to support the text.

    The saying less is more can be helpful when teaching. Try to say what you mean with as few words as possible. I write and re-write content many times to get it into short, simple plain-speak.

  • By Barbara Kalb Reply

    I teach in a very transient, international culture in West Africa where kids come and go constantly due to their parents jobs. Huge gaps of education are everywhere and I get pretty discouraged not being able to get an 8th grader to remember what the top number stands for in the time signature. I need some way other than memorization to help my cross-culture students learn, and remember, theory. Thanks for this project, I can’t wait til it’s completed!
    Barbara Kalb

  • By Lesley Reply

    After teaching music to high school students for over 30 years now the one constant that I have found is that they learn much more quickly by playing.
    Every piece of theory that I want them to learn I turn it into some kind of performance – even if it is playing scales to a drum rhythm.
    No matter what age you are teaching a “hands on” approach seems to be the best.

  • By Fiona Phillips Reply

    Music and education about music for me is about giving students enough about the language to join the conversation. I agree with all that has been said, but would add that students, of any age, when they are engaging in music theory need to know why they are learning, it needs to relate to their world. I use this analogy of “language” a great deal when I am talking to pre-service teachers. When we are learning the language of French, we don’t learn a whole sentence at first. we learn words that we need to know to join in with the conversation, or things that are going to assist us in surviving. It is also a known fact that we learn languages best when we are immersed in the language, when we are forced to use it to survive. I believe that the language of music is similar and that as soon as the students are walking into my classroom i am singing or playing or using the language. It is up on the walls around me.

    The language of music is unique because there are two sides to it almost two ways of ‘speaking’ and there are some learners that are ‘ear’ dominant and others that are ‘eye’ dominant. My students might be able to engage in most conversations ‘by ear’ but I need to encourage them to be able to join in the conversation if another ‘speaker’ is communicating in a visual representation of the sound.

    My comment – teach them so they can join in the conversation. Make sure you go slowly, a word at a time. Read it, write it, speak it, use it.

  • By Wai Ling Reply

    Students always find theory lessons boring and most of the time they can not relate theory to their practical. So as teacher we’ll have to take up some of our lesson times to drill on that.

    For the younger kids, it is much eariler to deal with, as there are lots of theory books with colourful pictures and stickers to catch their interest and some of my younger ones just can’t wait to peel out the stickers to fininsh their work books and they even volunteer to do more.

    The attitude changes as they grow older and higher in grades. No more colourful cartoons but all instructions and terms on the theory book, some of them don’t even bother to read the instructions and examples so they made lots of mistakes and lost interests in the theory.

    Perhaps we can try to slow down our pace when this happen. Find out what they don’t understand, derives some games out of the topic using flash cards or manuscripts. Try to make it fun playing the games during the lesson rather than giving them assignments and homework.

    Sometimes, we can even use the pieces they have learnt or they are playing, to teach them theory or question them. For the older ones ask them to analyse a section on their scores.

  • By Celine Reply

    I try to teach theory or fun music activities as I go. The modern child has no time to sit at theory – they just don’t have the time or the inclination. All the majority want is to learn to play.
    As part of my lesson in about 3 minutes I include either a quiz, flashcards or games in my lesson which becomes theory in our language.
    Theoretical knowledge and singing skills all help to instil the musicianship and not just the mechanics of learning notes on a keyboard!

  • By Judy Reply

    You’re on the right track. If we can make learning fun and interesting, the students will respond.

  • By Rebecca Reply

    WOW! I have nothing more to add, but I want to say that this has been GREAT to read! Everyone has so many fabulous suggestions. I can’t wait to implement these in my studio!

  • By Anthony Maloney Reply

    Here’s a for instance-when teaching dynamics I get my students to play a four bar phrase(on percussion in my case )and get them to plan out the possible dynamics, after explaining the range- ppp-pp-p-mp-mf -f-ff-fff, crescendo and diminuendo. It’s only after they have experienced the completely different effect that their own dynamics plan has made to the 4 bars that they get the idea and feel the full effect.Also personal experience of dynamics differs between students-some think that someone elses p is pp -so discussion here is important.

  • By Dorene Byler Reply

    I teach elementary general music to students in grades K through 4. I teach some level of theory in each grade and I tend to focus on it quite heavily. I have found that teaching it the “traditional” way each time is very relevant. There are some learners who will benefit from seeing it “dissected” on the board or by listening to your explanation. However, for most students I have found that a combination of a variety of different approaches works the best.

    One approach I take is using manipulatives. I have created and laminated cards that the students use in creating rhythms – the size of the quarter note paper takes up the space it should in a given measure. This puts the items into solid terms for the students.

    Another approach I take is association. We work a great deal with rhythm of the words. We take syllables and divide them out, figure out the rhythm, and then create “raps” together. This provides an association to something that they are either currently learning in their classrooms or have already mastered.

    Finally, I agree that repetition of these approaches (as well as a variety of performanc opportunities within the music classroom) is key. I do these activities for each grade level. Every year it gets better. In the younger grades, we do it at the beginning of the school year and at the end of the school year. Each time, they remember more.

  • By Jack Reply

    For those of you who might need a reminder of the joy involved in teaching music to young people, or perhaps just a good dose of further inspiration, you might want to check out this video — — it’s a beautiful story of one musician’s “aha moment” when he realized how rewarding teaching music can be. I think you’ll like it.


    [email protected]

  • By R. Scott Devoe Reply

    The important thing is to find out what motivates students to learn, what gets them excited about the content. The hard part is that this can be different for different students.

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