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!