Innovation in Teaching and Learning Music

In an earlier post, we posed the question: Can violin teaching and the way we learn to play the violin be improved? And come to think of it, is innovation in teaching and learning music even desirable?


In view of long the established traditions surrounding violin teaching, it is generally assumed that only small advances can be made. Is this true?

Evolution maybe, but revolution? Inconceivable! (Apologies to Wallace Shawn of Princess Bride fame.)


Perhaps we thought the same about some of Newtonian physics – until the arrival of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

First, let’s look at the some of the recent innovations.

The Great Innovators

During the 20th century four innovators emerged in music education, each making ground-breaking contributions to music teaching and learning. Their advances share some common features, arising from explanations describing how movement and language (especially speech and song) interconnect with learning music. Significantly, each of these great music educators spent many years developing, refining and applying their work before the successful results were recognised and the ideas were adopted.

All of their systems, philosophies and methods grew into major international movements and organisations with considerable reach and lasting benefits for music education.

Dalcroze Eurhythmics


Swiss musician Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, developed a highly successful music education system using physical movement to teach rhythm, musical structure and expression. As anyone with performing and conducting experience understands, many aspects of playing music are profoundly physical, especially rhythm and phrasing. At the time, teaching musical concepts through conscious bodily motion was a valuable breakthrough with wide reaching effects.

Further reading:

Kodály method


Hungarian composer and musicologist Zoltán Kodály combined musical experiences such as listening, singing and movement in a child development approach, building a vastly improved and comprehensive music curriculum and method that has spread throughout the world, transforming music education. Along with composer Bela Bartok and others, he collected and published thousands of folk melodies in addition to his own works.

Further reading:

Orff Schulwerk


German composer Carl Orff formulated a child-centered way of learning approach to music education, treating music as an natural part of life and growth like language, incorporating play and less formal teaching in a friendly and kinder environment. His Schulwerk music combines movement, singing, playing, and improvisation.

Further reading:

Shinichi Suzuki


Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki astonished the musical world in the 1960s with tour groups of young Japanese violinists to the USA. Suzuki’s innovations came from his understanding about the growth of spoken language in young children. When applied to learning music at the same age as a child learns to speak, the results created a revolution in instrumental pedagogy.

(As a former student of Suzuki who taught using his ideas and philosophy for 35 or so years, it is the innovation I know best and the raison d’être for this website, Teach Suzuki Violin.)

Further reading:

Two Ongoing Improvements in the Psychology of Education

Two advances in understanding are currently creating better ways of teaching:

Harsh discipline and autocratic teaching methods continue to give way to more enlightened and friendly teacher-student working relationships. The teaching studio’s past reputation as an austere place of tortuous mistakes and corrections is fading into history. Learning to play music has been transformed into a enjoyable and enriching activity for all. “Because I say so” and “This is the way it has always been done” is recognised as poor education.

Better teaching strategies about motivation flowed from dispensing with behaviourist rewards and punishments. The influential theories of John Watson and B.F. Skinner left an unfortunate legacy of erroneous beliefs in behaviour modification as a viable teaching and parenting method.

Behaviourism is now acknowledged to be an essentially pessimistic theory when applied to people. It denies the existence of an inner life and the mind, reducing the causes of all human activity to stimulus and response. Improved teaching theory explains that playing and learning music is inherently attractive, interesting and enjoyable. Creating internal motivation and using the power of social groups are superior ways of building musical ability.


B.F. Skinner

Improving Notation

For more than three centuries, written scores have been the primary sources and reference points for transmitting classical music from its creators (composers) to musicians. Scores are permanent and easily reproducible records in an internationally accepted script, and unlikely to become redundant.

Nevertheless, notation is still an imperfect language for translating musical ideas into sound. When taken too literally, it can even hinder the growth of real musicality. In many cases notation only approximates a composer’s deeper intentions and scores can arguably be considered road maps for exploring their music.

A vital part of the musician’s art is understanding, interpreting and transforming musical symbols into living music and recreating the composer’s ideas in real time.

Although they don’t replace the need for referring to and studying scores, audio and video recordings add valuable knowledge for music students. What makes them so useful is the variety of interpretations available and their capacity to be listened to or viewed repeatedly. This shortens the time needed to become familiar with the music and may provide solutions to problems not answered or indicated in the score.

Integrating audio and video into scores is a potential area of improvement that has already begun to make substantial progress. Thousands of programs and apps are now available for reading, learning and composing music.

Some Current Opportunities for Progress

Beyond the impact of technology, improving our understandings and explanations about teaching and learning violin will create even more progress.

Two Common Problems – that have been around just about forever:

  1. Firstly, there’s the daunting amount of time and effort required to develop the ability to play well, a task faced by every musician. Short cuts, we soon discover, are an illusion. Although the responsibility for solving this problem is shared by teachers, parents and the student, ultimately a creative solution must be found by the individual player.
  2. Secondly, there’s the problem of enabling every student in a school or studio to consistently make good progress. A different problem than the first one, in this case it’s a mistake to look for purely individual solutions. Collective strategies and policies are needed to create social cohesion and collaboration within the group for everyone to benefit.

Possible Solutions

Solving both of these problems, especially for young students, means designing a local (home) culture of studying and playing music within the normal course of daily life. This is the hard part and as all parents know, not achieved overnight. If the student is the only one in the family group interested in music and involved in learning, a sustainable study culture is difficult to maintain. More than just habits, good cultures consist of positive behaviours, meanings and ideas deeply embedded in the collective life of the group.

A paradox at the centre of these two problems is the relative benefits of individualism versus those of the community. Individual autonomy promotes the growth of original ideas, yet tends towards isolation and self absorption. Communal solidarity provides direction and momentum but can foster conformity and conservatism. Resolving the interplay of these two dynamic aspects is more than just a balancing act. We need to find ways of getting the best out of both sides.

A strong supportive musical community of teachers, parents and students has proved to be the best way for all students in a music program or school to make good progress. It requires a lot of thought, time and effort to create and maintain an active sense of belonging, where everyone has the welfare and progress of all members at heart, using cooperative rather than competitive strategies. (Obviously at different times some students will progress more quickly. Good progress doesn’t mean equal progress.)

A New Age

As we discovered in the first Age of Enlightenment, we can make progress by criticising and improving the theories, ideas and methods of the past – without venerating them as immutable sources of authority. Art, as much as science, is an open ended search for imaginative solutions.

As well as living in a new age of Enlightenment, we are also in the midst of a great of age of Communication, where new ideas can spread quickly and easily to all people regardless of location. Exciting!



About the Author

Post a Reply


Powered by WishList Member - Membership Software