Learning Music Like a First Language

Music is taught like a foreign language. It should be taught like a first language.

Can’t Speak a Word

My high school Spanish teacher Mr. MacMillan once said that when he met people and told them his occupation they often had the same response: “I took four years of Spanish in high school…” they’d chuckle, “and I can’t speak a word.”

I have conversations like this about music all the time. I’ve made it a habit to ask people I meet if they ever took music lessons. Most of them say yes. Many tell me they played an instrument or sang for years as kids, and got to be quite good at it. But, very few still play, and most admit their lessons didn’t have much influence in forming their lasting relationship with music. Like the monolingual former Spanish students Mr. MacMillan meets, these people took years of lessons but don’t speak a word of music.

Music as a Foreign Language

Mr. MacMillan believed that people failed to learn and retain Spanish because the way it was usually taught in schools was misguided. The primary goal of conventional foreign language education is measurable literacy. Students are expected to learn the rules of pronunciation and grammar and memorize lists of vocabulary words that they can later regurgitate on quizzes and tests. But what use is it to know how to conjugate a verb in the subjunctive case if you can’t hold a conversation in real time or write intelligibly?

Mr. MacMillan taught a different way. He taught Spanish like a first language, using listening and real-time conversation as a starting point. By embedding listening, speaking, and critical thinking into the early stages of our learning, he was able to teach more effectively than a typical rules-based approach could. Mr. MacMillan’s approach will be familiar to anyone who has experience with language-learning software like Rosetta Stone or Duolingo, both of which emphasize contextual learning rather than rules or memorization.

Conventional music education has a lot in common with the style of foreign language education Mr. MacMillan rejected. It emphasizes rules and memorization and treats music notation literacy, rather than creativity or understanding, as a primary goal. Most music lessons spend the crucial first years on two things: instrumental technique and reading notation. Only after a student has become skilled on an instrument and has a command of notation are they typically asked to express their creativity by composing or improvising. They spend years learning to read, but are only allowed to speak once they know the rules of grammar. Since learning to read and perform from notation is no easy task, many students drop out of lessons before they ever have a chance to speak.

Reading, Speaking, and Writing

If music is a language, then reading notation is only part of the equation. Performing notated music is like reciting a poem or giving a speech. Reciting and speaking are valuable skills, but in order to really know a language, you have to be able to do more than turn written text into sound. Not every kid who reads from the Torah at his bar mitzvah understands Hebrew, and not every kid who plays a minuet at a piano recital understands Mozart.

In order to really master a language, you need to be able to communicate with others by turning your thoughts and feelings into something understandable in real time – you need to be able to improvise. You need to be able to formulate your ideas into clear, elegant, meaningful texts that can be understood by others – you need to be able to compose. Just as no education in a language would be complete without speaking and writing, no education in music is complete without improvisation and composition.

Communicating with Music

We learn language because of our desire to communicate. Music is no different. We want to learn music because we hear meaning in it; we want to be able to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others in that inarticulable way only music can. At Edify, we believe this desire should inform the way we teach music, and that we should empower kids not only to read, but also to write and to speak from the beginning of their education in music.