I’ve noticed lately that many music educators view rote learning with disparagement. There are at least two reasons for this. The first is that rote learning in general has fallen into disfavor, and has been taken over by “higher level learning tasks. Constructivists have convinced educators that discovering and constructing knowledge is preferable to memorizing. While this philosophy has led educators to improvements in teaching, and students to more depth of learning, it has also placed students in the position of trying to apply “high level thinking” before they have acquired basic knowledge on which to base their thought. This places unnecessary obstacles to success for all students.
A second reason is that rote teaching in music has been misused, leading to poor results. Rote teaching has been misused in general music, choirs, and instrumental situations by being over utilized for expedience and convenience at the expense of properly teaching music literacy. To put rote learning of music in the proper perspective, it is necessary to look at it in the context of early childhood learning; for it is in early childhood that building the foundations for a lifetime of learning is begun. These poor results have lead well-meaning music educators to conclude that rote teaching is a failed strategy. But it has failed because its use has been misunderstood.
Music acquisition is accomplished similarly to language acquisition. Children immediately begin hearing language spoken in their environment, and are encouraged to and delight in making sounds that at first are babble, and eventually develop into meaningful speech. The ability to sing and chant is gained through similar means. Children hear music in their environment, and begin to make sounds, experimenting with speech sounds in an attempt to imitate music they have heard. These sounds are erratic, without tonal center or discernable meter. At or after the child is two years old, s/he is able to imitate with some accuracy the sounds of his or her musical environment. From there, the child acquires self-awareness of the musical sounds s/he is making and of the accuracy with which those sounds are made.
All of this early learning begins and develops from imitating or attempting to imitate musical sounds and patterns that are heard. This is the essence of rote learning, and it is requisite for higher forms of learning. This sequence of rote learning before literacy learning remains intact throughout a child’s progression through the early years of formal schooling. When rote learning is eliminated in order to force children directly into literacy, the latter fails because insufficient learning has taken place on which to build literacy gains. On the other hand, if teaching never progresses beyond rote teaching, then the child is never given the opportunity to develop higher level thought skills, including the ability to read and create music. Rote learning, seen in its proper context, is an early stage in a sequence of music teaching and learning that ends with a proficiency in reading, writing and composing and improvising music. “Whether her attempts to imitate are correct or incorrect, a child profits greatly from engaging in music imitation. She begins to learn how to teach music to herself” (GIML.org)
Once a child can retain musical patterns even momentarily, s/he is capable of musical thought. Through continued rote learning of musical patterns involving pitch or rhythm, the child builds a vocabulary of musical ideas that add to his or her musical literacy. Music reading and writing becomes possible, but does not replace rote learning, as new patterns in new tonalities and meters continue to be learned by rote and then put to use in reading, writing, and creating activities. The misuse of rote learning occurs when that which has been learned by rote is not put to use in reading, writing, and creative activities. When all that a child does is imitate music they have just heard, his or her musical growth is severely limited. Eventually, students who have only been taught music by rote recognize the limitations of their musical ability and loose interest in continuing musical studies. For this reason, it is critical that students utilize their rote learning to write, perform form notation, and improvise. Seen in this light, rote learning is a necessary and powerful part of music education, but in no case should it be the end goal.