A Multi-sensory Approach to Teaching Music

2011Symposium_1_2I’d like to start today by making two observations about learning. First, learning is a life-long process. Second, learning is multi-sensory. These two observations are related, and highly relevant to music education. Let me explain why.

Learning is not restricted to what students do while they are in a classroom in school. We humans begin learning from the moment we are born, taking in the sights, sounds, touches, smells, and tastes of things in our environment. From exploring, remembering and countless tries, we learn how to walk, talk, read, think, grasp, move things, and do countless other human things. This taking in of what is in the environment isn’t just limited to infants; it continues to be a vital part of our learning throughout life. Every time we say or think “I won’t do that again,” or “that went great,” we have learned something through an interaction with someone or something. All f this kind of learning is informal training.

There is also formal training. This is the learning that takes place in a classroom. It can never be entirely separate and distinct from what has been learned informally, because students bring prior knowledge and experience into the classroom that they have gained from informal training, and that affects what and how well they perform in the classroom. In fact, formal training is most effective when it takes advantage of what a student has learned informally and develops deeper understandings and competencies from it. The difference is that in the classroom, the teacher designs and controls the environment and the experiences the student will have in it, and expects specific outcomes. Formal learning goes beyond exploration and experimentation, and includes applying prior knowledge and acquiring new knowledge for the purpose of applying it to a particular performance task. Whereas the infant is not accountable for right and wrong responses, beyond not physically harming him or herself, the child in formal education is expected to work toward a known goal.

In the music classroom, the senses of sight, sound, and touch are especially important. Students listen to music as art-of-teachingaudience, performer, responder, and creator. When music is listen to, performed, created or responded to, sight is engaged in reading a musical score, or in watching the musicians perform, moving as they do across instruments, and expressively in space. Watching performers prepare musical beginnings helps listeners anticipate and therefore understand what is about to be heard, and movements on strong events give added weight to important moments and guide the listener to notice those events. This dynamic of experiencing music is lost when only recorded music is used. The importance of live music in the music classroom goes beyond getting students involved in making music; it also includes adding the visual cues to the listening experience.

Because we learn in a multi-sensory way, it is unnatural to ignore or block out a sense that would otherwise naturally be used.  For example, if a music teacher is teaching a rote song, and simply has the students repeat with their voices what they hear, only the sense of hearing is being used. However, if the students also patch the beat while repeating the vocal line, they are also using their sense of touch. They are also using their bodies to feel the beat and the groove. The body’s involvement in music does not neatly fit into a category of any of the five senses, but is closest to touch, because the body feels something as it moves. If those same students are following the conducting of the teacher while listening to the vocal line, and then while they repeat it, they are using their senses of sight and hearing. Continuing the patsch involves three senses.

Although we do not really taste or smell music, it is interesting that when we respond to music, we sometimes use words borrowed from references to those senses to describe what we have heard. Consider phrases like “sour note” and “sweet melody.” Though we don’t actually use our sense of taste to listen to the music, we identify with our sense of taste, likening the sounds we hear to things we can taste. We can indirectly involve the senses of taste and smell when responding to music in this way.

Involving multiple senses should not be confused with multi-tasking, because in the latter, a person attempts to do conflicting things at once, whereas in the former, a person is doing several complimentary things all directed at the same task. Involving as many senses as possible makes the musical experience more complete and comprehensive and the learning more lasting and meaningful.

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