“Sound before sight” is a popular way of saying that music is most effectively taught first aurally, and then by associating what has been learned aurally with visual representations, such as standard music notation. Music Learning Theory and the numerous resources that follow it guide teachers in developing musical literacy according to these principles. Generally, Music Learning Theory is most often referenced for teaching repertoire to students, be it to singers or instrumentalists. But there is a larger principle to pull from this as well, and it is that teaching about music should not precede teaching the music itself. This is perhaps no more evident to music teachers than in reflecting on our own undergraduate music theory analysis classes. How many of us sat through expositions of an harmonic analysis of a Beethoven sonata that we had never heard, but for which we were expected to identify the chords, cadence types, and other compositional techniques. How much more interesting, relevant, and enjoyable it would have been if we had first had been given the opportunity to become familiar with the sonata movement, to enjoy it as it was meant to be enjoyed, as an expressive, exciting musical masterpiece, and only then been directed to go back and analyze this music which by that point we would have already grown to know and love.
While many of us are not teaching Beethoven sonatas, or even advanced music analysis in our general music or performances classes, we nevertheless do tend to teach as we were taught, and have, from time to time, taught the history or theory of a musical work before giving our students the opportunity to listen and gain familiarity. It is not uncommon for teachers to begin with a heavy dose of direct instruction, largely verbal, on the history of, or the form of, a musical genre or work, respectively. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that we must first know about a musical genre or work before we can enjoy listening. If we are teaching a unit on the blues, we start by finding books on the blues, and present information to our students. Any music that we play for them is intended to illustrate or demonstrate what is being described or explained verbally. We forget that the music was around before the history was written, or the music theory was developed. The history of the blues is in the music, not in the books written about that music. To truly understand the history of the blues, listen to the blues. Listen to early blues singers, and discuss the lyrics being sung, and the plight of those singing. Before the blues was a jazz form, it was an outlet for souls heavily burdened with more than their share of hardships. The history of the blues is in those lyrics, in those voices, in those expressions one can hear in recordings such as those published by the Smithsonian Institute, and by Folkways. Hearing the music creates the proper impetus for a substantial dialogue between students and teacher, and between students, about the historical and cultural contexts of this music.
As students listen to more and more examples, they will doubtless pick up on similarities to more recent music they are more familiar with; perhaps jazz blues, or rock blues, or the gospel music they worship with at Sunday church services. These connections advance the instruction in a way that is relevant to students, and is in fact student driven and student centered, which the best instruction is. In this scenario, the book material, which is the traditional starting point, biomes supporting material to add depth to the body of knowledge students are building primarily through first hand encounters with the music itself. The encounters, strengthened by book knowledge, also begin to qualify the students to write about and discuss the music in similar ways to the authors of the books. In this way, those students are practicing scholarship, an opportunity denied them when the authors of published books are allowed to be the primary focus of instruction.
This is not to say that books should be avoided or ignored. Books and the teacher’s own expertise are needed to increase the depth of knowledge, and to guard against misinformation being constructed by unknowing students (or teacher). The books can also serve as encouragement, as students find that their own conclusions and connections are supported by published writers. This way of learning, by listening first and then acting upon what has been heard second, is also in line with the way students naturally learn music. When students teach each other how to sing or play a song, you rarely if ever find them going to the library to read about the song, or even to gain possession of the musical score. They listen first, and learn and teach each other by ear.
Once learned, any further instruction to which they are introduced about the song is met with excitement and interest, because it is about something they have already learned on their own. I fear that teachers, like my undergraduate music theory analysis professor, too often squelch desires to learn by front loading instruction with book learning, delaying the actual experiencing of music until all but the most devoted student has lost interest. The fact is, it is more fun to learn how to do something when we have already seen someone else do it, when we know what the result of our actions will be, and when that result is something that we are highly motivated to acquire because we are excited about being able to do the thing, which in this case is to sing, play, or analyze a musical work.
There is also the matter of retention to consider. Most of us will remember a tune longer than a fact about that tune. In fact, I frequently can remember a tune even if I cannot remember even its title. But, once I have that tune engrained in my memory, my brain can attach facts about it to the memory of the tune, making it much more likely I will remember the information about the tune, than if I just tried to memorize the information, but hadn’t committed the tune to memory. When I begin to sing a tune, I can then remember what someone has told me about it, whereas I cannot recall what someone has told me about the tune if I don’t first remember the tune. Remembering the tune is the sound. Information about the tune follows second. This is, most likely without exception, the best way to teach music.