Monthly Archives: March 2016

Research: Teaching Ear Playing in Formal Settings

While researchers have confirmed what some of us improvisers know through experience- that playing by ear is the skill that facilitates musically purposeful improvisation (and actually sight reading and the memorization of notated music as well), it has an uneasy fit in our notation-based music education system.  This may be because many of us use a different process to read notation than than we use to play by ear.

Playing by ear used to be even more common than it is now… and it is still very common!  Notated music got lodged in school music, though (another post for another time!), and just like how we may not be able to remember phone numbers anymore now that we just enter them into our cell phones, notation can change the way our minds work.  Using notation does two things for us (or to us!)- it tells us what individual notes to play, and it relieves our memory of some of its duties, since the whole song is on a piece of paper.  Let’s look at these two ideas as they relate to music reading and playing by ear…

  Individual notes

Ear Playing:  When we’re playing by ear, we hear a note and we have to know which note on our instrument is going to make the same sound.  So, we always know what the note we’re about to play is going to sound like, or at least we think we do!  That’s an aural-kinesthetic connection.

Notation:  When we learn to read notation, we are often taught which note on the staff corresponds to a particular finger on a particular string, or a certain key or fingering.  A lot of people don’t know what the note they’re about to play is going to sound like until they’ve played it, so we’ve got visual information triggering a kinesthetic (physical) reaction which we then hear (aural).  Since in music it’s pretty important to know how what you’re about to play is going to sound, the ideal order of operations is actually visual-aural-kinesthetic, in which case you can see how it would make a lot of sense to learn to play by ear and build that aural-kinesthetic connection first.


The whole song

Ear Playing:  When you learn something by ear- let’s say a friend plays you a lick she made up, you play it back, and then play it again, and then play it the next day- it’s also “memorized.”  There’s no other way to do it.  You could record her and then play it for yourself again and again, but since you probably wouldn’t be able to listen to it while you’re playing, you wouldn’t really be functional until you could remember it yourself.  There’s an interesting connection between remembering a song and a kind of musical “comprehension,” but suffice it to say for now that the better you “comprehend” the music, anticipate what’s going to happen next, hear its patterns, the easier you can remember it.

Notation: As mentioned, the marks on the page will always be there to tell you what to play- you can even look at it while you’re playing!  You do need to remember things like which notes/fingerings on your instrument correspond to each note on the staff and how the key signature affects the notation, but you don’t need to remember how the song goes in order to play it.

So you can see people who use the visual-kinesthetic-aural “order of operations” for reading notation may not develop the deep connection between the sound (aural) made by certain fingerings or keys on their instruments (kinesthetic) while using their musical memories in the same way ear players do.  And some music readers may be ok with that.  The problem may become more obvious when you want to improvise your own music, or play a favorite pop song with friends, and you don’t have the skill of playing by ear to make that happen.

Playing by ear in schools

Since there are so many fun things we can do with music that don’t require notation, or where we need quite a bit more than the notation to make it sound good (have you ever been all excited to get the songbook of your favorite popular album and cracked it open at the piano and been really disappointed it didn’t sound like the recording?), many school music teachers have included activities designed to students develop ear playing skills.  There are different approaches with different emphases- Edwin Gordon’s musical learning theory, for example, is heavy on the aural and the comprehension.  Some have experimented with rote imitation or singing while fingering instruments, hoping to help students develop that aural-kinesthetic connection.  In the UK, Lucy Green is heading up explorations into creating spaces in schools where kids can figure it out themselves or in peer groups, the way popular musicians traditionally do.

This project

As an Irish traditional musician as well as a researcher, I was moved to investigate how people are taught to play in aural traditions. Now sure, I’ve taken many lessons and classes myself while learning to play the guitar, fiddle, whistle, and other instruments within Irish and bluegrass traditions (and taught a few as well!), but looking at the process through a researcher’s lens has been unexpectedly revelatory and thought-provoking for me.  What I found were three intelligent, analytical, passionate teacher/instrumentalists, deeply rooted in aural traditions while living and teaching in the US, who are adapting the basically imitative teaching tradition for modern American students.  These teachers are focused on making music, on how it feels (physically and emotionally), sounds, and looks.  They’re guiding their students to notice patterns and form while perceiving and producing the melody and pulse through their bodies and instruments… towards true aural-kinesthetic comprehension.

Check out the poster I presented at a recent conference below.  I’ll be back with a video soon!

TEPFS poster

Research: The Secret Life of Gabe

Gabe Poster

Click on the picture above for a peek at the poster I’m presenting at the National Conference of the National Association for Music Educators this month.  As a musician practicing in many genres and collaborating with other musicians from a variety of backgrounds, the prevailing concern among music education professionals that every student receive music instruction in school has struck me as a little curious since joining academia.  This case study, of a musician who received minimal musical instruction in school, was part of my attempt to dig a little deeper into the function of school music.  I found that, while it’s surely not necessary for becoming a satisfied, ever-growing music maker, there really can be benefits to formal instruction!

For a brief overview of the project, read on…


Music educators are concerned with providing all children with opportunities for developing musical skills which can facilitate lifelong musical participation (Jellison, 1999), yet the bulk of our research focuses on the development of exceptional performers (Pitts, 2009) and the effectiveness of classroom teaching strategies.   A comparison of the percentage of students who enroll in school music classes with the percentage of adults who make music suggests that many more people could be interested in and fulfilled through musical participation than enroll in elective ensembles, and there could even be more if course offerings were able to appeal to more students (Clements, 2009; Jaffurs, 2004).  To design these courses, it is important to examine not only what musical activities people participate in outside of school, how they learn in such situations and what motivates them to do so (Green, 2002), but to better understand what this wall between music educators and so many students consists of.  As Small (1998) points out, we must not assume that they are not musical!

This case study is an effort to contribute to research on those who live active musical lives without having participated in elective school music.  A musically active American man named Gabe was purposively sampled as an example of such a person.  A quick glance at his musical life story reveals that, when presented with potential music-learning experiences, there were moments in which he chose to take advantage of them and others in which he did not.  Within this study, I seek to uncover how environmental and individual factors interacted to influence Gabe’s motivation to learn and participate in music making activities at various points in his life.



Much research has been done on what motivates students to build musical expertise (e.g. Hallam, 2001; McPherson, 2009; McPherson & Davidson, 2006; Pitts, Davidson & McPherson, 2009; .  Factors considered include self-efficacy, musical self-concept, expectations, values and beliefs, parental influence, feedback from teachers and peers, and the expectations related to gender, social class, and age.  Intrinsic motivation has been shown to produce more effective results than extrinsic motivation; Lacaille, Koestner, and Gaudreau (2007) found that musicians “responded especially well to intrinsic goals that focused on the enjoyment of the musical experience” (p. 247).  Deci and Ryan (2000) link motivation to an activity’s potential to fulfill three innate psychological needs of competence, relatedness, and autonomy.

Many of these factors, including interaction with parents and teachers and the development of belief and value systems, are dependent on the environment. For example, those raised to understand that musical ability is innate and immutable will be less likely to pursue challenging musical experiences (Evans, 2015).  Parents who assume that music is not useful or practical may be less likely to support students in musical engagement (McPherson & O’Neill, 2010).


Indeed, no man is an island!  Literature focusing on ecological systems examines the influences various levels of the environment may have on factors including all of those listed above.  Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) model describes these levels as

1.  Microsystem- the immediate setting of a person in terms of place, time, and role, e.g. family, school, social group

2.  Mesosystem- a system of microsystems, e.g. interaction among families at a church

3.  Exosystem- major institutions of the society, e.g. government agencies, mass media

4.  Macrosystem- cultural and societal prototypes which “set the pattern for

the structures and activities occurring at the concrete level” (p. 515).


Literature may also shed some light on Gabe’s adolescent relationship with music, adolescence being the period in which Gabe chose not to enroll in school music and eventually began teaching himself the guitar.  Research shows that typical adolescents spend many hours a week listening to music, and that the type of music they choose to associate with and listen to helps form their identity, represents it to peers, and helps them connect with others with similar values, attitudes and goals (Hallam & MacDonald, 2013; North, Hargreaves & O’Neill, 2000).  The peer group has become the primary social environment for 15 to 17 year olds (Sanders, 2013), and that along with an increased concern with public image (Campbell, Connell & Beegle, 2007), makes it less likely for them to associate themselves with music they don’t identify with (Green, 2006).


This study was approached using an interpretive case study design (Merriam, 1998, p. 38-39).  In an effort to gather rich descriptions of Gabe’s music making experiences and the environmental and individual influences enabling them, preliminary data collection included seven observations of Gabe making music, a gathering of documents and other artifacts from Gabe’s learning path, six interviews with Gabe and interviews with Gabe’s parents, his brother, and a teacher who taught at Gabe’s junior high school while he attended.  After sending transcripts to participants for their review, the data was examined using an embedded analysis approach,  focusing on themes related to Gabe’s motivation to learn to make music (Yin, 1989).  Upon reviewing numerous theories of human development, learning, and motivation (Creswell, 1998, p. 87), the researcher interviewed Gabe twice more.  Another return to the literature resulted in the adoption of Bronfenbrenner’s model of ecological systems as an appropriate framework for addressing the wider elements of the research question, and an adaptation of the basic psychological needs theory foundational to self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) towards understanding Gabe as an individual.  This combined framework was then applied to four different points in Gabe’s musical life- the point at which he did not enroll in elective school music, the point at which he began learning to play the guitar,  the period of time in which he considered becoming a professional musician, and his current state.  The theoretical analysis of the data was then returned to Gabe for his input and approval.  Efforts to maximize the rigor of the design included member checking, an audit trail, and the triangulation of sources and theories.


See the poster for a quick snapshot of some of the results.

Conclusions and Implications

We can learn lessons from Gabe.  On an individual level, we see an example of the power of autonomy as it relates to intrinsic motivation, and see that for kids who don’t have an environmental structure of peers, teachers, and family who highly value music, intrinsic motivation doesn’t provide just the best chance for successful music learning, it may provide the only chance.   Findings from Gabe’s adolescence illuminate the reality that adolescents are concrete thinkers who value music as a way to represent who they are.  If the music we have to offer does not represent them, they may lose the opportunity to learn in a formal setting, which is something adult Gabe considers valuable.  In fact, school music may be our students’ only opportunity to learn from a trained music teacher in a structured environment.  Since kids are concrete thinkers out of a developmental necessity, the onus is on music educators in the schools to assist them in making connections one way or another, lest we find ourselves only educating kids who identify with the music we offer at that point in their lives.   What can we do to empower students’ intrinsic motivations to make music, whatever kind of music that might be?

From an environmental perspective, we may be particularly situated within students’ micro- or mesosystem to offer a mitigating influence to the harmful perspectives inherent in our society and communicated through mass media, friends, family, governing agencies, school systems.  First we might ask what do students in and out of music classes believe and assume about music and music making? Do they know that, not only can they make music, but they can make their music?  What can we do to interact with and perhaps even mitigate some of the cultural messages that interfere with students’ conceptions of themselves as music makers and potentially lifelong music makers?  What can we do to allow students to discover the ways in which music making can be “useful” in human lives , that the potential for music achievement does not rely on innate talent, that music making can be enjoyable through various levels of achievement, and that music is not only made by professionals in studios and concert halls?

For generations, forces seeking to influence societal paradigms have turned to the schools.  We are already there.