Music Learning Theory

YouTube: Music as a Language by Victor Wooten

I recently came across this video by musician Victor Wooten on YouTube and thought to myself: the ideas expressed here fit very well with MLT (Music Learning Theory)!

Below are my favorite points from this video, along with some of my own commentary regarding the agreement with MLT.

1. Music is in many ways like a language. Think about the way you learned to speak as a child. 

MLT practitioners find it very useful to compare the process of language acquisition to music acquisition. It’s not a perfect comparison (as with any analogy), but I have personally found it to be an incredibly useful analogy to keep in mind as a piano teacher.

2. Imagine children being allowed to speak only with those at their same speaking level. It would stunt their progress compared to being allowed to interact with more experienced speakers such as their parents. It’s the same with music: it’s helpful for students to jam along with professionals. 

This is a good reminder to play often alongside our students, whether it’s informal duet-playing during lessons or preparation for a performance. And to have our students play together. And consider other ways we can provide opportunities for students to experience playing alongside professional musicians.

This is related to the reason why I like combining multiple ages/levels among my students at our monthly group classes, “Piano Parties.” Students already have individual lesson time instruction customized to their age and level, so why not combine levels for monthly group classes? They can learn so much from interacting with and watching each other. It’s about creating opportunity for the less experienced students to learn from the more experienced, and more experienced students to model for and mentor the less experienced.

3. Music doesn’t have to be understood to be effective.

This is something that makes music different from language. It’s wonderful that music is enjoyed and appreciated both by those who have a level musical training/understanding as well as those who don’t!

Arguably, however, the greater the understanding of the listener, the greater the level of enjoyment and appreciation. And of course, the world needs individuals with musical understanding who can create and perform music for others to enjoy. This is where our role as music educators fit into the picture. Our job is to create environments that help nurture and further the student’s level of musical understanding (“audiation”) and skill.

4. Embrace mistakes. This is how we learn to speak. There are no wrong notes.

Young children babble when they learn to speak. At first, they aren’t very aware that their babble is different from their parent’s speech. With time, their self-awareness grows and they can increasingly self-correct and improve.

How can we create a similar low-stakes learning environment for our students to experiment and grow? Do we allow students to create with music, or do we only ask them to copy? How can we create situations for students to babble, converse musically with others, and eventually self-adjust their output match their intent?

5. Music comes from the musician, not the instrument.

Amen! We piano teachers tend to hyperfocus on developing instrumental skills at the expense of developing the student’s musical mind, their musical understanding, their “music think” — i.e., their “audiation”. We are music teachers before we are piano teachers.

6. Allow students to find out what they have to say, rather than tell them what they should say.

Music education ideally is about nurturing a kind of fluency similar to fluency in a language, where we can instantly understand that which we hear and respond and converse spontaneously through music. However, we tend to hyperfocus on getting students to perform pre-composed music. That’s like being a language teacher focused on getting students to recite poems from memory in a second language, before they experience much understanding when they hear the language.

Are we only telling students what they should say? Or are we also focusing attention on getting our students to be able to converse freely? Can they hold a conversation spontaneously? Can they understand what they are hearing?

7. Children speak for years before they learn to read or write. Too many rules at the outset can slow them down.

MLT agrees with this idea: Allow students to first absorb, learn to speak, and begin to understand what they hear before asking them to read and write things. To turn it around: Imagine if children were allowed to speak only that which they could first read and write properly. It’s rather backwards that we piano teachers tend to ask students to read and write before they know much about making music or understanding to at least some degree what they hear.

To watch next: Here’s another video by Victor Wooten. It covers some of the same points, but he adds among other things this great example: Why would we teach children to read and write “milk” before they’ve really experienced what milk is or can use the word in conversation?

• • •

If you are anything like me, you probably feel convicted by these ideas but feel challenged by the thought of figuring out HOW to teach in accordance with them. It’s very different from how I was trained as a musician, both as a child and professionally during my college years. Change isn’t always easy, but I am slowly but surely figuring out how to apply MLT principles into my teaching. It’s a journey, but I’d rather be on no other!

Have a wonderful teaching week!

Read next: What Is Audiation, Exactly?

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5 thoughts on “YouTube: Music as a Language by Victor Wooten”

  1. I hear “there are no wrong notes” a lot but I disagree. How about “there are a variety of right notes”? One of my favorite books is The Perfect Wrong Note. It’s OK to play a wrong note, analyze it a bit and send it on it’s way while you look for the right one, the one that speaks to you. I think, as teachers, it is our job to help students try things a variety of ways to explore lots of ‘right sounds’ so we can have choices. There’s more than one way to play any song.
    Love your blog and love Victor Wooten too!

    1. Yes, that’s a great book Linda! I like Westney’s perspective that mistakes give us information, and that mistakes aren’t an inherently negative thing. I think here, Wooten is probably thinking mostly about improvisation settings, where there really aren’t any wrong notes. Whatever you play is just what you play. At least, that was my interpretation of his comments in the video. 🙂 I agree with your perspective that when re-creating pieces of music (i.e., performing literature), it’s useful to experiment with the variety of interpretative options that we have. And sometimes I let students change notes if they want to. *gasp* 😉 We just make sure we are able to play the piece both true to the composer’s intent and then we create our own version. 🙂

  2. I loved the video and couldn’t agree more! However, not everyone is so fortunate to be surrounded by a musical family or musical friends. It’s a very interesting question as to how to approach piano pedagogy with the kind of approach spoken of in the video. I look forward to reading more about it on your website and blog. Thanks.

    1. Yes, good point Maureen. There are some cultures where anyone who breathes is basically a music maker, 🙂 but ours is not one of them. It’s too bad. I have some hope that over time this is changing. There’s something wrong with the way we music educators are doing our job if the result continues to be a culture where there is such a division between “music makers” and “non music makers.”

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